Inventing Sam Slick

by Richard Davies
ISBN: 0802050018

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A Review of: Inventing Sam Slick
by George Fetherling

Over the years, a great deal of research has been done on Thomas Chandler Haliburton, the Nova Scotian who wrote The Clockmaker and a stack of subsequent books about Sam Slick, his fictional Yankee peddler. Haliburton criticism has been even more voluminous. Until now, however, there's never been a proper life of this important early Canadian author. That's the argument in favour of Inventing Sam Slick: A Biography of Richard Chandler Haliburton (University of Toronto Press, $60) by Richard A. Davies of Acadia University. Among its assets are thoroughness, rich historical context, and the kind of even disposition so absent in Haliburton himself, especially as he aged and his politics grew conservative in a crotchety sort of way.
Sam Slick from Slickville, the fast-talking American with a knack for sharp trading, was an instant success when he first appeared in 1837-significantly, during the Jacksonian period of populist democracy in the U.S., when ties with British culture and deportment had faded and much of the world grew alarmed at what was seen as American barbarism. Haliburton called his character a Yankee, but what did he mean by that? Originally he was using it in the narrow sense of a New Englander, for Slick, like Haliburton's maternal ancestors, hailed from Connecticut. But the character's growing popularity also attested to the broadening definition: a generic American, an exponent, knowingly or not, of the rough new republican culture.
By the end of his life (he died 1865 at 69) Haliburton had probably come to accept the topical usage "Yankee" as the opposite of a "rebel" in the American Civil War. Like a great many Canadians claiming descent from the old Loyalist culture, he was partial to the Southern states in that particular struggle. Most of them, of course, were simply pro-South as a means of being anti-North, but Haliburton seems also to have been sympathetic to slavery as well. Certainly he was something of a racist. George Elliott Clarke has devoted quite a bit of energy to examining this attitude in Haliburton's life and work, producing criticism that few reputations could hope to survive. Just as certainly Haliburton's own stock has plummeted. As Davies points out, he is rapidly losing his allure even as a local hero in Windsor, N.S., which has now repositioned itself as the birthplace of hockey rather than of Sam Slick.
Haliburton was the perfect illustration of what once was thought of as the notarial class-the county-courthouse lawyers, weekly newspaper editors, small-time office-holders and minor politicians who were always the backbone of early frontier literature on both sides of the border (wherever the frontier happened to be located at any given moment). Specifically he was a lawyer in Annapolis Royal, which he also represented in the legislative assembly, an institution, Davies says, where he "honed his talent for satirical comedy [and] found it increasingly difficult to curb his wit." Early in his career, he was a probate judge but in time got appointed to the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and finally to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. In 1859 he retired and decamped for Britain where he became an MP.
In the politics of British North America he began as a moderate radical, so to speak. Being a beneficiary of the system of colonial administration, he could well afford some flexibility of outlook in order to preserve the system of privilege and entitlement. But he was appalled when Nova Scotia became the first jurisdiction to establish responsible government.After that, he turned sour. What didn't change was his productivity. As Davies puts it, he "possessed a remarkable capacity to chain himself to his inkhorn."
He wrote widely, but of course the character of Sam Slick, with his slangy speech and get-up-and-go, is the creation that remains alive, however diminished in popular memory. Like the title character in Mark Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, he is memorable in part for his aphorisms. He's also credited with the coinage of some enduring clichs: the early bird gets the worm, it's raining cats and dogs, a stitch in time saves nine. Haliburton resembles Mark Twain on a different level too. Like the earlier Washington Irving, whom he so admired, Haliburton was a literary artist who worked best in the now obsolete genre, the sketch-a tale, neither short story nor essay but with some traits of each, in which hyperbole and colour are essential ingredients. In his own sketches, Mark Twain was in a way following in Haliburton's wake, as was Stephen Leacock later on. Haliburton's sketches frequently made use of a lawyer character and built to some moral or point of law at the end. In this, he was the progenitor of Melville Davisson Post, America's mostly highly paid fiction writer at the time of the Great War, the inventor of the lawyer-as-hero, without whom John Grisham and all the others today could not exist.

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