Sam Slick, the Clockmaker by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1835

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by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1835

Thomas Chandler Haliburton's fame rests on his invention of Sam Slick, a Yankee clock peddler who draws on his insight into "natur and human natur" to make his sales and who endlessly, and amusingly, draws attention to the failings of Nova Scotians (Bluenoses), the enlightened progressiveness of Americans, and the intolerable pride and disdain of the British. Like all great humorists, Haliburton is ambivalent. Sam's boasting is warranted; the achievements of Americans are to be admired if their manners are not. Sam is one of the memorable humorous figures of the mid-nineteenth century, and Haliburton published a number of Sam Slick books. The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville has gone through more than 70 editions. It is not so much the figure as the force of his language, which is shot through with colorful turns of phrase and marked by acute and pithy perceptions of human behavior, that makes Sam Slick memorable, and Haliburton is credited with such familiar phrases as "upper crust," "stick-in-the-mud," "as quick as a wink."

"The Clockmaker" was the second in a series of sketches, "Recollections of Nova Scotia," begun in the Halifax Nova Scotian in 1835. The practice of commenting ironically on local matters in a series of linked letters or sketches was already well established in Nova Scotia, as it was in New England. Seba Smith's Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing, of Downingsville, Away Down East, In the State of Maine (1833) was one widely admired precedent, and, locally, Thomas McCulloch's Letters of Mephiboseth Stepsure (1821-22) was another. The Sam Slick sketches were so well received that after about 20 of them had been printed the series was stopped, and those that had already appeared were collected, with minor but interesting changes, together with the rest of the sketches Haliburton had submitted and published as a volume in 1836. An unauthorized volume published by Bentley in London in 1837 was an instant success. Following the severe account of Trollope's Domestic Manners in America (1832) and other such works, London was ripe for an "inside" view of the Americans. Dickens would later reinforce the image of Americans as culturally grotesque.

Haliburton's satire was initially directed at regional political concerns, but with Sam's insistent comments on the American model larger questions of political principle and the kind of interest the individual should take in political affairs displaced anecdotes of political chicanery. Ultimately the rights and wrongs of a war of independence also were taken up. Haliburton's conservatism revealed itself more openly as the series progressed, and eventually Sam came to resemble something more like a Jeffersonian republican than a Jacksonian democrat. Neither Sam nor Haliburton had much regard for the unthinking populace.

Haliburton had served a term in colonial politics, making several radical speeches. He then became a circuit judge—as is Sam's traveling companion, the squire—and with the Sam Slick sketches he began an enormously successful career. Sam Slick was as well known as Dickens's Sam Weller, and Artemus Ward is reputed to have acknowledged Haliburton as "the father of American humour."

It is humor of a colonial kind, energetic rather than polished, bold to the point of indecency, prepared to be offensive for a bit of fun, and "altogether nateral." For all of Haliburton's delight in puns, his humor has none of the starched fussiness of the early Punch, and it rests not on wittiness but on a thing well and vigorously said.

"The Clockmaker" depicts Sam's strategy in selling his wares. He relies on flattery and vanity to gain his initial point and on inertia to clinch it. Once the Flints have become accustomed to an article they do not really need, they will find it difficult to give up.

Yet such homespun matter is the least of the sketch. It is sustained by all sorts of resonance and allusion. Sam begins his pitch by admiring the deacon's farm: "If I was to tell them in Connecticut there was such a farm as this away down East here in Nova Scotia…." Nova Scotia is even further "down East" than Connecticut or Maine. Sam appears to be flattering, but he is making a joke against the place too. Then there is a rather gratuitous, crude playfulness about the deacon's fine deep bottom and of running a ramrod into it. This prurience leads to a Sternean whisper about the deacon's continuing vitality, preparing the way in turn for the risqué business from Tristram Shandy in which Mrs. Flint promises to remind her husband to wind up the clock every Saturday night, a better-regulated clock than Walter Shandy's. The disappointment is that Haliburton signals his effects. For example, Sam hands the key to the deacon "with a sort of serio-comic injunction," and the deacon seems to wish that the experiment with the ramrod be tried in the right place. Humor and criticism are all the more effective when not flagged in this way. Sam notices that the idle folks of Nova Scotia "do nothing in these parts but eat, drink, smoke, sleep, ride about, lounge at taverns, make speeches at temperance meetings, and talk about 'House of Assembly'." The contradictory inclusiveness of these activities is in the manner that Stephen Leacock would take up, and it is in what became the characteristically Canadian manner of resisting categories.

"The Clockmaker" is carefully organized to demonstrate a standard moral proposition about how to put time to good effect. Precept and example reinforce each other. Yet here too the point is ambiguous, for Sam puts time to his own advantage and keeps his eye upon the time, whereas the Flints and the Bluenoses appear not to know its proper value. Sam's 600 percent markup on his clocks is a harsh and unsentimental way of making the point. His unyielding readiness to speculate is an aspect of his authenticity as a figure and of his slightly intimidating authority as a commentator on colonial affairs.

—Adrian Mitchell