Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Inventing Sam Slick: A Biography of Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Inventing Sam Slick: A Biography of Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Article excerpt

Richard A. Davies, Inventing Sam Slick: A Biography of Thomas Chandler Haliburton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 340 pp. Cased. £40. ISBN 0-8020- 5001-8.

For many Canadians, Sam Slick - if known at all - is a character as musty as an old schoolreader. Appearing first in a Halifax newspaper column in 1835-6, this Yankee clockmaker and peddler journeying through Nova Scotia demonstrates the traits of the wise-cracking trickster figure from American tall tales and folk humour. Canny, cynical and manipulative, this stereotype traditionally passes satirical comment on naïve yokels, the pretentious establishment and political folly. Haliburton's double-bluff - a Nova Scotian's construction of an American vernacular voice interpreting colonial experience - performs much the same function. While the character is popularly cited as an example of early literary Canadiana, Haliburton's work is little read today, perhaps understandably. Even Richard A. Davies seems embarrassed by his subject's heavy-handed humour, racism and pompous snobbery. However, Davies gamely suggests reasons for the enormous contemporary popularity of Haliburton's comic sketches and establishes the psychological complexity of an author who could satirise the aspirations and manners he assiduously pursued in his personal life.

The grandson of a slave-owning New Englander who emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1761, Haliburton was a man obsessed with position. Though his eleven Sam Slick books mocked social pretentiousness, Haliburton constantly 'regentrified' his own image, exaggerating a British bloodline obtained through 'illustrious Scottish descent' (p. 102). Davies locates a similar irony in Haliburton's skill as an adept social climber. Whereas Slick sneered at those who advanced through patronage, Haliburton cultivated contacts to further his pose as an 'exiled gentleman' (p. …

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