Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reader's Diary #439- Thomas Chandler Haliburton: The Clockmaker

The Clockmaker- The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville was first written in 1835 by Nova Scotian Thomas Chandler Haliburton. It was serialized that year but not compiled until 1836. It is often creditted with being Canada's earliest example of satire. It does show how far we've come in that field.

As I've off'n said, doesn't take but two spuds to get yerself a crop, long as theys got a dozen eyes a piece and you've got 10 yers, a plot with dirt the caller of a ol' boot, and the patience of a Georgian fisherman.

Okay, so that expression isn't in the book, nor do I know what it means, but it seems like something Sam Slick might say. Sam is a Yankee clock-peddler making away across Nova Scotia, offering mostly advice and opinion, with a few anecdotes thrown in, to a local known only as Squire, who decides to travel with him. It is the Squire who recalls all of Slick's speeches and tales. This is an actual Slick quote, referring to a horse:
I have one a proper sneezer, a chap that can go ahead of a rail road steamer, a real natural traveller, one that can trot with the ball out of the small eend of a rifle, and never break into a gallop.

At first, like many readers before me, I was drawn to Slick's speech, though not the man behind it. Something about the colloquilisms and nonstop chatter seemed almost vaudevillian. I have no way of knowing how accurate Haliburton captured the linguistics of an early nineteenth century Yankee, or even if that was intention. Maybe it was meant as a parody. In any case, the energy and relentlessness pulled me in early.

Though it persisted, my enthusiasm didn't. It quickly became apparent that there was not going to be a plot. Nor was it to be a collection of short stories. Instead, it was simply going to be Slick's arrogant rantings of how the Nova Scotians (the Blue Noses) were lazy, unambitious, and none too bright, especially when compared to the Americans. Slick is such an unlikeable character, his humour is quickly squashed.

I found myself asking what Haliburton's point was: to satirize the Americans (as know-it-all hypocrits) or the Nova Scotians (for the reasons listed above) or both parties? It should be noted that any of these options makes Haliburton a bit of a pompous ass, especially the last one. Turns out it was the third option and yes, I've decided he was an ass.

And it just got more offensive from there. If I was cringing at the word "nigger" and trying to convince myself it was a matter of the time, I was downright appalled by the treatment of women. In the chapter called "Taming a Shrew," Slick recounts a night he was returning John Porter, a business associate, home late. Porter begins to worry that his wife Jane will act "ugly" so Slick decides to step in and take care of things. Pretending to be John, since it's dark and Jane can't see him, Slick imitates John's voice and tries to sweet talk her into forgiveness. However, Jane has none of it, and so Slick commences beating her with a horsewhip. He then returns to John and tells him that he's taken the liberty of training John's wife and now John'd better keep her in line. The point of the story doesn't appear to be to show how despicable Slick is, it seems to be told as if this were all somehow amusing: a "mistaken identity in the dark" punchline followed up with a little bit of slapstick as she goes to sit at the table the next morning, forgets her welts, and springs up from her chair. The chapter ends with Slick remembering the sage advice of his grandfather:

A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree,
The more you lick 'em, the better they be.

Sadly, the Squire, the Nova Scotian keeping Slick's company all this time, doesn't confront on him on this horrible tale of abuse at all. Instead they continue traveling on together, and when they finally part, make plans to travel together again in the future. Of Sam Slick, the Squire concludes,
His manner and idiom were to me perfectly new and very amusing; while
his good sound sense, searching observation, and queer humor, rendered his
conversation at once valuable and interesting.

Oh yeah. He was a real charmer.

What a horrible, horrible book.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Ugh! I feel like I need a shower after reading your review! I can't imagine how you feel, having actually read the book.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Yeah, it's quite a repulsive book.

Wanda said...

And Haliburton is supposedly best remembered as a writer of humour? Think I'll leave "The Clockmaker" on the library shelves.

Framed said...

Just goes to show that an interesting title and a pretty book cover is no guarantee for what's inside. This book sounds terrible and I appreicate the warning.

John Mutford said...

Read Melanie's similar review here.

Eric P said...

Didn't realize you had reviewed this. I read about 1/3 of the way through and gave up on it. Don't think I even made it to the Shrew nonsense. In my post, I found it pretty hard to swallow in the 60s/70s when they put it into the New Canadian Library, but it is really astonishing that they have resurrected it with a new edition in 2007! So very, very dated.