Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s satire in The Trotting Horse and The Clockmaker
Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s satiric style puts a greater emphasis on teaching lessons through laughter rather than harsh criticism, as the biggest guffaws and opportunities to educate in his 1836 The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville come at the expense of his narrator, “the Squire, a representative of the old traditions of the British hierarchy- and of Haliburton’s own Tory colonial ideals” (Bennett 79). That Haliburton allows Sam Slick, a character whose alliterative name already rings alarm bells and who the Squire refers to mockingly upon their meeting as a “genuine Yankee,” to teach the Squire lessons about “human natur,” as Sam calls it, marks Haliburton as a penetrating ironist who seeks to expose the behavior of native Canadians as well as that of American outsiders, the latter of whom he nevertheless seems to admire more than those he has grown up with. Haliburton’s ability to laugh at himself as well as others separate to his reality is especially significant because as a young man “he became a member of the legislative assembly, where he argued for various social and governmental reforms that were intended to maintain the strong colonial relationship with England” (79). Thus Haliburton, while attesting to colonials’ continued ties to the motherland in his youth, contends later in his written work that Nova Scotians have grown ignorant and unwarrantedly insolent, albeit in a less biting than reassuringly self-deprecating satire, with one of the reasons for this being their parochial attitudes reminiscent of what Northrop Frye would a century later call a “garrison mentality.” Haliburton’s self-deprecation shines through brightest in one of his prefaces, stating that “A Nova Scotian is ‘known throughout America as Mr Blue Nose, a sobriquet acquired from a superior potato of that name’” (82). Haliburton’s solutions to these flawed attitudes are, firstly, that Canadians and Americans come together by discovering how much common ground they do share rather than mock each other for their differences, and lastly, through his narrator the Squire, he asks Sam Slick the clockmaker to resolve a common flaw of insular citizens; “’what a pity it is’, said I, ‘that you, who are so successful in teaching these people the value of clocks, could not also teach them the value of time‘” (83).
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines satire as:
a literary genre that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles, giving impetus to change or reform through ridicule. The satirist reduces the vaunted worth of someone or something to its real-and decidedly lower- worth […] It is typically directed at correctable instances of folly or immorality in humanity or human institutions. Its goal is not to abuse so much as to provoke a response, ideally some kind of reform […] Satire falls into two major categories-direct and indirect. Direct satire uses a first-person narrator who either directly addresses the reader or another character in the work, called the adversarius. Horatian and Juvenalian satire are types of direct satire. (Murfin 357)
Elsewhere in the glossary, the forms of direct satire are outlined:
Horatian satire is so named for the Roman satirist Horace, who sought to laugh people out of their vices and follies […] (159) and is aimed at evoking laughter rather than derision… (185) while Juvenalian satire is characterized by its harshness and pointed realism, that denounces human vice and error in solemn tones […] named for the Roman satirist Juvenal, noted for his dignified attacks on vice, which seek to evoke contempt or indignation from the reader. (185)
Haliburton from the very beginning sets the Squire up for the first in a series of ironic falls, punning on his character’s statement, “I have made no great progress in the world” even after the Squire’s affirmed his “having the fastest trotter in the Province” (Bennett 80). Not much later Sam Slick enters the scene and the Squire tries to ride his horse away from the man who looks “’New England’ like.” After having his horse overrun in such a manner by Slick’s that Slick reined in to avoid passing him, the Squire has this to say: “… one thing was settled in my mind; he was a Yankee, and a very impertinent Yankee too. I felt humbled, my pride was hurt, and Mohawk was beaten. To continue this trotting contest was humiliating” (81). Hence it’s evident that the lofty Squire learns not to take himself too seriously yet still feels impelled to get off a parting shot in a none-too-humble way at the one who taught this lesson. Haliburton feels Nova Scotians need to gain some humility before their cocky disdain results ultimately in embarrassing defeat, and he does write a little later, “pride must have a fall,” to prove the point, but the author doesn’t let Slick off the hook either for his own version of arrogance. Sam, after having degraded the Squire, proceeds to give the man some tips on how to ride his horse to get more speed out of it, and Haliburton doesn’t let the American off the hook, ending with his common demeaning nickname: “What! not enough, I mentally groaned, to have my horse beaten, but I must be told that I don’t know how to ride him; and that, too, by a Yankee” (82).
There are many instances in The Clockmaker sketches, besides the horse race, of Sam Slick exposing the Squire’s and therefore the blue-noses’ condition of being uninformed, such as Slick’s relating of a man selling a hornless ox with its tail cut off as a horse in Aylesford, while Sam is also shown to be occasionally overbearing in his criticism. Despite this, the Squire looks for and finds a bridge that unites them:
‘That is a superior animal you are mounted on,’ said I. ‘I seldom meet one that can keep pace with mine.’ ‘Yes,’ said he coolly, ‘a considerable fair traveller, and most particular good bottom […] ‘Do you feel an inclination to part with him’ […] ‘I am fond of a horse- I don’t like to ride in the dust after every one I meet, and I allow no man to pass me but when I choose.’ Is it possible, I thought, that he can know me? that he has heard of my foible, and is quizzing me, or have I this feeling in common with him? (82)
Later Slick tells his counterpart a particularly clever pun, leading the Squire to find harmony between them due to their shared comic instincts:
‘If attornies could wind a man up again, after he has been fairly run down, I guess they’d be a pretty harmless sort of folks.’ This explanation restored my good humour, and as I could not quit my companion, and he did not feel disposed to leave, I made up my mind to travel with him to Fort Lawrence, the limit of his circuit. (83)
Finally, Sam Slick touches on a frightening pattern that corrodes societies like Nova Scotia’s: its citizens’ sloth. In his response to the Squire’s request to teach blue-noses the value of time, and thus money, Sam speaks of all Americans before addressing their neighbors:
We reckon hours and minutes to be dollars and cents. They do nothin in these parts but eat, drink, smoke, sleep, ride about, lounge at taverns, make speeches at temperance meetings, and talk about “House of Assembly”. If a man don’t hoe his corn, and he don’t get a crop, he says it is all owin to the Bank; and if he runs into debt and is sued, why he says lawyers are a cuss to the country. They are a most idle set of folks, I tell you. (83)
In conclusion, one would think that teaching them the value of time would teach them the value of the money they throw away so easily for one of Slick’s clocks, as well as entice them to expand their horizons and find value in areas outside of their limited realm. Thus Haliburton’s Clockmaker sketches laugh at the ignorance of Nova Scotians and the presumption of Americans, but find solace in the similarities between both, as well as the possibility that a driven individual like Sam Slick will shake them out of their isolationist ruts.
List of Works Cited
Bennett, Donna, and Russell Brown, eds. A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998.