Another Source for Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker
by D.M.R. Bentley
As all readers of The Clockmaker know, Haliburton arranges for his narrator to meet Sam Slick while riding on horseback to "Fort Lawrence".1 As the narrator is contemplating a "beautiful view of Colchester," he is overtaken by "a tall thin man . . . on a good bay horse" who speaks "[i]n a dialect too rich to be mistaken as genuine Yankee." Impatient with the infectious curiosity of the oddly dressed stranger, the narrator "bid[s] him good morning" and rides ahead at a "slapping pace." "I pushed Mohawk . . . to his best," recalls the narrator, and "[h]e outdid himself; he had never trotted so handsomely so easily so well." But it is not enough. As Slick again draws abreast of the narrator, he reveals himself to be "a Yankee, and a very impertinent Yankee, too" by his condescending compliments about Mohawk: "I guess that is a pretty considerable smart horse. . .; there is not, I reckon, so spry a one on my circuit . . . . Yes . . . a horse of pretty considerable good action, and a pretty fair trotter, too, I guess." His pride hurt and his curiosity further piqued, the narrator puts two questions to Slick: "Do you feel an inclination to part with [your horse]" and what precisely do you mean by a "circuit"? To the first question Slick replies that he "never part[s] with a horse. . . that suits [him]," and in response to the second he explains that he and his colleagues divide Nova Scotia "into circuits" in which they "separately carry on [their] business of manufacturing and selling clocks." Out of this cantankerous meeting are spun the episodes that constitute the three series of The Clockmaker (1836, 1838, 1840) where, as Fred Cogswell observes, "[t]he narrator. . . and Sam Slick . . . travel about Nova Scotia, and their seemingly chance encounters and observations provide the material for anecdote and conversation."2
In attempting to account for the enormous popularity of The Clockmaker, Cogswell calls attention to the "two incongruous elements" that are united in its style: "the formal English of eighteenth century prose" in which the narrator speaks and the colourful dialect of that "Yankee jack-of-all trades, Sam Slick! "In Sam Slick's conversations, Haliburton becomes a prose poet, daring in metaphor, building up adjectival climaxes without fear of barberisms and utilizing all the local resources of dialect." As the principal inspiration for Haliburton's use of "vernacular speech" and such "eccentricities of Yankee character" as exaggeration and braggadocio, Cogswell cites Seba Smith's Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing, of Downingsville, Away Down East, in the State of Maine (1833), a work published three years earlier than the first series of The Clockmaker. Without denying the influence of Smith and other American dialect writers on Haliburton, I would like to suggest another possible inspiration, not only for the "two incongruous elements" united in the style of The Clockmaker, but also for the episode of "The Trotting Horse" that gets the series underway: an incident recounted by John Howison in Sketches of Upper Canada (1821), a travel-cum-emigrant guide whose influence can also be found in such works as The Backwoods of Canada (1832), The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay (1856) and The U.E.: A Tale of Upper Canada (1859)3
The incident concerned took place in "[t]he upper part of the Talbot Settlement"4 to the north of Lake Erie in the winter of 1819-20. After walking a considerable distance between Sandwich and Port Talbot through deep snows and on rough roads, Howison hired a horse, "and . . . again set out . . . . "5 The "[a]musing rencontre and conversation" which then occurred may have provided the point of departure for The Clockmaker:
The similarities between this passage and the opening episode of The Clockmaker are striking, and strongly suggested that Haliburton derived part of his initial inspiration from Howison.
If this is so, then the possibility cannot be overlooked that the very name of Haliburton's Clockmaker derives from Howison's Sketches. Shortly before the incident just quoted, Howison records an exchange between "a woman afflicted with acute rheumatism" and "one of the doctors of the [Talbot] settlement."6 " 'How d'ye do, my good lady, how d'ye do?' " begins a dialogue that continues: " 'Oh, doctor . . . I was wishing to see you very bad I don't calculate upon ever getting smart again.' 'Hoity, toity,' returned the doctor, 'you look a thundering sight better than you did yesterday.' 'Better!' exclaimed the sick woman, 'no, doctor, I am no better I'm going to die in your hands.' 'My dear good lady,' cried the doctor, 'I'll bet a pint of spirits I'll raise you in five days, and make you so spry, you'll dance upon this floor.' 'Oh,' said the woman, 'if I had but the root that used to attend our family at Connecticut; he was a dreadful skeelful man.' " As Howison's own italics indicate, part of the purpose of this exchange is to illustrate the peculiarities of North American speech. As the concluding portion of the exchange also indicates, humour at the expense of the quack doctor, the bibulous woman, and her "credulous" husband is also a purpose of the exchange:
In a footnote, Howison glosses the meaning of the word "slick" as "Soon". Even without this word, the language, the tone, the comic characters, and the pace of the dialogue throughout the exchange anticipate the Clockmaker. Here, and in the meeting on horseback of the squirarchical Howison and the truculent American, surely lie some of the raw materials that Haliburton brilliantly shaped to his own satirical purposes.
I am grateful to Lorraine
McMullen and Malcolm Ross for reading this essay on behalf of Canadian Poetry.