This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour. For the previous instalment, click here.
After the first of these Canada Laughs columns went online, a concerned reader expressed a concern that this series would devolve into nothing but an “anti-American hatefest.”
“How totally American,” I sneered. I mean, who else but an American would be so totally self-absorbed as to think that a series about Canadian literature and Canadian humour would find a way to totally orbit around? So presumptuous.
Having hopefully cleared the air, let us now proceed, unburdened, with the anti-American hatefest.
Thomas Chandler Haliburton was born in Windsor, N.S., in 1796. He was a politician, a judge and Canada’s – or, technically, pre-Canada’s – first best-selling author. Diehards may celebrate the full range of Haliburton’s catalogue, from certified page-turners like A General Description of Nova Scotia and Rule and Misrule in English America to certified page-havers like An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia and A Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham. But Haliburton is most renowned for The Clockmaker novels, which became best-sellers in British North America, Britain Herself and the U.S. upon publication in 1836.
The Clockmaker books star Sam Slick, of Slickville, a greasy and loquacious American manufacturer and salesman hawking his wares (that is, clocks) on tours of Nova Scotia. Sam Slick is “slick” – unctuous, garrulous, a smooth operator of the highest order. He’s one of the earliest examples of the “Ugly American” archetype in Canadian popular culture.
Writ large, the image of Americans as self-important, ethnocentric ignoramuses acquired its most potent image in a 1948 photo of a middle-aged American tourist going whole hog in Batista-era Cuba: gut hanging over the compromised elastic of his swimming trousers, chomping on a cigar and proudly foisting two bottles of liquor, head capped with an enormous sombrero . In the Canadian context, the best example of the Ugly American is probably that Kids in the Hall sketch where Mark McKinney, in Yankee drag, barnstorms into a peaceful Canadian drug store squawking, “Y’all know where I can find the crab shampoo?”
Sam Slick isn’t quite so crass as to openly inquire about crotch louse ointment, but he could very easily be the great-great-grandfather of such a character. Even the very premise of The Clockmaker stories – that Slick is just sort of ambling around proffering unsolicited opinions in densely accented Yankee English to a companion/diarist referred to as “the Squire” – articulates that same idea of Americans as being loud, invasive, strangely self-assured.
Haliburton milks some pretty easy (and often funny) jokes out of Slick, and of the Squire’s curiosity with him. Notably, Slick constantly admires Nova Scotia’s natural beauty – “aboundin [sic] in superior water privileges and noble harbors” – while in the next breath wondering why these landscapes aren’t being steamrolled into mills and factories. He views Nova Scotia as hopelessly quaint, like a state project in asceticism and severity. Yet Haliburton never spares the whip of his own condescension, with the Squire at one point decrying America, barely 60 years out of its independence, as a failed experiment that “disappointed the sanguine hopes of its friends.”
In its strawman pas des deux between the encroaching values of Americanism and Haliburton’s loyalist contempt, The Clockmaker captures the historical tension of the mid-19th century, as the Maritime colonies were moving away from the self-sufficiency of farming and fishing . Even Slick’s profession as a maker and seller of clocks portends this historical sea change. Waning are the days of rising with the sun and working until it sets. The coming industrial model of labour and living made time a thing to be quantified, managed, obsessively observed.
Slick also embodies the consumerist tendency, which Haliburton seems to posit as a uniquely American ill. Instead of simply selling his clocks to townspeople, Slick pursues a shadier tack: he’ll leave a clock in a resident’s home for a short period, just enough to develop the sense that a clock is a basic need and not some ridiculous luxury. Then he’ll return to retrieve it, and end up exorbitantly over-charging the customer . He’s like one of those oily infomercial pitchmen who acts like he’s merely responding to a need – “there’s got to be a better way!” – when really he’s manufacturing it.
The Clockmaker books are, unshockingly, loaded with all kinds of terribly dated sexism and racism. In these cases it seems weirdly like Haliburton is using slick as an exuberant mouthpiece, merely saying (as the cliché goes with standup comedians) what we’re all thinking. In this respect, Slick is both repulsive and, in his swaggering self-confidence, sort of intoxicating.
As the seeds of Canada, and Canadian humour, were beginning to take purchase in the mid-19th century, The Clockmaker doesn’t really say a lot about what constitutes the nation, or its emerging national sensibility. But it offers a clear enough of vision of what, at least according to one loyalist judge, we’re not.
Next week: we move inland, from Nova Scotia to Orillia, Ont. to see how Stephen Leacock’s enduring classic, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, endures.