Thomas Chandler Haliburton Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Thomas Chandler Haliburton 1796-1865

Canadian sketch writer, nonfiction writer, historian, and author of fictional letters.

The following entry presents selected criticism on Haliburton's works from 1981 to 1997. For discussion of Haliburton's works prior to 1981, see NCLC, Volume 15.

Haliburton was a pioneer in the development of Canadian and American humor literature. He is best known for his creation of the character Sam Slick, a glib, irreverent braggart and shrewd peddler from New England who personified Haliburton's political views on the relationship between England, Nova Scotia, and America. Common themes in Haliburton's various volumes, sketches, and essays include his fervent patriotism for Nova Scotia and his conservative Tory political views. Today, critics chiefly praise Haliburton for his creative rendering of dialects and for his satirical descriptions of various social classes.

Biographical Information

Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1796, Haliburton studied at the Anglican-controlled King's Grammar School and later at nearby King's College. During a trip to England in 1816, he met Louisa Neville who returned with him to become his wife. He resumed the law studies he had begun under the tutelage of his father, a provincial judge, and in 1826, after practicing law for several years, Haliburton became a Tory member of the provincial parliament. Upon his father's death in 1829, he inherited an appointment as judge of the Inferior Courts of Common Pleas. In 1841, the same year that his wife died, Haliburton was named to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He retired from this position in 1856 and shortly afterwards moved to England, where he married his second wife, Sarah Williams. He continued his political career as a member of the House of Commons for Launceston. Haliburton died at his home in Islesworth in 1865 at the age of sixty-nine.

Major Works

Throughout his literary career, Haliburton produced historical and political writings, edited anthologies, and composed miscellaneous fictional sketches and letters. The most popular of his works were several series of sketches featuring the Yankee character Sam Slick. Scholars generally agree that Haliburton began his literary career with A General Description of Nova Scotia, published anonymously in 1823, followed by a re-working of the same material in An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829). These volumes presented the province's history, its natural resources, and its economic potential for prospective settlers. In his political treatises, The Bubbles of Canada (1839), A Reply to the Report of the Earl of Durham (1839), and Rule and Misrule of the English in America (1851), Haliburton expressed his conservative views concerning Canada's prospective form of government, insisting that a constitutional democracy based on the American system would not be in the best interests of either Canada or Great Britain. Haliburton also wrote The Letter-Bag of the Great Western (1840), The Old Judge (1849), and The Season-Ticket (1860), in which he offered satirical commentary on social and political matters. In the first two series of The Clockmaker (1836 and 1838), the Yankee Sam Slick travels to Nova Scotia. There he meets a Squire, who travels with him, recording Slick's adventures on the road and his comments on such issues as women's rights and the political and social concerns of the Canadian provinces. The third series of The Clockmaker (1840) is set in England, where Sam's negative comments about the country are countered by the Squire and by another American, the Reverend Hopewell. In the two series of The Attaché (1843 and 1844), Sam serves at the American Legation in England. In Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances (1853) Sam returns to Nova Scotia to examine the state of the province's fishing industry for the president of the United States. In Nature and Human Nature (1855), the last work in which Haliburton described the Yankee's experiences, Sam continues his investigations for the president and expounds on the condition of humankind, the state of female education, and the superiority of Americans over the English. Throughout these stories, Haliburton expressed his distrust of American democracy and advocated the loyalist view that the Canadian provinces needed strong ties with the British government.

Critical Reception

Of all Haliburton's writings, none attained the popularity or critical attention enjoyed by the Sam Slick stories. In these sketches, collected in the three series of The Clockmaker, the two series of The Attaché, Sam Slick's Wise Saws and Modern Instances, and Nature and Human Nature, Haliburton combines his political views with humorous storytelling. The character of Sam, called the author's “mouthpiece” by critics, provided Haliburton with a colorful means of prodding his fellow Nova Scotians into improving their work habits in order to compete with what the author believed to be the more vigorous and efficient Americans. The enduring interest of the Sam Slick sketches is due, in part, to their humorous presentation of Haliburton's political philosophy. Delivered in Sam's characteristically caustic language, this humor often takes the form of blunt observations regarding the American and British systems of government, the progress of society and technology in Nova Scotia, and the British disdain of life in the Canadian colonies. Sam Slick considers himself a master of “soft sawder,” his term for language meant to manipulate others. His skills as a merchant and orator allow him to convince customers that they not only desire, but also need what he has to sell. Though some critics have faulted Haliburton for the over-stylized stereotypical character that is Sam Slick, they have praised his renderings of the American frontier dialects presented in Sam's speech as consistent and largely accurate. Haliburton has been credited with popularizing many colorful and descriptive phrases and words, including “hot foot” for hurrying, “gumption” for courage, and “jawbreakers” for multisyllabic words. The first two series of The Clockmaker were well received by the public. However, subsequent writings were faulted as repetitive and lacking substantial literary merit. Haliburton's work, which has been derided as racist and misogynist, also receives attention from scholars who study the political messages and the dialectic and comic elements that he combined to create didactic narratives that influenced American satire.