The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XI. English-Canadian Literature

§ 1. Haliburton

BY the scheme of this History the writer is constrained to confine his investigation to the ranks of the illustrious dead. Now, whereas a moderately favourable case may be made out for our current literature, our dead are neither numerous enough, nor sufficiently illustrious to stimulate more than local enthusiasm, and our few early writers of distinction inevitably suffer in a discussion that fails to link them with their living descendants. It is a reasonably safe surmise that the names of not more than three of our deceased writers are known even to professional students of literature in Europe, and two of these names belong to the present generation. Judge Haliburton (Sam Slick) enjoys at least a modest measure of cosmopolitan reputation, and the poetry of Drummond and of Lampman has received recognition not alone upon its own intrinsic merits, but as being characteristically and distinctively Canadian in its quality.

The mention of Drummond’s name suggests a difficulty that must be disposed of on the threshold of the discussion. To what authors writing within or without her borders may Canada justly lay claim? Some arbitrary test must evidently be employed. Drummond was born in Ireland and partly educated there, yet we include him inevitably among our Canadian writers; Grant Allen was born in Canada, yet we exclude him from the list; and Goldwin Smith, who lived in Toronto for forty years, can only by an unjustifiable extension of the definition be included in an account of Canadian literature. The criterion in these doubtful cases must surely be an identification with the interests of the country so complete that a Canadian character is stamped upon the work, or, in default of that, a commanding influence exercised by the author upon the development of the country’s literature. There is obviously nothing Canadian about Grant Allen in motive or intention. A residence of forty years would constitute an ordinary individual a Canadian; but Goldwin Smith came among us with his habits of thought unyieldingly fixed, and lived and died in our midst a philosophical radical of sixty years ago. His interests in pure literature were never extensive, and his influence upon our literature may be said to have been negligible, or to have been confined to our newspapers, which, doubtless, received some benefit from the purity and pungency of his journalistic style.

It is not necessary to apologise for, but merely to explain, the paucity of our literary performance. Canada has many advantages; but it has the disadvantage, in the literary sense, of being a young country, born in the old age of the world. All that tradition counts for in the literature of a European country we must forgo. Our literary past is the literary past of England; we have not yet had time to strike root for ourselves. Older countries have a progressive tradition and a harmonious evolution little interrupted by artificial considerations; whereas, with us, literature is compelled to be almost completely artifice. England had her spontaneous ballad and epic beginnings, her naïve miracle plays that responded to an imperative need of the time, her share in the exhilaration of the renascence, when even imitation was an exercise of the original creative faculty; and, upon these broad foundations, she built her great self-conscious modern literature, each new generation of writers urged on by impulses from the past, reinforcing its lessons here, violently reacting from its opinions there and always excited by contact with the vivifying ideas that the present hour engenders.

It may be said that this is too flattering a picture, that England periodically goes to sleep, and that lethargy, rather than excitement, characterises her normal condition. But the statement was not made in flattery, and, if it does not always correspond with the facts, it may serve, at least, to point a contrast with colonial conditions. The raw material of literature we have here in abundance; but this material does not seem to germinate. Our activities are physical, and our mental needs do not require to be supplied by our own exertions. When London began to build her theatres, plays had to be created to employ them. We build theatres freely; but why should we go to the exertion of supplying the text or even the actors, when the United States and England are within such lazy reach? And so with the novel, and so, also, with poetry, but with this saving consideration that poetry, being an affair of impulse, can live, if not flourish, without a public. It might be supposed that fiction has every opportunity to develop in a country where the conditions of life must, necessarily, be novel and the types of character widely diversified by emigration. But the story of our fiction is as brief, almost, and inglorious as is the story of our national drama. Certain living writers are using this new material to good purpose; but it is still necessary to account for the dearth of native novels in a novel-reading country. In partial explanation, it may be urged that, even if frivolous in intention, a novel is still a serious undertaking, and is rarely entered upon by a sheer amateur. Now, by reason of the conditions of life in Canada, and in view of the fierce competition to which a Canadian novelist would be subjected, we have not yet developed a professional literary class, and our great novels still lie ahead of us. Hitherto, the little fiction that has been produced has been principally historic in character, the glamour of our early colonial period, with its picturesque contrast of races, naturally suggesting the type. Historic fiction is, momentarily, out of fashion the world over, and our racial peculiarities are, perhaps, not yet sufficiently consolidated to afford suggestive material to the novelist whose commanding interest is in human character. We have Anglo-Canadian types, Irish-Canadian types, Scottish-Canadian types who are transplanted and scarcely altered Englishmen, Irishmen, or Scotsmen. The genuine Canadian type probably exists somewhere—a fusion of all these with a discreet touch of the Yankee—but he is so shadowy in outline that no novelist has yet limned his features for us. Efforts in this direction by distinguished outsiders have not been convincing. Of our native-born writers, the desultory humourist Haliburton alone possessed the shrewd insight into character that might have given us our Canadian Tristram Shandy; but he contented himself with giving us a Yankee Sam Slick, whom certain distinguished New Englanders emphatically repudiate as spurious and disreputable. It is a matter of regret that Haliburton, with his unquestioned literary ability, never consented to the discipline of even the most rambling plot, for, what his humour precisely needed was the co-ordination and direction that systematic fiction would have afforded. Though he obviously does not range himself within any of the categories under which it is proposed to treat Canadian literature—being neither poet nor novelist, and only in a secondary degree an historian—yet the permanence of his reputation among our writers warrants and necessitates a special reference to his work.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton was born at Windsor, Nova Scotia, on 17 December, 1796, and, on his father’s side, was remotely connected with Sir Walter Scott. He was called to the bar in 1820 and, in 1841, he was appointed to the supreme court of the province. In 1856, he resigned his office and removed to England, where he died in 1865.

Haliburton’s literary work began with histories of Nova Scotia, published in 1825 and 1829. His Sam Slick papers first appeared in 1835 and 1836, as contributions in a newspaper edited by Joseph Howe, called The Nova Scotian, and were published in book form in Halifax and London in 1837. A second and third series followed in 1838 and 1840, the three series being combined, later, in one volume. A list of Haliburton’s works will be found in the bibliography.

Artemus Ward traces the humour of the United States to its source in Sam Slick, and there is much to support the derivation. The fun is rather frayed and old now, and the serious motives which inspired it are out of date; but, taken in small instalments, the books are still diverting, and, of course, historically important in a minor way. Sam Slick has had his successors, but none of his descendants is so prolific of anecdote, and so voluble at large, as he. His shrewd remarks and illustrations are always opposite to some trait in American character, or throw light on some phase in American politics—and, in both connections, the term American is used here to describe conditions on either side of the border. In Haliburton, the old tory died hard, or, rather, refused to die; and, that he might give loose rein to his political prejudices without the tedium which a heavy exposition entails, he invented that strange compound of shrewdness, wit, vulgarity and sheer dishonest cunning—Sam Slick the Yankee clockmaker. Wordsworth uttered solemn truths through the lips of a perambulating pedlar; it was an equally ingenious conception to make a wandering clockseller the purveyor of political wisdom. It is probable that the author invented him in order to contrast his smartness and characteristic Yankee enterprise with the inertia of his own “blue-nose” compatriots of Nova Scotia. Since, however, it would have been too incongruous to present, through Sam’s irreverent lips, the whole body of the old-fashioned tory doctrine dear to the author’s heart, a prosy New England parson, the Rev. Mr. Hopewell, is introduced in order to supply the deficiency. This trio, therefore, it is—Sam Slick with anecdotes innumerable gathered in his ubiquitous wanderings, the parson with his prosy moralisings and the squire with his interjected protests and leading questions—who, between them, compose the serious treatise on political science which deservedly takes rank among the amusing books of the century.

Two purposes—one rather should say two passions—dominate these books. Haliburton had a deep affection for his native province and appreciated its possibilities of development, but he found its people lethargic and improvident, and he sought persistently to rouse them if not to a sense of shame at least to a sense of responsibility. Many of the practical reforms and developments suggested by him have been introduced, and it is possible that his insistence may have accelerated the inevitable march of events. The languor of his fellow-countrymen was a perpetual source of irritation:

  • “The folks to Halifax,” says Sam Slick, “take it all out in talkin—they talk of steam-boats, whalers, and railroads—but they all eend where they begin—in talk. I don’t think I’d be out in my latitude, if I was to say they beat the women-kind at that. One feller says, I talk of goin to England—another says I talk of goin to the country—while a third says, I talk of goin to sleep. If we happen to speak of such things, we say ‘I’m right off down East,’ or ‘I’m away off South,’ and away we go just like a streak of lightnin.… You’ve seen a flock of partridge of a frosty mornin in the fall, a crowdin out of the shade to a sunny spot, and huddlin up there in the warmth—well, the blue-noses [i. e. the Nova Scotians] have nothin else to do half the time but sun themselves. Whose fault is that? Why it is the fault of the legislatur; they don’t encourage internal improvement, nor the investment of capital in the country, and the result is apathy, inaction, and poverty.”
  • So strongly does the author feel the force of Sam’s remarks that he italicises the conclusion of the homily, and casts the Yankee idiom aside.
  • “No,” said he (with an air of more seriousness than I had yet observed), “how much it is to be regretted, that, laying aside personal attacks and petty jealousies, they would not unite as one man, and with one mind and one heart apply themselves sedulously to the internal improvement and development of this beautiful Province. Its value is utterly unknown, either to the general or local Government, and the only persons who duly appreciate it are the Yankees.”
  • Two points are to be noted, namely, that this extract is introduced to represent not the humour but the purpose of the volume, and that, when the author is imbued with the seriousness of an argument, no artistic scruples forbid him to allow Sam Slick to speak out of character.

    Reference has been made to a second dominating purpose in these books. Haliburton was passionately devoted to the cause of imperial unity at a time when Great Britain neglected her colonies, and when the loosely organised provinces that now are Canada were apparently drifting towards independence or annexation. The two agencies that saved a dangerous situation were responsible government and confederation. To the first, Haliburton was obstinately opposed; of the unifying possibilities of the second, he was, like many of his contemporaries, pardonably ignorant. The solution he offered was tory in the extreme: the rising tide of democracy must be stemmed by a severe restriction of the franchise; the executive councils must be consolidated in power; the French must abandon their language and their law; and the ambitions of intelligent colonists must be rewarded by the most ample distribution of patronage from the mother land. Canada was a stagnant pond that bred tadpoles and polly-woggles; a fresh stream of patronage would breed sizable fish. Responsible government was the partisan cry of Papineau and his rebel brood. Even the Yankee Slick is shocked at their pretensions:

  • For that old party, clique, and compact were British in their language, British in their feelings and British in their blood. Our party clique and compact is not so narrow and restricted, for it is French in its language, Yankee in its feelin’, and Republican in its blood.
  • The Clockmaker was followed, in due order, by three further Sam Slick volumes—The Attaché, Wise Saws and Nature and Human Nature. They are full of rich humour, but suffer from a forcing of the vein. The Attaché represents Sam Slick “at the Court of St. James’s,” where, obviously, he is out of his element. The book was intended as a burlesque rejoinder to Dickens’s American Notes; but there is a kindliness in the satire which differentiates it from its prototype.

    Taking all things into consideration, Haliburton’s books merit the commendation they have received. They are choppy and unorganised, as the foregoing account of them will have made clear; but, in spite of the designed disorder of his style, he has produced work of permanent value. He is a raconteur of exuberant fertility, a passionate politician and an irredeemable and unforgivable punster.