SEARCHING FOR SAM SLICK (October 23/98)

Several years ago vandals made off with a plastic and fibreglass likeness of Sam Slick, which stood beside a highway sign outside Windsor. It was said, with tongue-in-cheek no doubt, that the RCMP put out a call for a missing man that was “six-feet tall, 160 years old and two dimensional.”

For many of us, this is the only Sam Slick we know, a two-dimensional character that poses beside Windsor’s exit sign. Other than Windsor’s annual celebration, the modest Clifton House museum and occasional revivals in newspapers and periodicals, Sam Slick receives little attention today from the average man in the street. Almost ignored entirely is Sam Slick’s creator, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Windsor lawyer, judge and politician who in his day was an author of international acclaim.

I must admit that about all I knew about Sam Slick is that he spouted some clever proverbs that were coined by his creator – an erroneous idea as you will see – and that Slick was created by Haliburton, who wrote a history of Nova Scotia. Thus I was delighted to listen to Prof. Richard Davies of Acadia University’s English Dept. when he spoke recently on Haliburton at the Kentville Gyro Club. Davies’ theme, “who was Thomas Chandler Haliburton and who is Sam Slick?” illustrated that Haliburton deserves more recognition than annual celebration days and the name of his most famous creation used commercially.

Who was Haliburton and who is Sam Slick? In answering these questions, Prof. Davies offered some enlightening details on Haliburton’s life in his talk to the Gyro Club. Following are a few excerpts and observations from Davies’ talk.

In all, Haliburton wrote 27 books – on history, politics, and several books of sketches in addition to the Sam Slick series. Sam Slick was the Yankee clock peddler whom Haliburton created in 1835 and kept before the reading public for the next 20 years.

Haliburton’s creation of the Yankee clock peddler in the columns of the Novascotian newspaper in 1835-36, the publication by Joseph Howe of a book version on the sayings and doings of Sam Slick in 1837, and the subsequent piracy of the book in England, created an overnight sensation. Sam Slick became a household name. There were Sam Slick pens, a Sam Slick magazine, and Sam Slick impersonators on the English and American stage.

Haliburton’s English readers liked Sam Slick because “they thought (he) was an accurate representation of the kind of brash individual who thrived in the new democracy of America. Americans disputed the likeness vigorously Because Slick was from Connecticut, Haliburton invented a Yankee dialect for him that many of his English readers (but few of his American ones) mistook for an authentic vernacular.”

Which leads to a point Prof. Davies made during his presentation. Windsor proudly proclaims itself as “the home of Sam Slick,” which you can see on a prominent roadsign as you approach the town. Slick’s fictional home was in Connecticut and the sign really should read, “The home of Thomas Chandler Haliburton.”

However, even Haliburton was confused about who Sam Slick was. Prof. Davies says that Haliburton and Slick became more alike as time went on. Haliburton once signed an autograph, “I am Sam Slick, at least what is left of me.”

Did Haliburton create the witty proverbs attributed to him? (Such as “A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.”) Prof. Davies says no. Haliburton popularised but did not invent them, Davies says, noting that the proverbs Slick made famous can be traced back a long way.

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