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Canadian Review of American Studies Volume 23, Number 4, 1993, pp. 71-88 Nativist American Humour: Sam Slick and the Defense of New England Whig Culture MatthewR. Laird 71 When Professor Cornelius Conway Felton of Harvard was laid to rest in the spring of 1862, he was remembered as a man of warmth and wit, with a sense of humour which, though easily animated, never undermined the "manliness of his character" (Woolsey 1862, 16). "The spirit of Aristophanes lodged in Professor Felton," remarked Theodore Woolsey, president of Yale College; "he had the same sense of the ludicrous, the same keen judgment of character, the same underlying earnestness of patriotism, the same political conservatism" (8). Like many of his Harvard colleagues, Felton was also a "reverent and devout" Unitarian, a conservative Whig, and a lively and prolific contributor to the staid organ of the Boston intellectual aristocracy, the North American Review (19). A Harvard-trained scholar of classical Greek literature, Felton nonetheless took a keen interest in the social and political currents which swirled around his quiet Cambridge study. Throughout 1857 and 1858, Felton assailed the prevailing "spiritualist" craze, denouncing it as a "mischievous delusion,'' prone to "weakening the mind and poisoning the moral sense" (Hillard 1869, 858). A similar spirit of critical zealotry had impelled Felton, more than a decade earlier, to instigate an impassioned assault against the comic Yankee character, "Sam Slick the Clockmaker," the fictive creation of the Nova Scotian judge and author, Thomas Chandler Haliburton. In an 1844 commentary in the North American Review, Felton decried Haliburton's Sam Slick as a fraudulent and damaging misrepresentation of 72 Canadian Review of American Studies New England speech, manners, and morals. "Sam Slick is no proper representative of the Yankees," Felton proclaimed. He is badly conceived; his character is an incongruous mixture of impossible eccentricities. His sayings are sometimes not destitute of wit; but his language is a ridiculous compound of provincial solecisms, extravagant figures, vulgarities drawn from distant sources, which can never meet in an individual, and a still greater variety of vulgar expressions , which are simply and absolutely the coinage of the provincial writer's own brain. On this point we can speak with some confidence. We can distinguish the real from the counterfeit Yankee, at the first sound of the voice, and by the tum of a single sentence; and we have no hesitation in declaring, that Sam Slick is not what he pretends to be; that there is no organic life in him; that he is an imposter, an impossibility , a non-entity. (1844, 211-12) Had Felton been unique in his censure of Sam Slick and his allegedly counterfeit "Yankeeisms," then perhaps the professor's vitriolic attack on Haliburton's clockmaker might be dismissed as nothing more than the irrelevant ire of a pedantic linguist. But Felton was far from alone in his disapproval. From the first appearance of Haliburton's Yankee tales in the United States, in 1837, New England intellectuals were outspoken in their distaste for the Yankee peddler. This hostility betokened more than a niggling dispute over the accuracy of Sam Slick's quaint expressions and homely vocabulary. The fierce resistance of Boston literati to this comic character manifested deep-seated anxieties, which were embedded in the formulation and defense of New England Whig cultural ideals in the late 1830s and 1840s, at precisely the moment when Sam Slick appeared on the literary horizon. Sam Slickwas a threat to conservative Whig intellectuals in terms which were only vaguely expressed amid the self-righteous clamour surrounding his appearance in the world of antebellum New England letters, but terms which nonetheless shaped the discourse of criticism directed at exposing this fictional Yankee as an "imposter, an impossibility, a non-entity." The smooth-talking peddler, whose economic activities characteristically bor- Matthew R Laird I 73 dered on illegality and immorality, defied the Whig vision of a marketplace in which self-restraint and moral responsibility, not the seduction of wealth, would guide commercial relations. The degree to which the Sam Slick stories had penetrated the vigorously expanding American literary market of the 1830s and 1840s, and won acceptance among a broadly based readership , reinforced Whig...


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