American folklorist, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, critic, and author of juvenile fiction.
The following entry presents commentary on Harris's "Uncle Remus" series of folk tales (1880-1955) through 2004. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volume 49.
Assembled by a white nineteenth-century author and journalist, Harris's volumes of "Uncle Remus" folk tales are among the most problematic literary collections in American fiction. While some regard the works as important documents of African-American folk culture, the stories are nonetheless replete with racist overtones, leaving critics conflicted over how to evaluate Harris's role within the history of folklore preservation. Containing highly dialectic language—the authenticity of which remains contested—Harris's tales depict a fictional caricature of an elderly ex-slave named Uncle Remus who relates the stories of his people to the white grandson of his former owners. There has been widespread and vitriolic critical debate surrounding the authorial intentions behind the "Remus" tales, with some alleging that the caucasian Harris uses the stories to paint an inaccurately rosy picture of race relations in the post-Civil War Reconstruction South, while others maintain that the folk tales are far more subversive in tone, acting as Harris's tool for presenting more positive depictions of African-American characters than had ever been previously published in American children's literature. While praised as a master of folk literature by his contemporary Mark Twain, Harris has been vilified by African-American and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who has accused him of "stealing a good part of my heritage." Such diametrically opposed views have characterized discussions of Harris's canon for the bulk of the twentieth century, with the lack of any degree of critical communion leaving his final literary legacy still largely undetermined.
Harris was born in rural Eatonton, Georgia, on December 9, 1848, to Mary Harris, an unmarried woman. His father was an itinerant laborer who played no role in his upbringing. Harris's family was poor, and he left home at thirteen to find a job. He answered an ad for apprentices at a small newspaper called The Countryman, a position that first introduced him to Joseph Addison Turner, who was both the editor of the newspaper and a plantation owner. During his tenure at The Countryman, Harris learned much about journalism and life on a plantation, interacting frequently with Turner's slaves, who allegedly inspired many of his later "Uncle Remus" stories. After the Civil War ended in 1865, Harris accepted a job at the Monroe Advertiser in Forsyth, Georgia, where, again allegedly, the local gardener was known as Uncle Remus, although Harris was said to have denied this account. He later moved to the Savannah Morning News and, in 1870, married the French-Canadian Esther La Rose, with whom he would have nine children. Harris's journalistic career later reached its zenith when he became a featured columnist at the Atlanta Constitution. Harris took over a popular existing column written in the parodic voice of a stereotypical Southern black character called "Old Si," who had been used as a mouthpiece to discuss politics and other current events. Although Harris was not the creator of Old Si, he continued to use the character and even began incorporating a newer fictional voice of his own creation he called "Uncle Remus." In December 1877, Harris read an article by William Owen in Lippincott's Magazine called "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes." Already an amateur folklorist—he was a charter member of the American Folklore Society—Harris subsequently began to solicit African-American folk stories through newspaper ads. His first collection of folklore, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), proved to be a huge success, selling ten thousand copies in just four months. The publisher, D. Appleton, marketed the book as part of its humor collection, much to Harris's chagrin, who saw it as a serious volume of cultural history. During his lifetime, Harris released seven collections of "Uncle Remus" stories, which remained popular with readers, though they never were regarded as academic works of folklore. By the time he released his last "Remus" book, Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907), Harris had grown so tired of the limitations of the "Remus" stories and the continuing expectations of his reading public for more of the same that he began to include more and more variants of already published stories and even threatened to kill Uncle Remus rather than offer another book in the series—which he never did. Harris left the staff of the Atlanta Constitution in 1900, but was coaxed out of retirement in 1907 to edit and write for Uncle Remus's Magazine, which his son Julian helped found. Harris's health began to fail the following year, and he died of acute nephritis and chronic cirrhosis of the liver on July 3, 1908. His folktales remained popular—albeit controversial—throughout the twentieth century and, in 1946, the Walt Disney Company released Song of the South, an animated/live-action film adaptation of several of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories. While the movie was a commercial success, following its release, Song of the South attracted a great deal of criticism from such civil rights organizations as the NAACP and, as a result, has, to date, never been released on home video in the United States.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The "Uncle Remus" stories are a part of the folk tradition of the Trickster, embodied in the figure of Brer Rabbit. While Harris's tales actually have broad variation in scope, including some that relate a trip by Uncle Remus to Atlanta, the "Remus" animal stories are, by far, the best known. Featuring a well-known cast of characters like Brer Rabbit, Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox, these tales are mostly humorous, colorful descriptions of the anthropomorphic animals' interactions with one another. However, rather than flat expressions of traditional folk literature, Harris utilized the unique literary device of adding Uncle Remus as the narratorial voice of the stories. Uncle Remus is an equal parts problematic and vivid character by contemporary standards. A former slave, Remus recounts his stories to a little boy, the white grandson of his former owners. The thirty-four stories in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings first introduced readers to Uncle Remus and his stories of the foibles and virtues found in a community of animals. This collection features the most famous of all the "Remus" stories, "The Rabbit and the Tar-Baby," in which the feisty Brer Rabbit finally meets his match in a silent, passive statue made of tar created by his nemesis Brer Fox. A trickster to the end, Brer Rabbit escapes his fate by using reverse psychology on the fox and asking not to be thrown into a briar patch. The later volume Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation (1883) features seventy-one additional animal tales and introduces two new narrators, Daddy Jack and Aunt Tempy, who compete with Remus in their storytelling. The community of animals featured in the "Uncle Remus" stories closely resembles a human one, with characters who talk, wear clothing, go to work, maintain households, and argue over money, women, food, and status. While the Uncle Remus framework presents the stories as being told to a child—and the tales have, since their first publication, been considered works of children's literature—many of the stories feature violent resolutions to conflicts, with characters being boiled alive, served in soup, or stung to death by bees. The typical "Uncle Remus" story involves a relatively powerless animal, such as the rabbit, terrapin (turtle), or bullfrog, pitted against a more powerful opponent, such as the fox, bear, or wolf. The weaker animal, however, usually has the benefit of more wit, guile, or wisdom than the stronger one and eventually triumphs over his enemy. As Uncle Remus and the other narrators relate these stories, they intersperse their own commentary, opinion, and instruction to their young listeners, providing additional insight into the era that spawned the tales.
Putting the critical debate surrounding the stories aside, the "Uncle Remus" tales were intended by Harris to function as an expression of traditional African-American folk culture in the Civil War-era American South. Thus, they can be seen as a descendent of the Aesopic tradition of fables; in fact several of them are etiological in nature, as demonstrated by such tales as "Why Brother Bear Has No Tale" and "Why Mr. Cricket Has Elbows on His Legs." However, Harris presented the stories in a thickly dialectical voice that bears distinct aspects of both Southern and African-American culture. In a study by Florence E. Baer, she maintains that the "Uncle Remus" stories feature a primarily African heritage, with fully two-thirds owing their origins to traditional African storytelling. Another 15.2%, or twenty-eight stories, she found to have European ancestry, 9.2% born of Native American traditions, and the remaining sixteen being of indeterminate origin. Some scholars have alleged that the "Uncle Remus" tales are subversive in nature, expressing the frustrations of slaves combined with their enduring dreams of hope and salvation. Most of the stories feature a rabbit or tortoise, traditionally depicted as among the most vulnerable members of the animal kingdom, outwitting and ultimately defeating their stronger brethren. Hugh Keenan has noted, "Remus tells the stories to show how the weak in body and inferior in power (like the child and others) can use their wits to overcome their enemies and their subservient condition." Along this same line of argument, Paula T. Connolly has asserted that the "Remus" tales "strengthened group solidarity and allowed a means of undermining white hegemony, not only because they allowed a way to verbalize aggression, but also because while they spoke of master's world, the tales excluded a white audience. They became part of the coded language slaves created." However, not all critics have concurred with such readings of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, alleging that Remus's role as narrator completely undermines the supposedly subversive "weak triumphing over the powerful" theme of the folk tales. Proponents of this school of thought have argued that the dominant theme of the "Remus" tales, in which a former slave looks back with nostalgia on pre-Civil War times, is the perpetuation of the stereotype of the "happy darky," a caricature created by whites of the era to downplay the evils of slavery.
Critically, Harris's contribution to the field of children's literature has remained in almost constant flux. During the initial release of his "Uncle Remus" books, some found the texts overly generous to African-American culture, a development which many modern scholars would almost find laughable. However, many contemporary critics—even supporters of Harris—have failed to reconcile Harris's stated goals for the "Remus" stories, which allegedly sought to both engender positive feelings towards African Americans and yet support America's legacy of slavery. Throughout his lifetime, Harris was praised by such disparate figures as Mark Twain, who called the "Remus" tales "bright, fine literature worthy to live for their own sakes," and Thomas Nelson Page, who described Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings as "possessed, besides, that fidelity to life, that simplicity of recital and that subtle, in definable essence, which is the unmistakable birthmark of genius." Following Harris's death and further into the twentieth century, the critical opinion of Harris's role as a folklorist became increasingly negative. The "Remus" stories began inspiring more and more allegations of racism and cultural appropriation, a trend that, many have argued, was not helped by the stereotypical depictions of Remus and Brer Rabbit in Walt Disney's Song of the South. Alice Walker has commented that, after viewing Song of the South, her family no longer read Harris's stories: "They were killed for us. In fact, I do not remember any of my relatives ever telling any of those tales after we saw what had been done with them." Opal Moore and Donnarae MacCann have asserted that much of the problem with Harris's folk tales lies in his choice of narrator, stating that, "Remus is not, and never was, the right presenter of the tales (that is, if importance is to be given to preserving their context, complexity, and texture)." Moore and MacCann have further alleged that the often-mocking tone of Harris's stories make "Black children believe that their culture is ‘something to be laughed at’ as the children of Harris's era believed." In recent years, however, Harris's literary reputation has seen something of a positive renewal, with critics such as Malcolm Jones suggesting that "not only was Harris was one of the all-time great folktale collectors, but a subtle fiction-maker as well. Remus emerges no more or less subservient than a black man had to be in rural nineteenth-century Georgia, but more important he turns out to be witty, sardonic, subtle, and kind." Still, Harris's "Remus" tales have remained hotly debated, with no critical consensus in sight. Though, it should be noted that a new generation of African-American folklorists has emerged, who have begun adapting Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories within the larger cultural and historical context of the modern African-American community. Such works include Julius Lester's Black Folktales (1969) and The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985), and Malcolm Jones and Van Dyke Parks' Jump!: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (1986).
"Uncle Remus" Series
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings [illustrations by Frederick S. Church and James H. Moser] (folklore) 1880; republished as Uncle Remus and His Legends of the Old Plantation, 1881; revised edition, 1895, illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost
Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation (folklore) 1883; revised edition, illustrations by Milo Winter, 1917
Daddy Jake the Runaway and Short Stories Told after Dark (folklore) 1889
Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads [illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost] (folklore) 1892
The Tar-Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus [illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost and E. W. Kemble] (folklore) 1904
Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation [illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost, J. M. Conde, and Frank Verbeck] (folklore) 1905
Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (folklore) 1907
Uncle Remus and the Little Boy [illustrations by J. M. Conde] (folklore) 1910
Uncle Remus Returns [illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost and J. M. Conde] (folklore) 1918
The Witch Wolf: An Uncle Remus Story [illustrations by W. A. Dwiggins] (folklore) 1921
The Favorite Uncle Remus [edited by George Van Santvoord and Archibald C. Coolidge; illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost] (folklore) 1948; published in the United Kingdom as The Essential Uncle Remus, 1949
Seven Tales of Uncle Remus [edited by Thomas H. English] (folklore) 1948
The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus [edited by Richard Chase, illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost] (folklore) 1955
Selected Other Works
Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White (short stories) 1884
Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches (short stories) 1887
Balaam and His Master and Other Sketches and Stories (short stories) 1891
A Plantation Printer: The Adventures of a Georgia Boy During the War [illustrations by E. W. Kemble] (novel) 1892; also published as On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures During the War
Little Mr. Thimblefinger and His Queer Country: What the Children Saw and Heard There [illustrations by Oliver Herford] (juvenile fiction) 1894
Mr. Rabbit at Home: A Sequel to Little Mr. Thimblefinger and His Queer Country [illustrations by Oliver Herford] (juvenile fiction) 1895
Sister Jane: Her Friends and Acquaintances: A Narrative of Certain Events and Episodes Transcribed from the Papers of the Late William Wornum (novel) 1896
Aaron in the Wildwoods [illustrations by Oliver Herford] (picture book) 1897
The Story of Aaron (So Called), the Son of Ben Ali, Told by His Friends and Acquaintances [illustrations by Oliver Herford] (juvenile fiction) 1897
Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War (short stories) 1898
The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann [illustrations by Arthur Burdett Frost] (short stories) 1899
Plantation Pageants [illustrations by E. Boyd Smith] (short stories) 1899
Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction [illustrations by Leslie Morrill] (novel) 1902
The Making of a Statesman and Other Stories (short stories) 1902
Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine [illustrations by Karl Moseley] (juvenile fiction) 1903
A Little Union Scout [illustrations by George Gibbs] (novel) 1904
The Bishop and the Boogerman [illustrations by Charlotte Harding] (juvenile fiction) 1909
The Shadow between His Shoulder-Blades [illustrations by George Harding] (novel) 1909
Joel Chandler Harris, Editor and Essayist: Miscellaneous Literary, Political, and Social Writings [edited by Julia Collier Harris] (essays and criticism) 1931
Qua: A Romance of the Revolution [edited by Thomas H. English] (novel) 1946
Joel Chandler Harris (essay date 1880)
SOURCE: Harris, Joel Chandler. "Introduction." In Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, pp. xiii-xviii. New York, N.Y.: The Heritage Press, 1957.
[In the following essay, reprinted from the original 1880 foreword to Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, Harris both explains his goals in recording the "Uncle Remus" stories and discusses the potential origins of the tales.]
I am advised by my publishers that this book [Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings ] is to be included in their catalogue of humorous publications, and this friendly warning gives me an opportunity to say that however humorous it may be in effect, its intention is perfectly serious; and, even if it were otherwise, it seems to me that a volume written wholly in dialect must have its solemn, not to say melancholy, features. With respect to the Folk-Lore series, my purpose has been to preserve the legends themselves in their original simplicity, and to wed them permanently to the quaint dialect—if, indeed, it can be called a dialect—through the medium of which they have become a part of the domestic history of every Southern family; and I have endeavored to give to the whole a genuine flavor of the old plantation.
Each legend has its variants, but in every instance I have retained that particular version which seemed to me to be the most characteristic, and have given it without embellishment and without exaggeration. The dialect, it will be observed, is wholly different from that of the Hon. Pompey Smash and his literary descendants, and different also from the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage, but it is at least phonetically genuine. Nevertheless, if the language of Uncle Remus fails to give vivid hints of the really poetic imagination of the Negro; if it fails to embody the quaint and homely humor which was his most prominent characteristic; if it does not suggest a certain picturesque sensitiveness—a curious exaltation of mind and temperament not to be defined by words—then I have reproduced the form of the dialect merely, and not the essence, and my attempt may be accounted a failure. At any rate, I trust I have been successful in presenting what must be, at least to a large portion of American readers, a new and by no means unattractive phase of Negro character—a phase which may be considered a curiously sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe's wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South. Mrs. Stowe, let me hasten to say, attacked the possibilities of slavery with all the eloquence of genius; but the same genius painted the portrait of the Southern slave-owner, and defended him.
A number of the plantation legends originally appeared in the columns of a daily newspaper—The Atlanta Constitution—and in that shape they attracted the attention of various gentlemen who were kind enough to suggest that they would prove to be valuable contributions to myth-literature. It is but fair to say that ethnological considerations formed no part of the undertaking which has resulted in the publication of this volume. Professor J. W. Powell, of the Smithsonian Institution, who is engaged in an investigation of the mythology of the North American Indians, informs me that some of Uncle Remus's stories appear in a number of different languages, and in various modified forms, among the Indians; and he is of the opinion that they are borrowed by the Negroes from the red-men. But this, to say the least, is extremely doubtful, since another investigator (Mr. Herbert H. Smith, author of Brazil and the Amazons) has met with some of these stories among tribes of South American Indians, and one in particular he has traced to India, and as far east as Siam. Mr. Smith has been kind enough to send me the proof-sheets of his chapter on "The Myths and Folk-Lore of the Amazonian Indians," in which he reproduces some of the stories which he gathered while exploring the Amazons.
In the first of his series, a tortoise falls from a tree upon the head of a jaguar and kills him; in one of Uncle Remus's stories, the terrapin falls from a shelf in Miss Meadows's house and stuns the fox, so that the latter fails to catch the rabbit. In the next, a jaguar catches a tortoise by the hind-leg as he is disappearing in his hole; but the tortoise convinces him he is holding a root, and so escapes; Uncle Remus tells how the fox endeavored to drown the terrapin, but turned him loose because the terrapin declared his tail to be only a stump-root. Mr. Smith also gives the story of how the tortoise outran the deer, which is identical as to incident with Uncle Remus's story of how Brer Tarrypin outran Brer Rabbit. Then there is the story of how the tortoise pretended that he was stronger than the tapir. He tells the latter he can drag him into the sea, but the tapir retorts that he will pull the tortoise into the forest and kill him besides. The tortoise thereupon gets a vine-stem, ties one end around the body of the tapir, and goes to the sea, where he ties the other end to the tail of a whale. He then goes into the wood, midway between them both, and gives the vine a shake as a signal for the pulling to begin. The struggle between the whale and tapir goes on until each thinks the tortoise is the strongest of animals. Compare this with the story of the terrapin's contest with the bear, in which Miss Meadows's bed-cord is used instead of a vine-stem. One of the most characteristic of Uncle Remus's stories is that in which the rabbit proves to Miss Meadows and the girls that the fox is his riding-horse. This is almost identical with a story quoted by Mr. Smith, where the jaguar is about to marry the deer's daughter. The cotia—a species of rodent—is also in love with her, and he tells the deer that he can make a riding-horse of the jaguar. "Well," says the deer, "if you can make the jaguar carry you, you shall have my daughter." Thereupon the story proceeds pretty much as Uncle Remus tells it of the fox and rabbit. The cotia finally jumps from the jaguar and takes refuge in a hole, where an owl is set to watch him, but he flings sand in the owl's eyes and escapes. In another story given by Mr. Smith, the cotia is very thirsty, and, seeing a man coming with a jar on his head, lies down in the road in front of him, and repeats this until the man puts down his jar to go back after all the dead cotias he has seen. This is almost identical with Uncle Remus's story of how the rabbit robbed the fox of his game. In a story from Upper Egypt, a fox lies down in the road in front of a man who is carrying fowls to market, and finally succeeds in securing them.
This similarity extends to almost every story quoted by Mr. Smith, and some are so nearly identical as to point unmistakably to a common origin; but when and where? When did the Negro or the North American Indian ever come in contact with the tribes of South America? Upon this point the author of Brazil and the Amazons, who is engaged in making a critical and comparative study of these myth-stories, writes:
I am not prepared to form a theory about these stories. There can be no doubt that some of them, found among the Negroes and the Indians, had a common origin. The most natural solution would be to suppose that they originated in Africa, and were carried to South America by the Negro slaves. They are certainly found among the Red Negroes; but, unfortunately for the African theory, it is equally certain that they are told by savage Indians of the Amazons Valley, away up on the Tapajos, Red Negro, and Tapurá. These Indians hardly ever see a Negro, and their languages are very distinct from the broken Portuguese spoken by the slaves. The form of the stories, as recounted in the Tupi and Mundurucú languages, seems to show that they were originally formed in those languages or have long been adopted in them.
It is interesting to find a story from Upper Egypt (that of the fox who pretended to be dead) identical with an Amazonian story, and strongly resembling one found by you among the Negroes. Varnhagen, the Brazilian historian (now Visconde de Rio Branco), tried to prove a relationship between the ancient Egyptians, or other Turanian stock, and the Tupi Indians. His theory rested on rather a slender basis, yet it must be confessed that he had one or two strong points. Do the resemblances between Old and New World stories point to a similar conclusion? It would be hard to say with the material that we now have.
One thing is certain. The animal stories told by the Negroes in our Southern States and in Brazil were brought by them from Africa. Whether they originated there, or with the Arabs, or Egyptians, or with yet more ancient nations, must still be an open question. Whether the Indians got them from the Negroes or from some earlier source is equally uncertain. We have seen enough to know that a very interesting line of investigation has been opened.
Professor Hartt, in his Amazonian Tortoise Myths, quotes a story from the Riverside Magazine of November, 1868, which will be recognized as a variant of one given by Uncle Remus. I venture to append it here, with some necessary verbal and phonetic alterations, in order to give the reader an idea of the difference between the dialect of the cotton plantations, as used by Uncle Remus, and the lingo in vogue on the rice plantations and Sea Islands of the South Atlantic States:
One time B'er Deer an' B'er Cooter (Terrapin) was courtin', and de lady did bin lub B'er Deer mo' so dan B'er Cooter. She did bin lub B'er Cooter, but she lub B'er Deer de morest. So de young lady say to B'er Deer and B'er Cooter bofe dat dey mus' hab a ten-mile race, an' de one dat beats, she will go marry him.
So B'er Cooter say to B'er Deer: "You has got mo' longer legs dan I has, but I will run you. You run ten mile on land, and I will run ten mile on de water!"
So B'er Cooter went an' git nine er his fam'ly, an' put one at ebery mile-pos', and he hisse'f, what was to run wid B'er Deer, he was right in front of de young lady's do', in de broom-grass.
Dat mornin' at nine o'clock, B'er Deer he did met B'er Cooter at de fus mile-pos', wey dey was to start fum. So he call: "Well, B'er Cooter, is you ready? Go long!" As he git on to de nex' mile-pos', he say: "B'er Cooter!" B'er Cooter say: "Hullo!" B'er Deer say: "You dere?" B'er Cooter say: "Yes, B'er Deer, I dere too."
Nex' mile-pos' he jump, B'er Deer say: "Hullo, B'er Cooter!" B'er Cooter say: "Hullo, B'er Deer! you dere too?" B'er Deer say: "Ki! it look like you gwine fer tie me; it look like we gwine fer de gal tie!"
W'en he git to de nine-mile pos' he tought he git dere fus, 'cause he mek two jump; so he holler: "B'er Cooter!" B'er Cooter answer: "You dere too?" B'er Deer say: "It look like you gwine tie me." B'er Cooter say: "Go long, B'er Deer. I git dere in due season time," which he does, and wins de race.
The story of the Rabbit and the Fox, as told by the Southern Negroes, is artistically dramatic in this: it progresses in an orderly way from a beginning to a well-defined conclusion, and is full of striking episodes that suggest the culmination. It seems to me to be to a certain extent allegorical, albeit such an interpretation may be unreasonable. At least it is a fable thoroughly characteristic of the Negro; and it needs no scientific investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness. It would be presumptuous in me to offer an opinion as to the origin of these curious mythstories; but, if ethnologists should discover that they did not originate with the African, the proof to that effect should be accompanied with a good deal of persuasive eloquence.
Curiously enough, I have found few Negroes who will acknowledge to a stranger that they know anything of these legends; and yet to relate one of the stories is the surest road to their confidence and esteem. In this way, and in this way only, I have been enabled to collect and verify the folk-lore included in this volume. There is an anecdote about the Irishman and the rabbit which a number of Negroes have told to me with great unction, and which is both funny and characteristic, though I will not undertake to say that it has its origin with the blacks. One day an Irishman who had heard people talking about "mares' nests" was going along the big road—it is always the big road in contradistinction to neighborhood paths and by-paths, called in the vernacular "nigh-cuts"—when he came to a pumpkin-patch. The Irishman had never seen any of this fruit before, and he at once concluded that he had discovered a veritable mare's nest. Making the most of his opportunity, he gathered one of the pumpkins in his arms and went on his way. A pumpkin is an exceedingly awkward thing to carry, and the Irishman had not gone far before he made a misstep, and stumbled. The pumpkin fell to the ground, rolled down the hill into a "brush-heap," and, striking against a stump, was broken. The story continues in the dialect: "W'en de punkin roll in de bresh-heap, out jump a rabbit; en soon's de I'shmuns see dat, he take atter de rabbit en holler: ‘Kworp, colty! kworp, colty!’ but de rabbit, he des flew." The point of this is obvious.
As to the songs, the reader is warned that it will be found difficult to make them conform to the ordinary rules of versification, nor is it intended that they should so conform. They are written, and are intended to be read, solely with reference to the regular and invariable recurrence of the cæsura, as, for instance, the first stanza of the Revival Hymn:
Oh, whar / shill we go / w'en de great / day comes /
Wid de blow / in' er de trumpits / en de bang / in' er
de drums /
How man / y po' sin / ners'll be kotch'd / out late
En fine / no latch / ter de gold / en gate /
In other words, the songs depend for their melody and rhythm upon the musical quality of time, and not upon long or short, accented or unaccented syllables. I am persuaded that this fact led Mr. Sidney Lanier, who is thoroughly familiar with the metrical peculiarities of Negro songs, into the exhaustive investigation which has resulted in the publication of his scholarly treatise on The Science of English Verse.
The difference between the dialect of the legends and that of the character-sketches, slight as it is, marks the modifications which the speech of the Negro has undergone even where education has played no part in reforming it. Indeed, save in the remote country districts, the dialect of the legends has nearly disappeared. I am perfectly well aware that the character-sketches are without permanent interest, but they are embodied here for the purpose of presenting a phase of Negro character wholly distinct from that which I have endeavored to preserve in the legends. Only in this shape, and with all the local allusions, would it be possible to adequately represent the shrewd observations, the curious retorts, the homely thrusts, the quaint comments, and the humorous philosophy of the race of which Uncle Remus is the type.
If the reader not familiar with plantation life will imagine that the mythstories of Uncle Remus are told night after night to a little boy by an old Negro who appears to be venerable enough to have lived during the period which he describes—who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery—and who has all the prejudices of caste and pride of family that were the natural results of the system; if the reader can imagine all this, he will find little difficulty in appreciating and sympathizing with the air of affectionate superiority which Uncle Remus assumes as he proceeds to unfold the mysteries of plantation lore to a little child who is the product of that practical reconstruction which has been going on to some extent since the war in spite of the politicians. Uncle Remus describes that reconstruction in his Story of the War, and I may as well add here for the benefit of the curious that that story is almost literally true.
Thomas Nelson Page (review date December 1895)
SOURCE: Page, Thomas Nelson. "Immortal Uncle Remus." In Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, edited by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., pp. 55-7. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981.
[In the following review, originally printed in the December 1895 edition of Book Buyer, Page offers a critical assessment of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, calling it a work of "genius."]
Fifteen years ago, out of a region known rather for its acting men and talking men than for its writing men (though several volumes of sketches wonderfully racy of the soil had come from it, even in the old times), there appeared a book so humorous and unlike all that had gone before it that, though at first sight it seemed to be in an almost unknown tongue, the public at once seized on it, first with curiosity and then with delight. It purported to be a record of the stories, songs and sayings told or sung by an old negro—a former slave—to the little grandson of his old master and mistress, and on the outside the stories were a series of fables of animals and birds, relating in the main to the strife between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, and these stories were recognized by those who had been brought up in the South as at core the same which they had heard in their childhood from the old "uncles" and "aunties" of the plantation. But there was more. Instead of the old darkies, there was the best story-teller of the time to make his characters as real as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, or the Beast who kept Beauty captive. Some found in the book animal-myths valuable as links in the chain with which they hope[d] to penetrate the mysterious and always vanishing recesses of the ethnological labyrinth. Others welcomed it as a contribution to the history of the negro race, in which they were philanthropically interested. But the great majority found in it more. Under the apparently unknown tongue when they had mastered it sufficiently to appreciate its soft elisions and musical inflections, were found to lie humor, wit, philosophy, "unadulterated human nature" and a charming picture of the relation between the old family servant and the family of his master.
It possessed, besides, that fidelity to life, that simplicity of recital and that subtle, indefinable essence which is the unmistakable birthmark of genius. It brought back to them their youth, and changed them to children again, yet with a quickened apprehension which only age and experience can give. With Miss Sally's little boy they sat and heard not mere stories of animal life, but discerned under them wit, wisdom and the philosophy of life. The narrator became no longer only Miss Sally's Little Boy's Uncle Remus, but their Uncle Remus, as well, and Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit took their places among the small but distinguished company who, touched by the light of genius, have become immortal in the realm of literature.
[In Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, ] Mr. Harris has achieved the distinction of creating three characters who have already taken their place in this high company. Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit are familiar characters in our speech and have oftener than once been cited as illustrations in the House of Commons and in our own highest deliberative assembly. As might have been foreseen, this success has raised a host of imitators and followers, who have as a rule caught only the outside and followed after a long interval. The result has been a deluge of what are called "dialect-stories," until the public, surfeited by them, has begun almost to shudder at the very name. These writers have supposed that they were writing dialect when they were only writing distorted words and illiterate grammar, not knowing that the master here has used the vehicle only to carry the thought, and that the secret of his craft lies not in the manner so much as in the matter. Herbert Spencer says that, "Astonished at the performances of the English plough, the Hindoos paint it, set it up, and worship it, thus turning a tool into an idol: linguists do the same with language." Uncle Remus, with all his lingo, might be as dull as any of the other stories which, based on the mere counterfeit of mutilated words, have followed in his shining track, but for the stuff which is in it. It is not the abbreviated words nor the elision; but the habit of thought as of speech, the quaint turn of phrase overflowing with humorous suggestion, where sometimes a word carries a whole train of thought, which make up the dialect of Uncle Remus, nor yet is it only these; but it is far more the knowledge of animals, particularly of the animal, Man—"the unadulterated human nature"—which constitutes the stuff in all his stories, and makes them what they are when taken together, perhaps almost the best contribution to our literature which has been given since the war. No wonder that it opened the way for others.
No man who has ever written has known one-tenth part about the negro that Mr. Harris knows, and for those who hereafter shall wish to find not merely the words, but the real language of the negro of that section, and the habits of mind of all American negroes of the old time, his works will prove the best thesaurus. The old-time negro is passing away, and his speech with him, as a certain type of old-time gentleman is passing. The new issue, that succeeds him, may be more gifted in grammatical speech, more able to fulfil the intricate demands of a truly independent Pullman-Portership; more able to hoe the new row of free and insolent citizenship, or to represent the government at home or abroad; and perhaps he will find in time his proper historiographer. But to some who knew the other, the true gentility of the Uncle Remuses, in however homely a garb, calls forth from the past memories which we would never wish to forget; and to us Mr. Harris has done an inestimable service.
The new edition now brought forth by Messrs. Appleton is worthy of the matter. It is in beautiful new type, in a warm, dignified and fitting binding, and is copiously illustrated by Mr. A. B. Frost, with illustrations so apt and admirable—that is, so truly illustrative of the spirit of the work—that Mr. Harris graciously says in his preface that Mr. Frost has made the book his. Whether he has done this or not, he has undoubtedly added to it the additional lustre of his genius, which has this exceptional merit that it is as distinctly American and original as Mr. Harris's own. One could not say more.1
1. A review-essay of the 1895 edition of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Reprinted from Book Buyer, 12 (December 1895), -45. Page (1853-1922) is best remembered for his romanticized portraits of Virginia antebellum plantation life, a vision well represented in his first collection of local color tales, In Ole Virginia (1887). Page's short stories and his Reconstruction novel, Red Rock (1898), have been frequently compared to Harris's local color tales and to his Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction (1902).
Florence E. Baer (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Baer, Florence E. "Joel Chandler Harris: An ‘Accidental’ Folklorist." In Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, edited by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., pp. 185-95. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981.
[In the following essay, Baer examines Harris's methodology in collecting and recording the "Uncle Remus" stories as well as his roots as an amateur folklorist.]
"In reality the stories are only alligator pears—one eats them merely for the sake of the dressing." Thus Mark Twain wrote to Joel Chandler Harris in 1881, on the publication of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Twain intended only praise, but when the letter was published in Julia Collier Harris's biography in 1918, Elsie Clews Parsons, an eminent and influential folklorist, picked up the metaphor and added with some asperity, "… now and then one hears of somebody who fancies alligator pears without dressing."1 Had Twain only commented as he did of Fenimore Cooper that his "gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment," he would have been closer to the mark, and the nineteenth-century view that Harris had made a real contribution to American folklore may well have carried over into the twentieth century without any important detractions.
Instead, in his otherwise extremely valuable introduction to American Negro Folktales, Richard Dorson pursues Parson's tack of disparaging the folkloristic value of the Uncle Remus tales with assertions that "Harris himself had not sought to reproduce literally the narratives he heard," and "plot outlines sufficed for his literary purposes." He goes on to dismiss the "excessive dialect … as a literary device to emphasize the quaintness of regional characters."2
Among Harris's published work and material in the Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Collection at Emory University in Atlanta, there is ample evidence with which to counter the above judgments and to set the record straight.3
Harris's immediate incentive to begin compiling American Negro "myths and legends" was an article on "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," by William Owens (Lippincott's Magazine, December 1877). As an editor for the Atlanta Constitution, Harris read and reviewed the article and found it "remarkable for what it omits rather than for what it contains."4 What it contains is a smattering of "superstitions," Owens's belief that most American Negro folklore originated in Africa, and brief retellings of ten Negro stories—in formal English except for dialogue. Harris saw two defects: Owens did not seem to understand the dialect he did use, and the stories were not told as Harris remembered them. As with many nineteenth-century collectors, Harris regarded the tales and the special language of tale-telling as survivals, rapidly disappearing relics in a changed world, and he wanted a record preserved. He had good reason to believe the record would not be authentic unless he saw to it himself; there were already in existence what he called "literary" treatments and the "intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage."5 His first resource was his own memory, and he began to write down stories and fragments of stories he had heard as a boy in Putnam County, Georgia.
Joel Chandler Harris was born in the small town of Eatonton to Miss Mary Harris. The only family he knew as a child was his mother and his maternal grandmother; an unmarried mother was too great a scandal for the rest of the family, who at first dis- owned her. While as far as is known the townspeople were more charitable, Joe Harris's position was as anomalous as that of the other rarity in a southern town during the 1850's—the freed black man. It is perhaps revealing that among his Negro characters, "The most pathetic of all is Free Joe, who, protected by no master, becomes the slave of all white men."6 But Joe Harris found a master. At the age of thirteen he answered an advertisement in a local paper, The Countryman. "Wanted: An active, intelligent white boy, 14 or 15 years of age, to learn the printer's trade." The notice was placed by the owner/publisher of the paper, Joseph Addison Turner, a cotton and corn planter with literary aspirations.
Harris got the job and spent the war years at Turnwold, working on the only paper ever to have originated on a plantation. Turner provided him with a place to live, a trade, a chance to write, and—as it turned out—something to write about. It was Turner's conviction that the songs of the plantation Negroes should be preserved and in the dialect in which they were sung.7 If the songs, why not the stories? Harris remembered, some twenty years later, "it was on this and neighboring plantations that I became familiar with the curious myths and animal stories that form the basis of the volumes credited to Uncle Remus."8
Not only the animal stories but the physical setting and human characters of the frame story were supplied by his life at Turnwold. In the evenings after work, Harris and the Turner boys frequently visited the slaves' cabins to hear tales. Again, twenty years later, Harris wrote to Joe Syd Turner:
Did it never occur to you that you might be the little boy in ‘Uncle Remus’? I suppose you have forgotten the comical tricks you played on old George Terrell, and the way you wheedled him out of a part of his ginger-cakes and cider.9
The character of Uncle Remus seems to owe a good deal to "old George … then in his late seventies, as he mended shoes in his cabin, made baskets, and did other jobs."10 However, Uncle Remus is actually a composite of several of the plantation slaves: he leads the singing as did Big Sam, and he tells tales as did Aunt Chrissy. As for the name, as far as is known there was no Remus on the plantation. After the war Harris worked for the Monroe Advertiser in Forsyth, Georgia, where the town gardener was called Uncle Remus. A colleague later recalled that the name had appealed to Harris.11
It is characteristic of his modest demeanor that a fully realized, adult Harris-figure does not appear in the tales. Instead, he once wrote, "There is nothing here but an old negro man, a little boy, and a dull reporter…."12 Such a sense of apartness may have been psychologically significant, but, given his other attributes of memory, intelligence, a good ear, and the ability to reproduce accurately what he heard, it provided ideal conditions for collecting songs, sayings, and tales. His life experiences well qualified him for the undertaking he had set himself: to supply an authentic record of plantation lore.
Soon after he decided to collect folktales, Harris recognized that memory alone was not going to be enough for the complete accuracy he required. In order to verify a tale he would need to get an oral version, preferably more than one, told to him by Negroes who had lived on the plantations before the war. With this in view, in December 1879, he placed an advertisement in the Darien (Georgia) Timber Gazette:
We would be glad if any of our readers who may chance to remember any of the Negro fables and legends so popular on plantations would send us brief outlines of the main incidents and characters…. The purpose is to preserve these … myths in permanent form.13
He used material thus obtained not as the basis for a literary treatment, but to jog his own memory and to elicit oral versions from Atlanta blacks who knew some of the old fables. Examination of the few handwritten tales still in the Memorial Collection makes it clear that although he asked for "outlines," that is not necessarily what he got. While not always precise about spelling and punctuation, the writers provided complete stories, sometimes a good deal longer than the eventual oral version that became the published tale. The "outlines" still in the Collection contain, on the whole, incidents which Harris did not publish; he held them in hope of hearing oral versions to verify their authenticity. And the ones he used? He was after all a newspaperman. Once a tale was set in type, all notes and handwritten copy went on the floor to be swept out at the end of the day.14
The charge of altering (a practice Harris called "cooking") a folktale for any reason whatsoever was as offensive to Harris as to any modern folklorist. George M. Theal proudly announced that in preparing Kaffir folktales for publication, he saw to it that the tales had "all undergone a thorough revision by a circle of natives. They were not only told by natives, but were copied down by natives." Harris was not impressed. He wrote, "the educated Negroes have ‘cooked’ the stories to suit themselves."15
For his own first volume of tales, Harris selected one version of each that he considered "most characteristic." In Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), as he became more of a folklorist, he sometimes included variants. Actually, from the standpoint of modern collecting methods, Harris's chief fault is that he rarely named informants, mentioning only three by name and including identifying data on one other. While he has also been faulted for using the generalized frame setting of Uncle Remus and the little boy rather than detailing the specific occasion on which he heard a particular tale, the fact is that the plantation setting is one he vividly recalled, and it enabled him to include a good deal of information about tale-telling occasions and tale-telling as performance. To glean the details therein contained is of more value to the folklorist than "to retire the framework either to a footnote or to complete oblivion."16
The collecting method Harris advocated and practiced is now called that of participant observer in an induced natural context.17 His account of a storytelling session at a railway station near Atlanta in 1882 illustrates his belief that to verify a tale you must get an oral version, and to get tales you must tell tales.18 It was night, and a group of Negroes who had been working on the railroad were laughing and joking with one another. He sat down next to one of the liveliest talkers, and when someone in the crowd mentioned "Ole Molly Har'," he used that cue to tell the Tar Baby story in a low tone. The exclamations of the worker attracted other members of the group who gathered around. Without waiting for a pause, Harris then told the story of Brer Rabbit and the Mosquitoes; and before he had finished that one, various blacks were vying for a turn to tell tales. That night he collected many new tales as well as others he remembered and half-remembered. With his trained memory and thorough knowledge of the story-telling dialect, he had little problem waiting until he got home to write down what he had heard. The anonymity of the darkness also made for ideal story-telling conditions. Based on his own successful experiences, he advised others:
The only way to get at these stories is for the person seeking them to obtain a footing by telling one or two on his own hook—beginning, for instance, with the Tar Baby.19
There is no question that from the time Harris first knew there was such a thing as "folklore" (his introduction to the term was probably the title of Owens's article), he viewed himself as a serious collector and enthusiastically learned what he could about the scientific investigation of the subject. He subscribed to the British Folk-Lore Journal, was a charter member of the American Folklore Society, and read available collections of tales as well as theoretical articles. While he had little use for the theoreticians, he occasionally took time for some raillery:
… if Brer Fox runs Brer Rabbit into a hollow tree, we have the going down and the rising of the sun typified. And, really, the sun-myth does nobody any harm; if it is quackery, it is quackery of a very mild kind. In the meantime, let us be thankful that a genuine interest has been developed in American folk-lore.20
While, to his many correspondents from the academic communities of Europe and the United States he disclaimed any knowledge of comparative folklore, he was busy acquiring it. He titled his first book "Uncle Remus's Folk-Lore"; the publisher changed the name to Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings to appeal more broadly to the Christmas book-buying public. Harris made it clear in the introduction that regardless of the publisher's intention, his purpose was serious—to preserve the legends and the dialect of the old plantation. He devoted the rest of the introduction to a discussion of the intriguing resemblance of specific tales to those of North and South American Indians and to his belief in the common African origin of the tales.
In addition to the Uncle Remus tales, the book contained maxims and proverbs, plantation songs, and Atlanta sketches, and the whole collection was hailed by Thomas F. Crane of Cornell University as "a valuable contribution to comparative folk-lore."21 Crane went on: "The true value of the book, however, is in the thirty-four inimitable ‘Legends of the Old Plantation’…." He praised Harris extravagantly for "representation of the dialect better than anything that has been given" and called him "a master in the difficult art of collecting popular tales." Crane selected a few of the tales for comment and tended toward a view that many of them originated in Europe although he believed that tales with parallels in Brazil were, "beyond a doubt," brought initially from Africa. In his discussion of South American parallels with the plantation tales, Crane did not clearly indicate that much of his information had already been covered by Harris in the Introduction to the volume. Harris had in fact stated:
… if ethnologists should discover that they [the tales] did not originate with the African, the proof to that effect should be accompanied with a good deal of persuasive eloquence.
This first volume was reviewed by one other folklorist, Robert L. J. Vance, in 1888 (Vance made no mention of Harris's Nights with Uncle Remus, a collection of seventy tales, published in 1883). But Vance's article focused more on Charles Colcock Jones's Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast, and he favored European märchen as the source of both Harris's and Jones's collections.22
In the meantime Harris had become a thorough-going comparativist. The Introduction to Nights with Uncle Remus is a thirty-two page footnoted treatise on the folkloristic value of the tales. In addition to the previously mentioned description of a tale-telling session at the railroad station and his criticism of "cooking," Harris emphasized the necessity—and the difficulty—of obtaining oral versions of tales. He included comparative notes on African collections, pointing out close parallels in Uncle Remus, and mentioned variants he had obtained from correspondents, but had not used. He argued with Bleek's opinion that "The White Man and the Snake" (Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 155) was of European origin, supporting his position with cognate tales from Brazilian Indians and southern American Negroes. He presented the naturalist Charles Hartt's conclusion that Brazilian animal stories were of African origin, and devoted four pages to the subject of North American Indian/southern Negro borrowings. On the basis of his own close examination of a collection of Creek Indian tales, Harris had the temerity to disagree with Major John Wesley Powell of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology about who borrowed from whom. Harris was convinced the Indians had adopted Negro tales, rather than vice-versa. In addition, repeating that "the dialect is a part of the legends themselves," he provided a brief glossary of Gullah terms to facilitate reading the Daddy Jack stories. In conclusion, he assured his readers that he was merely the "editor and compiler … responsible only for the setting" but that the setting was fictitious only in the sense that pre-war plantation life no longer existed. The assurance was almost identical to that in a letter he had written but not sent to Lawrence Gomme, Secretary of the British Folk-Lore Society.
Harris's introduction was the first truly comprehensive survey of the probable origins and dissemination of Afro-American folktales documented with comparative texts from African, South American, and North American Indian sources. Additionally, it contained criteria and a methodology for collecting and recording oral texts more rigid than any that had been previously formulated. Surely this was not written primarily for the benefit of the general public nor for children. The collection itself, furthermore, with its explanatory notes and inclusion of variants seems intended for serious consideration by the learned community of professional folklorists.
Yet within a decade Harris had repudiated "the folklore branch of the subject" and "the enterprising inconsequence of the Introduction … worth noting on account of its unconscious and harmless humor." Reference to the professional folklorists had now become quite sardonic:
Since that Introduction was written, I have gone far enough into the subject (by the aid of those who are Fellows of This and Professors of That, to say nothing of Doctors of the Other) to discover that at the end of investigation and discussion Speculation stands grinning.23
By 1892 he had dropped his memberships in both the British and American Folk-Lore Societies. It is tempting to speculate about what happened, but the most likely answer is that nothing had happened.24 In addition to Vance's 1888 article, Adolph Gerber's "Uncle Remus Traced to the Old World" appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1893 and Colonel Ellis's "Some West African Prototypes of the Uncle Remus Stories" in Popular Science Monthly, 1895. All drew upon the Uncle Remus stories for their own comparisons, and Gerber used the African sources Harris had cited; but none of them mentioned Harris's pioneering introduction. Except for a footnote in Mooney's Myths of the Cherokees (1900), no American folklorist or ethnologist acknowledged that the introduction had been written not to mention that it qualified Harris as one of their circle.25 Collector, yes; folklorist, no. Harris himself never again expressed anything but opposition to the scientific study of folktales. Near the end of his career he presented the folklorist as a storyteller in a machine, mechanically uttering his credo:
It was one of the principles taught in the university where I graduated that a story amounts to nothing and less than nothing, if it is not of scientific value. I would like to tell the story first, and then give you my idea of its relation to oral literature, and its special relation to the unity of the human race.26
To Harris, on the other hand, all that was important by this time was the story itself and how it was told.
For Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), Harris had modified his former rigid requirement that he must personally hear an oral version of a tale to verify it. Instead, his children acted as collectors, "discovering a new story … or verifying one already in hand."27 He would provide the child with a word or phrase—for instance, "a little boy and his dogs"—and have the child relay this cue to the storyteller. Two of the Negroes from whom stories were thus obtained, the fifteen-year-old John Holder and a thirteen-year-old girl, were skilled taletellers and said so. The Harris child carefully wrote out the particular tale with all remarks the teller had made incidental to it. This written version, with minor changes, became the story as told by Uncle Remus. The fact that Harris had first heard folk tales as a young boy may be what prompted him to use the children; but whatever the reason, he was anticipating a procedure not advocated until the twentieth century.28 In the matter of collecting, Harris was still a folklorist in spite of himself.
Before publication of Told by Uncle Remus (1905), Harris had become more and more of a recluse, subject to long bouts of ill-health. The oral tradition in Atlanta is that "Mistah Harris drank," but there are only slight hints of that in published biographies. In view of his physical problems, whatever they were, it is not surprising that he had little heart for "the new Remus stuff" which "isn't up to the old mark." This he confided in a letter to his friend, James Whitcomb Riley. He went on:
I had in my notebook a number of unverified outlines of stories, which I had thrown aside. But someone sent me a copy of Heli Chatelaine's [sic] book on Angola, and in that I have verified every outline that I had practically thrown away.29
The letter implies that there were a large number of tales involved when in fact only three of the stories told by Uncle Remus in Told by Uncle Remus have analogues in Folk-Tales of Angola: "How Wiley Wolf Rode in the Bag," "Brother Deer and King Sun's Daughter," and "Why Mr. Dog Is Tame." More significant, there was a time when "verify" to Harris meant to hear an oral version. Using a printed reference would have been as unthinkable as "cooking." However, reading Chatelain's collection must have reconfirmed Harris's once-held belief that the tales, at least some of them, originated in Africa. In the interim he apparently had lost confidence (thanks to the Fellows, Professors, and Doctors?) in his own ability to determine origin. Harris's early conviction that Africa was the chief source of the folktales he collected has been supported by my own research, which shows that more than two-thirds of the total canon of Uncle Remus tales have close analogues in African traditional oral literature.30
Although Harris died in 1908, the last of the tales were not published until 1948. Now, with 184 tales in his official canon, we can recognize Harris's contribution to the study of American folklore. His is the first serious attempt to record the folktales, songs, and sayings of southern American Negroes in the precise language and style in which they existed.
The most immediate result of Harris's collecting was the encouragement and direction he provided others. His wish that W. O. Tuggle publish the Creek Indian tales the latter had collected was finally realized by John Swanton, who included the Tuggle Collection in Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians.31 Charles Colcock Jones's Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast, so highly acclaimed by folklorists, were collected at Harris's instigation.32 His indirect influence can be only estimated, but collectors from Jamaica to Africa acknowledged, publicly and privately, the effect of Harris's work in arousing their own interest in folktales.33 This part of his contribution is justly acknowledged by Richard Dorson: "the Uncle Remus books did tap folklore and inspire methodical field collections."34
But more important for current folklore scholarship, Harris's insistence on exact literal reproduction enables us to compare not only plot episodes and character relationships, but also narrative devices with European and African tales and with more recent performances of African and Afro-American tale-telling. Such comparisons are no longer motivated by ethnocentric concerns with origin; instead, given knowledge of what came from where, what has been retained, what discarded, and what replaced, the folklorist can arrive at an understanding of both changing and unchanging values, hopes, and concerns of the people who tell and listen to the tales.
Among the most interesting African retentions in Uncle Remus that have not been previously commented on are a number of stylistic devices. For example, African and Afro-American taletellers include with a narrated action the distinctive sound of that action.35 Robert S. Rattray translated as literally as possible his collection of Akan-Ashanti Folktales.36 Such lines as "They cut the sticks, and threw them against the Silk-cotton tree, pim! pen! pim! pen! (was the sound they made)" occur constantly. In Uncle Remus, "Eve'y time he'd fetch a whoop, he'd rattle de cups and slap de platters tergedder—rickety, rackety, slambang!" and "eve'y motion he made, de leafs dey'd go swishy-swushy, splushy-splishy." Knocks on the door vary from "blip! blip!" to "blam! blam!" de- pending on how loud they are. "Blip!" is also the sound of Brer Fox's being hit whether by Brer Terrapin or by a walking cane. When the Akan describe a character's movement, "The Leopard ran, yiridi! yiridi! (was the sound of his feet), and the Duyker, too, began to run, prada! prada! prada! prada!" Brer Rabbit runs, "lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity."
Also notable is the use of repetition to express and intensify a continuous action. For instance, "He roll, he did en de leafs dey stick; Brer Rabbit roll, en de leafs dey stick, en he keep on rollin' en de leafs keep on stickin'." In an African tale, "The water stirred in that pool, the water rolled, it rolled, it rolled!" and "The nabulele came, it came….37 Other striking similarities include integration of songs and chants, elements of disguise among which is name-changing, and titles and salutations of respect among the animal characters. The dressing on the alligator pears is, to an important degree, not Joel Chandler Harris's but his informants—and they used an old traditional recipe. Harris's record will be increasingly appreciated as folktale studies continue to focus on performance style and on text in context.
1. "Joel Chandler Harris and Negro Folklore," Dial, 17 May 1919, p. 493.
2. American Negro Folktales (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1967), p. 14.
3. For other evaluations of the folkloristic value of Harris's collections, see: Arthur Huff Fauset, "American Negro Folk Literature," in The New Negro: An Interpretation, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1927), repr. in Black Expression, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969), pp. 14-19; Stella Brewer Brookes, Joel Chandler Harris—Folklorist (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950); David A. Walton, "Joel Chandler Harris as Folklorist: A Reassessment," Keystone Folklore Quarterly, 11 (Spring 1966), 21-26; Michael Flusche, "Joel Chandler Harris and the Folklore of Slavery," Journal of American Studies, 9 (December 1975), 347-63. For an overview of Harris and the folklorists, see R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris (Boston: Twayne, 1978), pp. 66-68; and for an extensive listing of references to Harris and folklore, see also Bickley's Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978).
4. Review in Atlanta Constitution, 21 November 1877, quoted in Robert L. Wiggins, The Life of Joel Chandler Harris: From Obscurity in Boyhood to Fame in Early Manhood (Nashville: Publishing House Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1918), p. 132.
5. "Introduction," Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (New York: D. Appleton, 1880), repr. in The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, ed. Richard Chase (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), p. xxi.
6. Darwin T. Turner, "Daddy Joel Harris and His Old-Time Darkies," Southern Literary Journal, 1 (Autumn 1968), p. 38. Ed. note: Darwin Turner's essay is reprinted in this collection, pp.
7. Paul Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), pp. 54, 131.
8. "An Accidental Author," Lippincott's Magazine NS 11 (April 1886), 417-20, rept. in The Negro and His Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, ed. Bruce Jackson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967), p. 245.
9. Julia Collier Harris, Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), pp. 159-60.
10. Cousins, p. 45.
11. Life and Letters, p. 146.
12. "Introduction," Uncle Remus and His Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), p. x.
13. Wiggins, p. 149.
14. Dr. Thomas H. English, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, personal interviews, 22-23 December 1976. I wish here to express my appreciation to Dr. English for making available the folklore materials in the Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Collection as well as providing a great deal of valuable information on Harris's interests and methods of working.
15. "Introduction," Nights with Uncle Remus (1883, repr. New York: Century, 1911), p. xvii.
16. Walton, p. 23.
17. Kenneth S. Goldstein, A Guide for Field Workers in Folklore (Hatboro: Folklore Associates, 1964), pp. 78, 87ff.
18. "Introduction," Nights with Uncle Remus, pp. xv-xvii.
19. Letter to R. W. Grubbs of Darien, Georgia, 3 February 1883, quoted in Life and Letters, p. 193.
20. "Indian and Negro Myths," [Letter to the Editor], The Critic, 9 September 1882, p. 239.
21. "Plantation Folk-Lore," Popular Science Monthly, 18, (1881), 824-33.
22. [Robert] L[ee]. J. Vance, "Plantation Folk-Lore," Open Court, 2 (1888), 1029-32, 1074-76, 1092-95.
23. "Introduction," Uncle Remus and His Friends, p. vii.
24. See Kathleen Light, "Uncle Remus and the Folklorists," Southern Literary Journal, 7 (Spring 1975), 88-104, for another possible explanation of Harris's change of attitude toward "the folk-lore branch of the subject." Some of our interpretations of the data and resulting conclusions are at variance, but the likelihood is that Harris's disenchantment with the science of folklore had a number of determinants. Ed. note: Light's essay is reprinted in this collection, pp.
25. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees, Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Part 1 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1900), p. 234, n. 1.
26. Wally Walderoon and His Story-Telling Machine (New York: McClure Phillips, 1903), p. 180.
27. "Introduction," pp. iv-v.
28. Goldstein, pp. 150-51.
29. Life and Letters, p. 488.
30. Florence E. Baer, Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales (Helsinki, Finland: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1980).
31. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 88 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1929).
32. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888).
33. (Miss) Florence M. Cronise, Letter to Joel Chandler Harris, 13 February 1901; Alice Carter Cook, Letter to Joel Chandler Harris, 15 March 1895; Charles C. Jones, Jr., Letter to Joel Chandler Harris Esq., 23 March 1882. All are letters in the Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Collection.
34. American Negro Folktales, p. 14.
35. For a discussion of this device, which he refers to as "ideophones," see Philip A. Noss, "Description in Gbaya Literary Art," African Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Garden City: Anchor, 1972), pp. 73-101.
36. (London: Oxford University Press, 1930).
37. African Folklore, pp. 541-42.
Opal Moore and Donnarae MacCann (essay date summer 1986)
SOURCE: Moore, Opal, and Donnarae MacCann. "The Uncle Remus Travesty." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 2 (summer 1986): 96-9.
[In the following essay, Moore and MacCann express disappointment at the continuing use of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories as the definitive examples of African-American folk literature.]
It is a perpetual tug-of-war to decide who will "own" and interpret the art and artifacts of the Black American—determine the use to which historical and cultural materials will be put. This subtle war of wills ensues as a natural result of scholarly Black resistance to further intellectual colonization. The resisters confront the reluctance of white America to relinquish its illegitimate and unnatural proprietorship of valuable and persuasive materials. The nature of this ongoing struggle is encapsulated in the steadily increasing efforts to restore Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus to the ‘canon’ of children's literature.
This misdirected energy in behalf of the Harris version of classic Black folktales has kept pace with the efforts of Black scholars and writers to offer more creditable versions and presentations of the same (as well as other) Black folk material. For instance, Uncle Remus reappears in Macmillan's textbook for children's literature courses, Classics of Children's Literature edited by John W. Griffith and Charles H. Frey (1981). In an article in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Nina Mikkelsen argues for Harris's version of the Black folktale because "it is invariably Harris's version that we remember" (5). And in a two-part article appearing in Signal, John Goldthwaite goes even further, crediting Harris with inspiring the major advances in imaginative children's literature over the seventy year period from 1880 to 1950.
It is not for absence of reputable alternative materials that Harris's Remus is being revived. There are texts that offer the Black folktale in a balanced presentation, emphasizing the weight and substance of the story (as contrasted with Harris's depiction of Remus as the prototype of the national ‘darky’ character). The reasons for the Remus revival probably have less to do with the merits of alternative materials than with Mikkelsen's observation: that Harris's Remus-creation is the image already seared in the mature American psyche. The larger-than-life, shuffling, sho-nuffing, grinning image is the sugartit appeasement from which America has refused to be weaned. The contradictions and interpretive difficulties presented by the Remus figure as mouthpiece for the Black folktale are anxiously overlooked, or dismissed with a sympathetic nod in the manner of Goldthwaite, who says: "Talking in dialect and the image of a slave as a man contented with his lot (more or less) did an injury, Blacks knew, to their children, and whites, with the rise of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, quickly abandoned the work as an embarrassment" (91). Goldthwaite then goes on to assert that "An Uncle Remus may have been the right, the necessary, choice of character for the telling of these tales, but he was, everyone agreed, the wrong one for the preserving of them." Finally, however, Goldthwaite devalues these (and presumably all other) objections to the work as "extraliterary."
But the variety of objections leveled against Harris's vision of the folktales turns on the conviction that Remus is not, and never was, the right presenter of the tales (that is, if importance is to be given to preserving their context, complexity, and texture). Such objections are decidedly textual—raising substantive questions of authenticity and intent—and cannot be brushed aside as nervous-Nelly liberalism, or the over-sensitive nail-biting of a finicky modern Black aesthetic.
Challenges to the authenticity of Harris's work take issue with the "packaging" of the tales more often than with the tales themselves, allowing for the numerous variations and omissions that are possible in an orally preserved story. The charges leveled against Harris are that he, rather than the tales, is "inauthentic"; that Remus is a mouthpiece crafted out of stereotype to camouflage, efface, misdirect, or mute the pungency and irreverence of the tales; and that the appropriation of the tales is a bald misuse of the material. Attempts to determine whether it is use or misuse must begin with Harris himself—a man seemingly as contradictory and problematic as his stumbling creation.
In explaining their use of the Harris texts, Griffith and Frey maintain that Harris "grew up on intimate terms with black storytellers" (487). It is an assertion that suggests something more than the four years, from age thirteen, that Harris worked as printer's assistant for The Countryman, a newspaper owned by a Georgia planter. R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., a biographer of Harris, says that Harris gained access to the tales during hundreds of hours spent in the "quarters" when he had time on his hands between printings (23). No doubt Harris did have some contact with Black workers and overheard some number of exchanges, but the texture of Harris's adolescent (and later) encounters with Black storytellers is mostly speculation. It cannot be assumed, for example, that four years of employment with a southern planter afforded him an "intimate" relationship with the plantation's slaves. Nor can it be assumed that his collecting of Black folktales reflects on his politics or indicates some unusual affinity for, or understanding of, the Blacks themselves.
In his Signal article John Goldthwaite repeats the assumption of Griffith and Frey—that Harris' interest in the tales stemmed from an early contact with the stories. He writes: "Harris retold [the tales] according to the best tellings he had heard, from men he had troubled himself to know since boyhood" (91). These kinds of statements, which claim an unusual intimacy and camaraderie between Harris and his Black sources, are perhaps designed to establish Harris's authority over the material (by suggesting his love of it) as much as to assert the authenticity of his material. However, any clear evidence of his interest in Black folklore stems from the period when a number of columnists were inventing fictional Black informants.
Emphasis on Harris's "intimacy" and "long time familiarity since boyhood" seem designed to soften the obvious fact that the social commentary and worldview of the Black folktale is in direct opposition to that of a press corpsman of the post-Reconstruction "New South." Harris would rapidly achieve notoriety writing for the reactionary Atlanta Constitution—the newspaper that spearheaded the ‘New South's program to nullify the brief promise of Reconstruction and reconstitute the Black population as a cheap, exploitable labor force.
Prior to Harris's use of a Black stand-in, the Constitution had employed another columnist, Sam W. Small, who also created a fictional Black narrator. His "Old Si" mouthed the views of the ‘New South’ in the exaggerated "Negro dialect" made popular through minstrelsy. Southern writers used this as a method of condemning the reforms that would have fully enfranchised the Black population; thus, "Old Si" is supposedly speaking for the Black community when he makes statements like: "Dey [the Northern radicals] gibs de nigger nuffin but de pick'd bone, an' don't gib him dat ef dere's a bonedus fackry any whars handy!" (Hall 89). When Small quit, Harris was offered the opportunity to try his hand at a similar type of column. Harris adopted the familiar format and device—white political commentary delivered through a ‘new’ Negro mouthpiece:
Hit's agin de mor'l law for niggers fer ter eat w'en dey don't wuk, an w'en you see um 'pariently fattenin' on a'r, you k'n des bet dat ruinashuns gwine on some'rs.
(Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings 224)
You slap de law onter a nigger a time or two, an' larn 'im dat he's got fer to look atter his own rashuns an' keep out'n udder foke's chick'n coops, an' sorter coax 'im ter feed is own chilluns, an' I be blessed ef you ain't got 'm on risin' ground!
(Uncle Remus 232)
It would appear that "Old Si" and propagandist convention were the more immediate inspiration for Harris' later works, rather than the trailing idyllic reminiscences of a youth spent in intimate exchanges with a multitude of Black Remus prototypes.
R. Bruce Bickley's claim that "Harris became one of the most sensitive interpreters of the Southern Negro" is too generous (36). Such an assertion would not seem possible given the vigor with which Harris applied his trade, ridiculing the strivings of Blacks for a symbol of freedom: "The colored people of Macon celebrated the birthday of Lincoln again on Wednesday. This is the third time since last October" (Hall 94). Or, as Wolfe has pointed out, making light of the harsh reality of lynch "law" that necessitated specific civil rights legislation:
There will have to be another amendment to the civil rights bill. A Negro boy in Covington was attacked by a sow lately and narrowly escaped with his life. We will hear next that the sheep have banded together to mangle the downtrodden race.
Undoubtedly Bickley is attempting to draw a distinction between one Joel Chandler Harris and another. It is doubtful, however, that any such clear distinction can be made. "Harris' manipulative political mouthpiece and its direct evolution into the story-telling Remus is too proximitous. It would be naive to expect that the latter could depart radically from his politically inspired progenitor.
At best, Uncle Remus is an ambivalent creation—suggesting a corresponding ambivalence in Harris. At times he is drawn sympathetically, as when he "dis'member'd" his own name or got "some er de facks mix up 'mong deyse'f," reminding the reader of his advanced age, his vulnerability, and possibly, an encroaching senility. At other times, he is the head-scratching "stage darky" as when he remarks to the child, in Told by Uncle Remus, "De fus' thing when I get ter de house I'm gwinter be weighed fer ter see how ol' I is. Now, whar wuz I at?" (50-51) And, as Louis J. Budd asks in his essay on Harris, "Did any black actually say ‘surgeon er de armies’ for ‘sergeant at arms?" (203)
It is a difficult task to find the fine line between the exaggerated clowning of the minstrel entertainer and the exaggerated dialect usage employed by Harris. Griffith and Frey state that "Harris took great pains to represent phonetically the dialect of the Southern blacks …" (487). But is it a representation or a misrepresentation of Black speech when Uncle Remus calls Atlanta "'Lantmatantarum?" And what is the real purpose of the extensive "eye" dialect—misspellings that nevertheless represent correct pronunciation such as prommus, minnit, frum, wimmen, rashuns, masheen, cubberd? What does it do but crete as wide a gulf as possible between the speech (which represents the intelligence) of the Black character and that of the white. The speech of the little boy and the anonymous narrator in the Remus stories is the flattest standard English. Not even a trace of the quite distinctive Southern "tongue" betrays itself in the speech of either.
Goldthwaite claims that "the real satire in these tales lies in the language itself. It is the master's English, but inflected in such a way as to make it, like Brer Rabbit, as big as life and twice as natural" (90). Is "familious wild wunner nudder" an inflection?
Harris himself disavowed any link between his use of dialect and "stage Negro" dialect, stating that the latter was an "intolerable misrepresentation." But while he rejects some features of minstrelsy, he embraces others. For example, the unabashed vulgarity that characterized minstrel shows by the second half of the nineteenth century is not to be found in these works. However, his aim in emphasizing and enlarging the language was, he says, "to wed the (legends) permanently to the quaint dialect … and to give the whole a genuine flavor of the old plantation" (Brookes 28-29). This "quaint dialect" was the style employed by Irwin Russell, a Mississippian whose poems were published in the 1870s. Harris wrote an introduction to the collected verses, Christmas Night in the Quarters and Other Poems (1888), praising the poems and Russell for capturing in his dialect "the old-fashioned unadulterated negro, who is still dear to the Southern heart" (xi). This "unadulterated negro" resembles the ‘newly industrious’ Black character that Harris and the Constitution praised in propagandistic sketches. Russell simply put the theme into unintentionally hilarious doggerel:
Dis worl' dat we's a-libbin in is like a cotton-row, Whar ebery cullud gentleman has got his line to hoe;
And ebery time a lazy nigger stops to take a nap, De grass keeps on a-growin' fur to smudder up his crap.
While Harris was, as he said, inspired by this dialect, he in turn inspired others. Finally, in 1898, the editor of the Journal of American Folklore, called for a halt of so-called Negro dialects. He wrote:
It is obviously impossible by means of the regular alphabet to reproduce negro dialect with any accuracy. A phonetic alphabet is essential for such purpose…. The attempt to indicate the manner of enunciation by the usual English signs results in confusions and contradictions innumerable…. An equally serious fault is that the meaning and real interest of the tale is disguised; a dialectic story is apt to be a mere piece of jargon, in which the lack of deep human interest is atoned for by a spelling which is usually mere affection.
There is some indication that such dialect "affectations" thwarted the preservation of Afro-American folktales. Alice Bacon, the leader of the folklore society at Hampton Institute, described in 1898 how difficult it was to procure new examples of folk traditions in the schools. It was "almost impossible for (teachers) to gather from their pupils any folk-lore at all, so certain are they, if they have any, that it is something only to be laughed at …" (17). Contrary to the claim that without Harris the tales would have been lost, it can be argued that his minstrel-evoking dialect made them objects of mockery and hence more difficult to collect after 1880.
But, even though dialect versions were embarrassing to Black children, the tales themselves had durability. Goldthwaite asserts that, had Harris not intervened, "all but a few like ‘The Tar Baby’ would surely have been lost as the Civil War disrupted the flow of story from one generation to the next …" (91). This is an extremely dubious speculation. For more than a century the "flow of story" had not been interrupted; the original conditions that generated and fostered storytelling were still in evidence in post-Civil War America: isolating racial oppression, multigenerational family structures, the historical verbal emphasis. These conditions did not alter significantly even with the mass migration to the North. The stories were the tools that ‘travelled light,’ entertaining, socializing, teaching, protecting, comforting. In 1880, violence against Blacks was on the increase. The cunning schemes and victories of Brer Rabbit were as pertinent as ever. In fact, storytelling did not seriously falter until modern gadgetry—radio, movies, T.V.—began to usurp the functions of the story ritual.
If the tales are viewed as a kind of psychological weapon against tyranny, there is an ultimate irony in Harris's propagandistic editorials (through Remus) about the work ethic, and, on the other hand, Remus's narration of stories celebrating Brer Rabbit, a work-saboteur par excellence. Yet there seems to be little doubt that Harris perceived the tales as allegories when he writes: "The parallel between the case of the ‘weakest’ of all animals, who must perforce, triumph through his shrewdness, and the humble condition of the slave raconteur, is not without its pathos" (Wolfe 77). However, Harris deleted this sentence from his introduction to later editions of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, again suggesting his ambivalence, or discomfort with certain aspects of the tales. Or perhaps it was the active conflict of warring selves: the professional journalist and aspiring novelist wishing to preserve the tales intact vs. the Old/New South journalist needing to subvert their message with the myth of the contented slave. The critic, Bernard Wolfe, has suggested just such an inner conflict as an explanation for the wide disparities and contradictions in Harris's work. Whatever the answer, Wolfe sums it up in a few words: "Harris's inner split—and the South's, and white America's—is mirrored in the fantastic disparity between Remus's beaming face and Brer Rabbit's acts" (84).
Those who are now arguing to re-establish Harris within the children's literature canon are amazingly uncommitted to the stories themselves. Clearly, it was content as well as lively presentation styles that enabled the tales to endure, unwritten, until the last century. But, with Remus, comes a return to obsolete attitudes and historical perspectives as offered in Mark Twain's assessment of the Harris works:
Uncle Remus is most deftly drawn, & is a lovable and delightful creation; he, & the little boy, & their relations with each other, are bright, fine literature, & worthy to live, for their own sakes." [The stories themselves] are only alligator pears [avocados]—one merely eats them for the sake of the salad-dressing.
Writing in 1974, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., University Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, expressed his agreement with Twain:
Clearly it is not the folktale subject matter as such that provides the chief appeal of the Uncle Remus stories…. The appeal lies in the way that they are told and in the dynamics of the relationship between Uncle Remus, the successive little white boys who listen, and the animal protagonists of the tales themselves, notably Brer Rabbit…. Mark Twain was quite right when he told Harris that "in reality the stories are only alligator pears—one merely eats them for the sake of the salad dressing."
In his Signal articles, Goldthwaite seems to be thinking along similar lines when he writes that "never before had the image of the storyteller or the occasion of the telling been made so real to life or so appealing as with this old Negro and this compliant white child" (90).
How can this distortion be perceived as "real to life?" And what of Black children? What is their importance in this wave of white nostalgia? If the tales are perceived as "alligator pears," bland except for the "dressing" and presented in this manner, then there is nothing positive or useful for Black children to receive.
Harris may be perceived by his proponents as "the most sensitive interpreter" of the Southern Negro" in his time. Fortunately, the tales no longer require the interpretation of the "outsider" narrator. Black Folktales, retold by Julius Lester, presents fifteen stories in a lively, assertive voice. A more recent publication is Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly, which presents the stories clearly enough for children to read on their own, and includes brief explanatory materials which discuss the dialect and the origins of the works.
Unlike Harris's retellings, these are not likely to make Black children believe that their culture is "something only to be laughed at" as the children of Harris's era feared.
Our next column will look at twentieth-century retellings of Black folktales as candidates for the canon of children's literature.
Beacon, A. M. "Work and Methods of the Hampton Folk-Lore Society." Journal of American Folk-Lore 11 (1898): 17-21.
Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
Brookes, Stella Brewer. Joel Chandler Harris—Folklorist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950.
Budd, Louis J. "Joel Chandler Harris and the Genteeling of Native American Humor." Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Ed. R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Goldthwaite, John. "The Black Rabbit: Part One." Signal 47 (May 1985): 86-111.
Griffith, John W., and Charles H. Frey, eds. Classics of Children's Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1981.
Hall, Wade. The Smiling Phoenix: Southern Humor from 1865 to 1914. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1905.
———. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1895.
Mikkelsen, Nina. "When the Animals Talked—A Hundred Years of Uncle Remus." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Spring 1983): 3-5; 31.
Newell, William Wells. "Editor's Note." Journal of American Folk-Lore 11 (1898): 291-292.
Rubin, Louis D., Jr. "Uncle Remus and the Ubiquitous Rabbit." Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Ed. R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Russell, Irwin. Christmas Night in the Quarters and Other Poems. New York: The Century Co., 1888.
Wolfe, Bernard. "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit: ‘Takes a Limber-Toe Gemmun fer ter Jump Jim Crow." Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Ed. R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Opal Moore and Donnarae MacCann (essay date winter 1986-1987)
SOURCE: Moore, Opal, and Donnarae MacCann. "The Uncle Remus Travesty, Part II: Julius Lester and Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 4 (winter 1986-1987): 205-09.
[In the following essay, Moore and MacCann continue to refute the legacy of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories as canonical works of African-American folk literature and offer examples of, what they regard as, more significant and culturally appropriate works of African-American folklore.]
Part I of this article provided a study of Joel Chandler Harris and the development of his fictional character, Uncle Remus. Our intention was to establish a basis for understanding the original impetus for the creation of Remus, and the ways in which his origins and uses continue to corrupt the tradition of black storytelling. As Zora Neale Hurston's biographer, Robert Hemenway, states: "Joel Chandler Harris had fictionalized animal tales in his Uncle Remus stories … but the plantation context for the tale-telling made the folklore seem a childish pastime" (91). Harris' reductionism fettered the tales, disallowing them their complexity, historical weight, and the cultural interaction that promotes a meaningful, rather than a token, survival.
Negroness is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture.
—Zora Neale Hurston (Hemenway, 87)
In his admiration of the work of Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain elevated the figures of Remus and the little boy, referring to them as "bright, fine literature worthy to live for their own sakes." He dismissed the black folk material as "only alligator pears … one merely eats them for the sake of the salad dressing" (Bickley, 41). Twain's assessment epitomizes the persisting controversy over the Remus tales. That Remus is a false arbiter for the stories and damaging to their cultural importance is a fact acknowledged even by some Harris advocates, but often shrugged off as a minor loss compared to what is considered the "charm" in the figure of Remus and in the precocity of the little boy.
The question then remains as to the relative importance of Uncle Remus, a literary artifact, and the folktale as a legitimate cultural expression.
The answer is suggested in the observations of Roger D. Abrahams in his extensive introductory material in African Folktales, a collection of the folklore of modern Africa. He states that
The very act of collecting and codifying … invariably distorts the ‘meaning’ of a story…. Too often we forget that as Westerners, we learn these stories through books that underscore their imaginative and imaginary qualities. Equal emphasis should be placed on their effect on and importance to human interaction.
Abrahams' emphasis upon preserving within the folktales the "wisdom of the [African] ancestors", while difficult to accomplish for the African tale, is more difficult still for the African-American stories which have fallen out of active use in the community. Also, the context of the African tales, ancient or modern, is not likely to impinge upon or threaten the self-concept of an American reader. Although Abrahams expresses a degree of concern for "accuracy" in the tales of black America, the stress on authenticity is qualified because of a persistent reticence towards that subject of American slavery. For example, in his introduction to Afro-American Folktales, Abrahams bemoans the loss to black American lore of "grand recitations of genealogies … the chants accompanying the casting of cowry shells … the epic accounts of great heroes and leaders of the people …," vaguely concluding that "most of the political and philosophical dimensions of African story were lost to us in the Middle Passage" (18). Despite his concern for "equal emphasis" of the folktale to the black American—slave or free—Abrahams suffers from editorial blind spots. Such blind spots are shared by many other editors; one of them is the determination to present Joel Chandler Harris, the man, "more sympathetically."
Sympathy aside, if the Harris tellings are restored as the superlative mode for the black folktale, there are consequences: the tales themselves become subordinate to the entertainment quotient of Remus, "the quaint darky of the South's affections" (to use Twain's phrase). The "political and philosophical" possibilities are supplanted by the fiction of Remus; the stories become static antiques relevant only to the plantation setting; the value-teaching aspect of the tales is negated, both by the setting and by the passive voice of Remus as narrator; and the little white boy becomes, not in fiction, but in fact, the ideal or target audience in place of the black American for whom the tales were created. The Remus factor, so precious to a white audience, has been the alienation factor for blacks. The popularization of the folktale rendered it inaccessible to the "folks".
These effects have been the spur for the re-creation of the black folktale by black writers since Zora Neale Hurston collected material for Mules & Men and set out to reclaim a co-opted culture. In the spirit of Hurston, two contemporary writers, Julius Lester and Virginia Hamilton, have contributed to a body of literature aimed at reviving and preserving the integrity of traditional black tales for the benefit of the modern black child and, ultimately, all who care to hear. In 1969, Virginia Hamilton published the first of her Jahdu tales, folk-like stories for young readers, while Julius Lester stirred controversy with his collection, Black Folktales.
Lester defines folktales as "stories that give people a way of communicating with each other about each other … it is in stories like these that a child learns who his parents are and who he will become" (viii). Dedicating his volume to the memory of Zora Neale Hurston, "who made me glad I am me" and H. Rap Brown, '60's militant activist, Lester makes it clear that he regards the tales, not as quaint relics, but as an opportunity for a powerful dialogue binding the past to the present and future.
Black Folktales does not accommodate a white audience. Through strategies of voice and context, Lester ‘performs’ these tales for a private audience of black children. It is this pointed exclusivity of purpose that, according to Lester, earned the volume an overall lukewarm reception, despite occasional enthusiasm for the spiritual verity of the revisions from comrades. John A. Williams was among those who defended the effort:
Since the essence of the folktale is to relate the life and times of a people, Lester has quite properly updated what was in the tales originally, and made them stories for today.
However, Black Folktales generated strong rebuke. According to Evelyn Geller in "Aesthetics, Morality and The Two Cultures," Black Folktales, though well received, has been criticized for ‘reverse racism’ by some black librarians among others and excluded from several children's collections" (36). Most held a middle ground. The Kirkus Review critic suggested that the revisions might be "right and wrongheaded? but to thrash out the problems posed by the book would take many pages …" (1118). Undoubtedly so, since "the problems posed by the book" were no less than the problem of the 1960s, the contradictions of the black American presence.
It is the narrative voice of Black Folktales, with its bravado, braggadocio, "signifying and lying," innuendo, and at times unyielding bitterness, that is responsible for both the book's liveliness and its censure. It is a shifting narration that is sometimes gentle, as in the "love stories; but most often, it draws from the stringent tones of the 1960s and the strutting verbal play familiar to gatherings of black people. It is a voice selected and crafted for its capacity to deliver a revolutionary entertainment to feed the momentum of black selfhood and community. The stories, as told by Lester, insist upon their privacy and the legitimacy of black linguistic expression and attitudes.
In his zeal to recapture the original African and African-American use of oral art as social bonding agent and catalyst, Lester sacrifices subtlety for broad humor, as in this characterization of the white planters in "High John the Conqueror":
John lived on one of them bad plantations … the white folks was so mean, that the rattlesnakes wouldn't even bite 'em. Fraid they'd poison themselves … White folks was so mean up there, they'd shoot a nigger just to bet on whether the body would fall frontwards or backwards. And they'd go whup the dead nigger's moma if the body fell the wrong way.
Or he sacrifices nuance for instructional clarity as in his lesson on non-revolutionary black folks:
Them was the kind of niggers that would sell their grandmama if it meant they'd get a word of praise from the white folks…. Them kind of niggers loved ol' massa so much that if massa's house caught on fire, the house nigger would say, "Massa, our house is on fire." … If massa was sick, house nigger would come round and say, "Massa, we sick, ain't we?
Lester goes on to define house niggers as not simply foolish, but dangerous saboteurs of black liberation, observing that "we got some house niggers with us today …," and "living with a house nigger is worse than picking up a hungry rattlesnake and putting it inside your shirt" (a subtle reference to another well-known tale of instruction, "The Nature of the Beast," not included in this collection). The point is that "High John" neutralizes his enemies by recognizing them (not being fooled by "protective coloring"), knowing their nature, taking outrageous but calculated risks, and surviving.
The texture and concerns of Black Folktales are so radically different from those of Harris' Remus tales that one might falsely suspect they had evolved from different folk traditions. However, the subversive and political aspects of the black folktale have been extensively explored. Nina Mikkelsen, an advocate of Joel Chandler Harris' work, refers to the obscuring of social and political references in "Brer Rabbit's Laughing Place." According to Mikkelsen, "It is unclear whether Harris understood, as did the black man, that ‘laughin place’ meant a particular place, The Underground Railroad. In the framework of the tale, he seems to be interpreting the term in a very different way …" (4). Later, Mikkelsen admits that "If the story makes sense only within the context of racial implications, it is difficult to imagine that by 1905 Harris did not notice these subtleties, and perhaps he did. But that did not mean … the boy should be burdened [with this information]" (5). She seems to suggest that given Harris' audience, the misdirection is acceptable. Using Remus to guide the reader away from the intended message of black liberation, Harris does not delete the reference, but instead, reduces the story's symbol to a literal interpretation that serves his own philosophical purposes. The distortion, which had natural appeal for those readers who liked to think of blacks as humorous, childlike figures or quaint curiosities, is also very persuasive to youngsters—a group that tends to view the world with simple matter-of-factness.
Some of Mikkelsen's observations are consistent with the comments of Robert Hemenway, in his introduction to Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, on the unsettling political potential of the tales:
The Uncle Remus tales showcase a revolutionary black figure, Brer Rabbit, who must be sanitized for acceptance by the predominantly white American reading public of the nineteenth century. For slaves listening to the Brer Rabbit tales, the rabbit provided an acceptable outlet for an overwhelming hostility, which could lead to self-destruction if openly expressed. Black Brer Rabbit could only be assimilated into the culture of a postslavery America through the mouth of a quasi-Negro whom white readers desperately needed to defuse the stories' revolutionary hostility.
As long as blacks were securely restrained within a legal form of bondage, the tales were primarily cathartic. But for the disgruntled not-quite-free ex-slave, or a 1960s radical teacher, the exploits of the rabbit might suggest a new range of possibilities. Remus, therefore, is a fictional shackle.
The prickling narrative voice of Black Folktales is Remus' deliberate antithesis, as well as a rejection of the slave's self-protective devices. Lester does not deflect or mask his meaning, but cuts to the bitterness at the core of stories like "Keep on Steppin." He avoids the Brer Rabbit tales, preferring in "High John the Conqueror," the rabbit's less abstract human counterpart. And rather than narrate two separate "trickster John" tales, he joins them, allowing the character's actions to gather momentum, a momentum which climaxes with Massa volunteering for his own death.
In 1970, in an exchange with George Woods, children's book editor for The New York Times, Lester commented that "too much of black writing has been blacks writing to whites …" (67). Mr. Woods responded to this with a plea for color blindness in society stating, "I try not to look at kids as white or black … I want kids in general to have good books" (68). But as the political and social scientist Manning Marable has recently observed, "the phrase ‘color blind’ has two distinctly different meanings. For [Martin Luther] King, ‘color blind’ meant transcending the barriers of legal and de facto segregation … [today it] means a public policy invisibility for Afro-Americans" (5).
A congenial invisibility in literature is not the answer. But the pressure for an ahistorical distillation of this material is great. In 1972, with the publication of The Knee-High Man, Lester bows to the pressure for non-contextual presentation of the literature. In his "Note about the Stories" he claims that the origins of the tales "are now of importance only to scholars" (31). The Knee-High Man is narrated routinely. The illustrations are uninteresting—the rabbit is a bunnyrabbit, the bear is a playfully rotund bear, and the farmer (in "The Rabbit and Mr. Bear") is no longer a symbol of oppression in contest with the subversive rabbit; he is a mild-looking black man, an inaccuracy of visual interpretation that confounds the second level meaning of the tale and destroys the significance of its preservation.
Only three years earlier, in his interview with George Woods, Julius Lester insisted that white Americans "make an effort … to meet me on my ground (68). The aggressive voice of Black Folktales directly refuted the modulation and flat portrayal of Uncle Remus and attempted to suggest some of the range and complexity both in the tale and the teller. Some of the stories have not since enjoyed as entertaining and un-selfconscious a presentation.
In "Jack and The Devil's Daughter," Lester gives us Jack, who, upon accepting his $1000 inheritance "put the $1000 in one pocket, a deck of cards in the other and took off down the road…. It was a very good thing Jack was talented at gambling, because … Jack treated work like he treated his mama, and he wouldn't hit his mama a lick …" (76). Lester is capable of creating sympathy for Death, overworked, harassed, and hampered by an antiquated system, as he tries to collect on the anti-hero in "Stagolee."
Stagolee was sitting on the porch, picking the blues on the guitar and drinking. All of a sudden, he looked up and saw this pale-looking white cat in this white sheet come riding up to his house on a white horse…. Death got off his horse, pulled out his address book, and said, "I'm looking for Stagolee Booker T. Washington Nicodemus Shadrack Nat Turner Jones…. I'm Death. Come with me…. Stagolee started laughing. "You who? … Be serious."
The most broodingly memorable tale is "People Who Could Fly," delivering in a straightforward, unembellished language the memory of a deep wish.
Some of those who tried to go back to Africa would walk until they came to the ocean, and then they would walk into the water, and no one knows if they did walk to Africa through the water or if they drowned. It didn't matter.
One day, one hot day when the sun singed the hair on the head … [a young witch doctor whispered a secret word, and the people] dropped their hoes, stretched out their arms and flew away, back to their home, back to Africa.
It is a tale whose theme of lost origins and lost magic has profoundly influenced the imaginations of contemporary black writers. Not by coincidence, it has reappeared as the title story in a collection by Virginia Hamilton. Hamilton's work is by no means an outgrowth of Julius Lester; instead, their work has some parallels. But where Lester left off, perhaps in frustration, Hamilton's efforts to re-establish a folk consciousness and the tradition of storytelling have continued, beginning in 1969 with the publication of The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu, the first in a series of Jahdu stories designed for a young audience.
These stories center around Mama Luka and her after-school charge, Lee Edward. Like Lester's narrative voice in Black Folktales, Mama Luka is a direct challenge to the image of Remus as storyteller. As important as the stories Mama Luka tells, is Hamilton's treatment of the relationship between the old woman and a little boy. Lee Edward is bright and respectful and thrives on the magic and presence of Mama Luka. Her stories fill the air in this "tight little room" in Harlem. Lee Edward need only "point" to the story he desires to hear, "an empty space just above Mama Luka's head," and Mama Luka "reached above her head. She cupped her hands around the place…. It has a strong taste to it [she said] for it tells how Jahdu found out he had magic power."
The stories tell of the supernatural power of Jahdu—how he acquires it, how he uses it for creative purposes, and how he misuses it for mischief. The Jahdu tales are not folk stories, but borrow from the conventions of traditional folk tales. Jahdu is a modern trickster; he is full of mischief and learns to shape-shift from the chameleon. He is not nearly as cunning, destructive, or deadly as the African trickster, Anansi, or his American counterpart, Brer Rabbit. Perhaps it is because Jahdu is not as ancient as they; he is "two feet tall…. And he had been in the world one year" (11). He is an offspring of the "grandfather" tales and must acquaint himself with the world and its entanglements.
Like the traditional trickster tales, the point of the Jahdu stories is not obvious. Their resemblance to traditional modes might not be apparent or meaningful to a child reader, but offer the opportunity for interpretation by adults reading the tales to children. The symbolism is also very gingerly handled. For example, in the "heavy" story that Mama Luka tells to Lee Edward, Jahdu encounters a family of tumbleweeds hurrying northward. They advise him to follow their example, "for southward lies trouble" (25). Reminiscent of the traditional tale of the trickster meeting Trouble, Jahdu is curious "who Trouble is" and continues southward. In this case, Trouble is a giant who has a number of captives. Jahdu uses his magic to free them but, as the giant explains to Jahdu, "I don't need to go looking for them [the escapees] for it is the truth that everybody comes looking for Trouble and they always will." The possibilities for symbolic interpretation of the North and South and the Giant are kept open. The only hard fact is that Jahdu, with all of his magic, cannot overcome the Giant. He can only set him back a pace or two.
The direction of Jahdu's travels, in the first volume, is not clear until the final story. Jahdu, using the lesson of the chameleon, changes himself into a variety of things and is not satisfied until he changes into a little Black boy, a boy very much like Lee Edward. Lee Edward is bewildered why Jahdu would want to become a Black boy who has no power. He finally concludes that, "Once he's grown up he'll be a black Jahdu with all his power" (62).
In 1973, Hamilton published the second volume of Jahdu, Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu. Like Julius Lester's Knee-High Man published the year before, Time-Ago Lost seems to suffer from over-generalization. Although the writing is still strong and lively, the stories themselves seem to have very little connection to Mama Luka and Lee Edward. Jahdu travels east to replenish his supply of magic Jahdu dust, to be reborn. He emerges from the "oven" full of dust and "glad to be a boy of yellow skin and black; black hair" (46). Clearly, the emphasis is on broadening the audience association of Jahdu. He is a more emphatically "universal" boy, a boy from everywhere and no particular place. While the idea of a universal spirit should not be considered a negative achievement, in Time-Ago Lost it seems to be achieved through an agonizing journey, through uncertain symbols and separate cultural references—a journey toward a non-controversial, apolitical stance.
Still, Time-Ago Lost concludes with a powerful dream encounter between Lee Edward and Jahdu. Though Lee Edward cannot see Jahdu's face (no one ever has), he carries a "black lunchbox tucked under his arm" just like Lee Edward's father. And, although the final tale does not seem to evolve from the preceding three, the relationship between Mama Luka and Lee Edward provides a separate storyline, apart from the tales, that is touching and satisfying.
The third volume, Jahdu (published in 1980 in Greenwillow's "Read-Alone" series) is a single tale of how Jahdu loses and regains his power. The warmth of the previous books, and Mama Luka, are gone. The reference to Lee Edward is just in passing. But, the treatment of the power theme is strong. Jahdu does not really lose his power, he simply does not recognize it when he sees it. The altered appearances of familiar things, and the difficulty of keeping our personal "magic" in control reveals Hamilton's continued attention to the subtle changes in questions of power since the 1960s. As an allegory of the 1980s, it is quite apt.
Criticism of the Jahdu tales, especially the second volume, has pointed to the fact that the books seem aimed not so much at children as adults. The Horn Book critic complains of Time-Ago Lost that the "existential weariness pervading the book makes the reader feel that perhaps these stories were not really meant for children" (278). Perhaps they were not, but neither were the traditional folktales. Hamilton is attempting a very delicate balancing act—creating fiction that can be read to children, that will not offend white readers, but that continues to entertain the more serious concerns of a very precarious adult world. Hamilton, unlike Lester, does not choose to announce her troubling themes. She buries them in the light slender dialogue of an impish character, Jahdu, to be rediscovered in time and examined with closer scrutiny. This balancing act continues in the collection, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. With a simple graceful inversion, the emphasis is placed on "American" rather than "black."
The People Could Fly is a cross-section of folkstories. Some are familiar—Jack and John tales, and tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear—but there are some pleasant surprises. The first is the treatment of the dialect. Rather than completely abandon the difficulties of the verbal patterns, Hamilton offers the tales in modified dialects of various groups of people. This offers the reader in a single volume an idea of the variety (based on geographic location) in spoken English. It ceases to be a common non-language shared by the ignorant.
A second feature of interest is the brief notation provided at the end of every story. Since the tales are phrased in a simplified manner for children, much of the pungency of the familiar tellings is missing. The ‘endnotes’ offer brief historical information on the origins of tales, specific pertinent facts, and keys to the particular dialect in use. For example, the Tar Baby tale is broadened with information about the widespread presence of similar stories in other cultures, and its use as myth, (e.g., "in certain localities of Georgia, the tar baby was considered an actual, living, monstrous creature" (19). One reference is to the social significance of tales like "The Lion, Bruh Bear, and Bruh Rabbit"—a tale that describes the animals' first encounter with the destructive power of men. Hamilton states simply that "… the tales satisfied the slaves' need to explain symbolically and secretly the ruling behavior of slaveowners in relation to themselves" (12). Certainly much more could be said in behalf of the social and political implications of the stories, but Hamilton clearly does not care to allow such an emphasis. Her interest here is in the cultural and, to a degree, historical aspects of the folktales.
A third feature of this collection is the inclusion of a section devoted to tales that refer to the ongoing movement towards freedom. The story, "Carrying the Running-Aways," is an actual slave narrative of a Kentucky slave named Arnold Gragston. The story, given in first person narration, describes how one man became a channel to freedom for others until, one day, he makes his own escape. The story is convincing in its description of a slave's apprehension, his fear based on a total ignorance of what lay on the "other side of the river":
Now, I had heard about the other side of the river from the other slaves. But I thought it was just like the side where we lived on the plantation. I thought there were slaves and masters over there, too, and overseers and rawhide whips they used on us.
Hamilton lends even more weight to the tale with her personal testimony about the fugitive slave, Levi Perry: "This tale was told to me recently by my mother, Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, who is 92 years old and Levi Perry's oldest daughter" (146).
"Carrying the Running-Aways," and the title story, "The People Could Fly," are the most masterful tales in this collection. In both, the language is sure and powerful poetry:
They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black, shiny wings flappin against the blue up there.
The narrative voice has obtained the certainty that comes with a tale told many times over. The language is mellow, with sing-song repetition, almost a trance:
The slaves labored in the fields from sunup to sundown. The owner of the slaves callin himself their Master. Say he was a hard lump of clay. A hard, glinty coal. A hard rock pile wouldn't be moved.
The People Could Fly is at home with itself in a way that Hamilton's previous "folk" works were not. They struggled, at times, too self-consciously for a multicultural format, whereas The People Could Fly is a work of optimism that presumes the best for the future, while attempting to reconcile the past with the present. The revolutionary black rabbit will always disturb, but here he has been tamed. Hamilton does not explore the dissent of the trickster tales; instead she has rendered the history in the art—the story—with a complexity seldom available to the very young.
The political features of the black rabbit that made him so durable have been consigned to the skeleton closet, but not, let's hope, the graveyard, because the struggle is far from over. Political, social and economic reversals will probably mark the entire decade of the 1980s, a period that has been compared to the Post-Reconstruction of the 1880s when Uncle Remus was created. The tentative, often rhetorical human rights concessions of the 1960s are now being challenged, abandoned, even denounced. Terrorist intimidation abroad has made many white Americans feel disrespected, unwanted, and insecure, and they, as a result, have rallied round the flag and Lady Liberty, and are on the lookout for other comforting memorabilia. A resurging interest in and apologia for Harris and his Uncle Remus should come as no surprise.
The struggle is not over, and young Americans need more than tricks and games. Still, if they know and understand their history—including Remus and the circumstances of his birth, his life and death—they can write their own stories of revolution or love.
Abrahams, Roger D. African Folktales. New York: Pantheon, 1983.
———. Afro-American Folktales. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Bickley, R. Bruce. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Rev. of Black Folktales, by Julius Lester. Kirkus Review 15 Oct. 1969: 1117-1118.
Geller, Evelyn. "Aesthetic, Morality, and Two Cultures." School Library Journal (1970).
Hamilton, Virginia, ed. The People Could Fly. New York: Knopf, 1985.
———. Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu. Ray Prather. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
———. The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu. Illus. Nonny Hogrogian. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. 1881. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977.
Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Grove, 1969.
———. The Knee-High Man. Illus. Ralph Pinto; New York: Dial, 1972.
Lester, Julius, and George Woods. "Black and White: An Exchange." The New York Times Book Review 24 May 1970: 2; 34; 36-38. Rpt. in The Black American in Books for Children. Ed. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodward. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1985.
Manning, Marable. "America's ‘Color Blind’ Society." The Hilltop (1986).
Mikkelsen, Nina. "When the Animals Talked—A Hundred Years of Uncle Remus." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8.1 (1983): 3-5; 31. Rev. of Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu, by Virginia Hamilton. The Horn Book Magazine 59 (1973): 278.
Williams, John A. Rev. of Black Folktales, by Julius Lester. The New York Times Book Review 9 Nov. 1969: 10; 12.
Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Keenan, Hugh T. "Joel Chandler Harris' Tales of Uncle Remus: For Mixed Audiences." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, edited by Perry Nodelman, pp. 118-27. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1987.
[In the following essay, Keenan explores the enduring power of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, arguing that, "The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus still remain valid and well worth reading, retelling, and passing on to subsequent generations."]
In 1955, the folklorist Richard Chase compiled a rich anthology entitled The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, a collection of 185 tales taken from the nine books of Uncle Remus tales written by Joel Chandler Harris. Three of those books were published posthumously, an indication of the wide popularity that Harris' stories had for adults and children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chase's anthology was intended to be the capstone and memorial of Harris' literary achievement.
Since 1955, however, the popularity of the tales has wavered, quite often under inaccurate and biased criticism. Uncle Remus has been called an "Uncle Tom." The dialect of the stories has fallen out of fashion. Even Brer Rabbit has been suspected of revolutionary tactics. In the most extreme, erroneous, and influential of these attacks, "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit," Bernard Wolfe almost did what Harris' literary creation could not do—put an end to Brer Rabbit. The sentimentality and the postwar propaganda of Disney's Song of the South (1946), which was thinly based on a miniscule portion of the tales (only six out of the 185) did nothing to rectify matters.
But times are changing. Uncle Remus has been rehabilitated by scholars. Recently, Raymond Hedin has even argued that Remus was putting on the Little Boy. Southern dialect has become more acceptable, as evidenced by recent popular books such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Mark Childress' A World Made of Fire. Toni Morrison has even drawn on Brer Rabbit's most famous encounter, as the title of her novel Tar Baby and its contents bear witness.
Through it all, the Complete Tales has remained in print, and in continued use by parents, teachers, folk-tellers, folklorists, and children. This mixture of audiences is appropriate. The main body of Afro-American tales that Harris drew on and re-told had originally been communal lore; that is, tales told by adults to adults and to which children were allowed to listen. He changed the situation by making a little boy the primary audience in the first book. But in Nights with Uncle Remus (xv-xvi) he described the normal adult audience situation, and he recreated such a circle of adults telling stories to each other and to the little boy in the latter portion of the book.
Harris' first collection Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation, was published by D. Appleton and Co. in 1880; it was listed in their catalog of humorous publications for a general audience. Yet in his introduction to the book, Harris maintained "that however humorous it may be in effect, its intention is perfectly serious." And commenting on the dialect in which the tales were written, he added that this would give it "solemn, not to say melancholy, features" (3). Partly, of course, Harris is pulling the legs of those who read the introduction. But he did see the tales more as folklore than just simple entertainment, as the rest of the introduction and the subtitle of the book make clear. Indeed Folklore of the Old Plantation had been his choice for the main title.
As Paul M. Cousins suggests, this first book succeeded beyond anyone's expectation, selling 10,000 copies in four months (115). It has never gone out of print, and today it is available both in hardcover and in a paper back edition. Its complete contents clearly show that Harris' intended audience was not just children. Besides the thirty-four tales, there are plantation proverbs, nine poems in dialect on adult themes, a sentimental love story, and twenty-one sto- ries of Uncle Remus' experiences in Atlanta and his observations on city life. All these are forgotten today, though to the scholar they suggest the range of creative writing that Harris would attempt and repeat in his career. It is the thirty-four tales that have survived and become the common property of children and adults, along with the others collected in Chase's Complete Tales.
Today these tales are even more valuable for this mixed audience. Since they remain in dialect, it is necessary that adults continue to act as the transmitters. To do this, they will have to choose whether to reproduce the dialect, to simplify it, to paraphrase the material, or otherwise to translate the Black dialect in which the tales were printed. Some educators find that dialect unacceptable; William Faulkner chooses to retell in standard English stories he first heard in dialect because "I am opposed to allowing children, black or white, to use dialectical speech in school, and I would not want this book to encourage such language patterns" (7). Indeed, the kind of speech represented by Harris has mainly disappeared, as the nation has become more linguistically sophisticated, better educated, and prone to think that the standard language of printed books reflects a standard speech spoken across the nation. But adults who deal wisely and effectively with the problems of the language of the tales will find their efforts amply rewarded. The tales are humorous, full of a shrewd yet compassionate view of mankind, and didactic without imposing a narrow standard of conduct.
In short, The Complete Tales is an excellent anthology for parents to read, and to introduce to children as part of their mutually difficult nurturing, sharing, and rearing process. It is no fanciful revery. It has a great deal to say about real life.
This anthology is also an excellent resource for the professional storyteller, as many can testify, and for the teacher in upper grades as well. For such professionals involved with instructing and entertaining children, it offers rich materials—and also guides to effective oral communication. Only a little study will reveal Uncle Remus' techniques, as he engages and retains the wavering interest of the Little Boy. He piques the boy's curiosity, withholds additional information and the conclusions of stories, and reproduces the sounds and actions of the animal characters like any skilled story-teller.
The anthology also provides an opportunity for older students to compare variants of tales, especially those taken from the second collection Nights with Uncle Remus (1883). In this book Daddy Jack, 'Tildy, Uncle Remus, and Aunt Tempy compete as storytellers with variants of the same tale. Thus numbers 31 and 32; 39, 40, and 41; 47 and 50; 50, 55, and 56 are their respective versions of the same tale. Older students can also compare the different oral styles of the narrators. African Jack tells nine tales in all; Aunt Tempy tells the golden arm ghost story that Mark Twain had suggested to Harris as good material. Throughout the whole collection there are variants, as Harris tends to retell favorite stories with different emphases and details. One such is the story of the animal whose pride leads to its asking that its head be cut off; viz., "How Old Craney-Crow Lost His Head," "Brother Bear Learns to Comb His Head" and "Brother Tiger and Daddy Sheep." This story had meaning in Harris' personal life; he stressed modesty and humility, to the point of being old-fashioned in dress and reclusive towards his public. He refused ever to make a public speech. Harris also published three different versions of his most famous tale—the tar baby story; each has a different message and varying details.
Students may also wish to compare tales in the anthology with the use of similar materials in other collections or adaptations, such as Susan Feldman's African Myths and Tales (1963), Gail E. Haley's A Story, A Story (1970), which was a Caldecott winner, or more recently, Priscilla Jacquith's Bo Rabbit Smart for True: Folktales from the Gullah (1981). The closest parallel in content and frame is William J. Faulkner's The Days When the Animals Talked (1977), in which both real life reminiscences and Brer Rabbit tales are told by the Black narrator and ex-slave Simon Brown to a young black boy. Simon Brown had told these stories to the author between 1900 and 1907 in Society Hill, South Carolina. Harris' tales also bear comparison to two classics of children's literature: Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights. He admired both of these classics as a child; as an adult, he reflected the violence and retribution commonly found in Grimm's stories, and he imitated the style and structure, especially that of the interrupted tale of the Arabian Nights, in his 1880 book. In "Mr. Rabbit Grossly Deceives Mr. Fox," Harris overtly compares Uncle Remus' tales to "those Arabian ones."
The scholar and critic will perhaps wish to delve more closely into the literary craftsmanship of the tales, their reflections of changing values in late nineteenth-century American society, and their continuing value as folklore. For insight into such mat- ters, the three recent books by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. and Florence Baer's Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales (1980) are essential. In her comprehensive analysis of the sources of The Complete Tales, Baer claims for Harris that "His is the first serious attempt to record the folktales, songs, and sayings of the southern Negroes in the exact language and style in which they existed" (24). Her study points out the accuracy of Harris' tales in both content and oral styles as recognized by modern collectors of African materials.
Harris' contribution to folklore has been long recognized and often debated. Perhaps far too little credit has been given as well to the literary craftsmanship of Harris: this may be due to his inaccurate, modest disclaimers that he was only a collector of folktales, or, in the later portion of his career, a dull old reporter and only a simple entertainer of young children. But The Complete Tales and Harris' artistry are both more complex and varied than they appear to the casual reader. Certainly anyone in this book's mixed audience of adults and children soon realizes their superiority to the watered down versions in Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946), which is heavy on post World War II propaganda. More than any other popularization, this film distorted the realistic values and ambiguous contents of Harris' tales. But reading and studying the originals of the six tales that Disney did use can provide a useful starting point of comparison for parent, child, folk-teller, teacher, scholar, and critic. Overall, Disney's film presents a world where conflicts are resolved; troubles, eased; and where people and animals harmonize in its most famous song: "Zip-a-dee-do-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, My oh my what a wonderful day." Not even when he was at his most sentimental and optimistic in his adult novels and essays was Harris' vision of the real world so false and simple. And this optimism certainly does not represent the tales.
In The Complete Tales, Harris juxtaposes the violent and highly competitive world of the animals with the relatively cooperative and benign one of Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. Harris avoids any easy or sentimental resolution of the competing values of each world. For example, in the first book Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, Harris has Brer Rabbit kill his three antagonists: Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox. After having scalded the Wolf and gotten the Bear stung to death, Brer Rabbit gets Brer Fox killed by Mister Man in the last tale, "The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox." He then carries the head to the fox's family for their dinner, is captured in turn, and then escapes. Remus caps this violent denouement to the first book by the outrageous suggestion that some say that Brer Rabbit then married the widowed Mrs. Fox. Doubtless, if Harris had known of the success the first book would have, he would not have killed off the rabbit's three chief antagonists. In subsequent books, Remus has to explain that the stories in which they are alive belong to an earlier period. But the Little Boy is not always quite convinced.
Throughout the whole collection, and especially in the first book, the animals of the tales steal food from each other, lie, cheat, trick each other, and occasionally even maim or kill each other. All the time, they scrupulously observe the rules of sociality—speaking politely when they meet, sharing or exchanging dinners, starting communal projects such as a crop, a well, or a house, and even going courting together when they visit "Miss Meadows and the gals." Struggles for power, food and sex are very evident, as reflections of the concerns of the adult world in the imaginary one of the tales.
But in the frame of the stories, Uncle Remus and the Little Boy are honest with each other, share food, and exchange ideas. And while Remus is telling tales, he is also showing the boy how such useful articles as horsecollars, fishbaskets, or ax handles are made, and how to sew a coat, to sharpen a knife or to half-sole shoes. Uncle Remus himself is a complex figure: teacher, companion, father substitute, upholder of social mores, anti-social critic, and occasionally a manipulator and trickster like Brer Rabbit. Early on he establishes the condition of the story-telling sessions: he is to have independent control of the material and the Little Boy can only accept, not question or change the stories. Remus even deliberately frightens the boy by a series of ghost stories, and then relents to walk the child home ("A Plantation Witch" ). On the other hand, Remus shows more often how the excessive trickery and over-confidence of the animals is punished in the tales. And in the main, the world of the Little Boy and Uncle Remus is benign, whereas in the tales, competitiveness, aggressiveness, voraciousness, and chicanery are only masked by a thin social veneer. When the frame and the tales are considered together, this dual view of life that Harris presents is more realistic than many other children's books, and accounts in part for the tales remaining classics.
On the other hand, one has to recognize the limitations of the collection. The earlier portions (drawn from the first two books) are more memorable than the later tales. Harris soon ran out of material and solicited tales from friends, his children, family servants, newspaper correspondents, and others. He even recast a few French or English tales into Black dialect, and more and more he repeated materials, while the later collections of tales were severely reduced in contents. Also, the sexual component of the tales and the frame is played down for the 19th-century audience. For example, in his most famous tale "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story," the conflict of the rabbit and the tar figure suggests a sexual assault. The tar figure accosted and beaten is female (see the pronouns in the text). But most readers are unaware of this implication. Harris also allowed an early illustrator (Frederick S. Church) to bowdlerize "Miss Meadows" as "Mother Nature," but the text belies such puritan interpretation. In "Brother Rabbit and the Mosquitoes" in Nights with Uncle Remus, the rabbit even courts the wolf's daughter. The frame story of this book concerns in large part the elderly Daddy Jack's courtship of young 'Tildy and ends with their marriage. See also "Brother Rabbit's Courtship" in the Daddy Jake volume (1889). And Remus becomes a less interesting character in the minimal frames of later collections, being reduced to little more than a mouth piece in the last ones.
Still the stories, on the whole, are realistic and convincing, for the innocent are not immune from suffering and death. In "Mr. Rabbit Nibbles up the Butter," the possum is framed by the rabbit, and burns to death in a trial by fire. And in "The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox," the cow Bookay is deliberately killed by Brer Rabbit and the fox is blamed. Overall, however, the greedy or wicked are punished and the young and innocent are saved, as in "A Story about the Little Rabbits," "Why Brother Wolf Didn't Eat the Little Rabbits," or "Mrs. Partridge Has a Fit."
There are other flaws also. The tales touch only slightly on racial matters, as in "Why the Negro Is Black." And established religious beliefs are seldom questioned. Prominent exceptions are the alternate flood story in "The Story of the Deluge, and How It Came About," and "The Origin of the Ocean." Some stories of the supernatural may be a bit frightening for very young children, making "Taily-po" and "How a Witch Was Caught" seem unsuitable to some parents. Some tales deal with superstitions, as in "Brother Rabbit's Love-Charm." Others seem very adult, such as "The Hard-Headed Woman," which may offend feminists, for it describes how a husband gets magical revenge on a slothful wife. Supernatural and marriage tests occur also in "The Adventures of Simon and Susanna," and changeling panther-women confront a teenaged boy in "The Little Boy and His Dogs." But despite these exceptions the coverage of sexual, satiric, and social commentary in the Complete Tales may seem to be limited—especially in comparison to other collections of African folktales.
In the main, in fact, Harris' stories concentrate on the theme of the trickster tricked, as in episode after episode Brer Rabbit, Wolf, Fox, Bear, Lion, or Dog get their comeuppance. A number of stories are etiological, as their titles bear witness:
"Why the Alligator's Back Is Rough"
"Why Brother Bear Has No Tail"
"Why the Guinea-Fowls Are Speckled"
"Where the Harrycans Comes From"
"Why Brother Fox's Legs Are Black"
"Why Mr. Cricket Has Elbows on His Legs"
But besides explaining matters of nature of interest especially to a child, these changes almost always also involve moral causes.
No discussion of the contents of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus can overlook two ways in which the title is a misnomer. Not all these tales are told by Uncle Remus. Tales told by Crazy Sue (from Daddy Jake ) and by African Jack, 'Tildy, and Aunt Tempy (Nights with Uncle Remus ) round out their number. The collection by Richard Chase, however, omits similar tales told by Aunt Minerva. In Plantation Pageants (1889), she tells two Brer Rabbit tales. She also tells eight tales in The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann published the same year. There is more reason for Chase's excluding the tales in The Tar-Baby and Other Rhymes (1904) as these are in verse and he limits his Complete Tales to those in prose. But this editorial policy deprives the reader of two stories found nowhere else.
The Complete Tales is uneven, as obviously not all of Harris' tales are of equal quality. Chase included some that were printed posthumously, and that Harris had chosen to pass over. Of The Complete Tales, the thirty-four from the first book Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings are the most familiar and are presented in the simplest manner. Those from the next book Nights with Uncle Remus are the most complex, varied, and extensive (seventy-one in number). The frame for this is also the most difficult, sophisti- cated, and complex that Harris ever attempted. Remus has to tell five tales on each of the first three nights, and later in the book, there are frequently two tales a night. The time span in the frame ranges from fall to Christmas, and from rain to harvest. The frame also includes the lengthy illness and recovery of the Little Boy, the courtship and marriage of Jack and 'Tildy, and a general movement from sorrow to consolation, from small and conflicting groups to a larger and harmonious community. Harris never attempted so much again. Instead, he imitated the far simpler structure of his first book. And he gave up most of the claims to be a folklorist and linguist of Black literature and language and culture to be found in Nights with Uncle Remus.
The thinnest tales are perhaps those taken from his last book, Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907). By this time Harris had long since tired of being restricted in the public's mind to the persona of Uncle Remus. He had even threatened to have Uncle Remus die. The later volumes of tales emphasize entertainment rather than instruction, and are less indebted to African sources. Even by the second book, Harris had begun to run out of first hand material. Increasingly for subsequent books, he had to rely on material garnered from family servants, friends of his own children, correspondents who replied to Harris' newspaper advertisements for material or those who volunteered such tales, and finally, on published collections of folktales. At the last, he resorted to putting any folktale into Black dialect to satisfy the public's and his publishers' demands. For example, "The Story of Teenchy-Tiny Duck" as found in Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910) is retold in Black dialect from a French book of folktales (Evening Tales) that Harris or his wife translated and that was published in 1893. There are other examples in his last years of Harris publishing the same tale both in standard English and Black dialect.
Their percentage is small, however, as the first two books contained the bulk of his Uncle Remus tales and these mainly have African or Afro-American sources. Florence Baer concludes from her study of the 184 tales in The Complete Collection that "there is evidence that the immediate source of 122 (66.3%) is Africa. Twenty-eight (15.2%) probably came from Europe (this includes the British Isles); seventeen (9.2%) seem to have arisen in the New World …" (168). Only sixteen cannot be positively identified as to origin. North American Indian lore is also presented, but in a very minor degree. This mixing of the folktales of different countries and cultures can be found in other collectors and popularizers of the nineteenth century, in the colored fairy books of Andrew Lang, for example.
Critics have sometimes faulted Harris for not giving a more comprehensive survey of Black folktales. But he never claimed to do this. He concentrated on the animal tales. The majority of his tales—eighty-nine of them—are such stories. He shaved the truth by saying that all were Black folktales, but Harris was trained as a journalist and not a folklorist. And even for professional folklorists, that study was in its infancy. Harris himself was a charter member of the first folklore society in America, though he soon left it. Perhaps he felt that his vision of a split society and the divided nature of man could best be conveyed by animal stories which allegorize man at his competitive worst, and by an optimistic frame which showed the narrator and the hearer in harmonious cooperation.
In that regard, the significance of the title of the first story "Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy" is too often overlooked. The teller's role is to instruct the boy as to the worst man can do in the animal stories and also to the highest ideals of family love, honesty, and devotion that man may aspire to. This purpose is reaffirmed later in the collection in "Brother Rabbit Ties Mr. Lion," when Remus takes issue with Aunt Tempy over the reason for telling stories. She wants only to amuse the boy and is disappointed at his solemn face. Remus replies,
"Well, I tell you dis, Sis Tempy," said Uncle Remus, with unusual emphasis, "ef deze yer tales wuz des fun, fun, fun, en giggle, giggle, giggle, I let you know I'd a-done drapt um long ago. Yasser, w'en it come down ter gigglin' you kin des count ole Remus out."
Remus tells the stories to show how the weak in body and inferior in power (like the child and others) can use their wits to overcome their enemies and their subservient condition. Remus did not believe that one could expect fairy godmothers or like creatures from outside to solve an individual's problems. In "Brother Rabbit and the Chickens" (Told by Uncle Remus, 1905), he asks the boy to give an example of the kind of story he likes. The boy tells "Cinderella." Remus responds, after having pretended to find it new and interesting: "‘It's a mighty purty tale,’ he said. ‘It's so purty dat you dunner whedder ter b'lieve it er not.’" He guesses the odds are probably "one time in forty'-lev'm hundred." The animals of his stories have to make their way in a more realistic world.
Tales which for a hundred years have refreshed readers and listeners with their acute perceptions of the real and the ideal can properly be considered a touchstone for children's literature. For Harris' mixed audience of adults and children, parents, teachers, and story-tellers, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus still remain valid and well worth reading, retelling, and passing on to subsequent generations. Not only are they literature based on folklore, but also, they have more to say about the naturalistic view of the world and about the fine art of survival than many have fully realized, though all readers have probably gotten part of this message along with a great deal of enjoyment. That is all that can be expected of any piece of literature, whether for adults or children, or as with Harris' tales, for both at the same time.
Baer, Florence E. Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1980.
Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
———. Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978.
———, ed. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981.
Brookes, Stella Brewer. Joel Chandler Harris—Folklorist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950.
Cousins, Paul M. Joel Chandler Harris: A Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Faulkner, William J. The Days When the Animals Talked. Chicago: Follett Publishing Co., 1977.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1880.
———. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Intro. Richard Chase. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
Hedin, Raymond. "Uncle Remus: Puttin' on Ole Massa's Son." Southern Literary Journal, 15 (Fall 1982): 83-90.
Keenan, Hugh T. "Joel Chandler Harris." American Writers for Children before 1900. Vol. 42 of DLB. Ed. Glenn E. Estes. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1985. 222-240.
———. "Twisted Tales: Propaganda in the Tar-Baby Stories." The Southern Quarterly, 22 (Winter 1984): 54-69.
Mikkelson, Nina. "When the Animals Talked—A Hundred Years of Uncle Remus." ChLAQ, 8 (Spring 1983): 3-5, 31.
Stafford, John. "Patterns of Meaning in Nights with Uncle Remus." American Literature 18 (May 1946): 89-108.
Wolfe, Bernard. "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit." Commentary 8 (July 1949): 31-41.
Julius Lester (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Lester, Julius. "The Storyteller's Voice: Reflections on the Rewriting of Uncle Remus." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights in Children's Literature, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 69-73. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Lester discusses the methodology behind his own adaptations of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, noting the importance of voice when writing for the character of Remus.]
There is a paradox: Stories from the oral tradition are not meant for the page. Once confined there they become literature and are responded to and judged as literature. They are not.
Literature is the product of a single mind; it is the product of one person's skill with words and silence. A story comes from a community and is told by any member of the community, shaped and reshaped by all who tell the story and hear it. A detail in one person's telling is deleted and a new one added in the telling by someone else; a detail is omitted for one audience and new details improvised for another.
Literature exists on the page. Once it takes that form, it cannot be changed.
A story is elastic; it is recreated by the tongue of each teller and with each telling. Though its basic plot with its characters will not change, how much life is infused into the story depends on how much the storyteller infuses it with his or her life.
The nature of our society obviates against storytelling. We no longer live in cohesive communities. We no longer entertain each other with stories in which our own joys and sorrows are sublimated and refashioned into an art that serves as a mirror for the entire community. And yet, the story retains its appeal, its importance, its vitality through books.
But how can one fit the marvelous elasticity of a story onto the page without injuring it? It is possible only if one refuses to regard the page seriously, if one knows that the page is merely the necessary means and not an exalted end.
Most stories from the oral tradition that become books are written in a disembodied voice, using a language of literary images. The story is transmitted but it is not told. A story can only be told by a person, and that is what voice is, a flesh and blood human being whose voice is the embodiment of the community's past. When the story is being presented by someone called an author, the author writes words because that is what authors do.
A storyteller who uses the book as his vehicle writes down words. Some of them are the storyteller's own. Most of them have no owners but belong to all those whose mouths and lips shaped and polished the story until it became a gem worthy of being treasured and passed on.
When I began the project of retelling the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, my task was to do what Harris himself had done, namely, to write embodied tales so that the reader (listener) would feel as if he or she were being called into a relationship of warmth and intimacy with another human body. The story is not separate from the teller. Only in this way will the listener not be separate from the story.
My first important decision was not to refashion Harris' Uncle Remus. Though I would've enjoyed transforming the old plantation "darkie" into something more appealing, this could only distract from what was important—the stories.
Instead, the personality of my storyteller would be communicated entirely through voice, through his asides, imagery, and allusions. Perhaps because I had grown up during the Golden Age of Radio, perhaps because I had had a live radio show for eight years, I knew the power of the voice and all that can be conveyed through the sound of it. However, I was not aware that anyone had attempted to put on paper that atmosphere created by the unseen human voice, to recreate the sound and feeling of what it was like to sit on the porch late at night and hear voices coming from the darkness as the old people told tales. This is how the slaves had told and heard the tales, and this is how I had heard tales as a child.
When my editor and I met to discuss the manuscript of the first volume of my retelling of the Uncle Remus stories, The Tales of Uncles Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (1987), it was evident immediately that we had conflicting conceptions of what a tale on the page should be.
She objected to many of the contemporary references, the changes in verb tense from past to present and past again, sometimes in the same paragraph. She especially objected to what she considered sexism in some of the stories.
In the story, "Brer Rabbit and the Mosquitoes," Brer Rabbit courts Brer Wolf's daughter: "Brer Wolf's daughter, who had always thought Brer Rabbit kind of cute, put on her mascara and eyeliner and whatever else it is that the women put on their face. She squeezed herself into a pair of jeans four sizes too small. Have mercy! And she put on a pink halter top! When Brer Rabbit saw her, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven." My editor found this especially objectionable and exploitative of women.
It proved to be a long and arduous afternoon, and for me, an exceptionally lonely one. I sat in her tiny office and we went through the manuscript, page by page, and I found myself having to defend each of her queries regarding voice and language. In 1969 I had published Black Folktales (1970) and the same publisher had refused the book because of the contemporary references I had put into the mouths of the animals and others. I saw nothing incongruous with God reading TV Guide, for example, but that was because I had grown up in a culture in which God did all kinds of extraordinary things that had not made their way into the Bible. So I had taken the book to another publisher. It has been in print continuously since 1969.
My editor continued to argue, however. If not for the acceptance Black Folktales had had, I might have acceded to her pressure, but doing so would have been a betrayal of all those black people from whose lives the stories had come, all those blacks whose stories these were. My responsibility was to them as their descendant.
Yet I could not arrogantly dismiss my editor's concerns. She feared that the contemporary references would make the book outdated very quickly and pointed to Italo Calvino's recent Italian Folktales as the model for what my book could be.
But I was not interested in creating a work of literature. Folktales exist in time and the Uncle Remus tales as told by Joel Chandler Harris are replete with references that are scarcely understood now.
Only because of my southern roots did I understand that when Uncle Remus says "branch," he is not referring to a tree but a creek. (Up north people drink bourbon and water; down south they drink bourbon and branch.) Other references had left me baffled, however. In one of the Harris tales the social setting is a "candy pulling." I'd heard them referred to but never in such detail that my storyteller would have been comfortable in recounting it. So I omitted it.
Harris' use of references contemporary to his time did not injure the stories. Quite the contrary. They communicated something of the lives of the storytellers, and even though a story is told by one person only, the story being told is not one person's story.
In the story "Brer Rabbit Finally Gets Beaten," my editor did not like the following paragraph: "Brer Rabbit went into training. He bought a red jogging suit, a green sweatband, and some yellow Adidas sneakers, and he jogged ten miles every day. Then he'd come home and do a whole mess of push-ups, sit-ups, and skip rope to his records. Some folks wondered if he was training for a race or ‘Soul Train.’" She suggested that I delete "Soul Train." To do so would take away my narrator's voice, and the story resides as much in the voice as it does the plot.
Without the voice, there would be only summaries of stories, and a story is not merely plot. The Uncle Remus stories scarcely vary in plot. They are trickster stories in which one animal tricks another. It is the voice of the storyteller that maintains our interest as readers (listeners).
The heart of storytelling is the human encounter between teller and listener. The goal of the teller is to make the listener more alive to him or herself. Especially in tales from the oral tradition, it is the voice of the teller that softens and humanizes the horrors and violence with which these tales abound.
I have had many manuscript conferences with editors over the past twenty years and sixteen books but never one as difficult and bitter as the one about The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.
My editor did not think that the inconsistencies in grammatical usage would communicate to white readers. I told her they weren't supposed to. But there was no harm in asking whites to read stories written in language with which they were not intimately familiar. The stories would communicate to anyone. That the language carried nuances and evoked memories that would be available primarily to blacks merely gave the stories an added dimension.
As for the references my editor considered sexist, I could only laugh. My Uncle Remus could not refer to "halter tops" if women did not wear them. Of course, my editor considered women who wore halter tops to be "unliberated." To rewrite a history and culture to satisfy white feminism was too ridiculous to even consider. My editor's inability to relinquish certain cultural assumptions pained me deeply.
She assumed she knew what stories in a book were supposed to be. Worse, she assumed that her assumptions were correct and was unwilling to be taught that, in this instance, they were not.
For her, folk tales were historical artifacts. For me they are a breathing, pulsating reality, and they are in no way incompatible with shopping malls and halter tops. My Uncle Remus is as much a man of his time as his predecessor was of that time.
I never describe Uncle Remus. I couldn't because I don't know what he looks like. He sounds like he is an old man, but I don't think he's so. However, he's not young. Even though I refer to him as "he," I'm not wholly convinced that that is so. As I wrote, the images of old women I'd known in the south came to me more frequently than those of old men.
The voice is more that of a presence, the presence of all black people whose lives were shaped by the tales. It is a collective voice, which is why it moves so easily backward and forward in time, referring at one moment to "the haslett" and at the next to Adidas sneakers. It is a voice that is as much at ease at a hog killing during slavery as it is eating Chicken McNuggets. It is a voice that stands simultaneously outside history while being at the very heart of history.
To tell the stories with any other voice is to think that the stories exist apart from their telling. They cannot because, ultimately, the stories are about our lives, all of us. If they were not, the stories would not be the source of joy that they are for whites and blacks. That is the paradox: The universality of the stories is only revealed if the voice in the stories is specific, if it is immersed in the blackness of yesterday and today. The way to the universal is through the particular.
Uncle Remus would have said to my editor, "Lord, child, how come you worrying so much about how I tell these stories? Ain't nothing that ever come out of my mouth ever done nobody no harm. Leastways not when I done brushed my teeth good and jiggled the Listerine around in my mouth. That stuff tastes worser than hog's breath. Don't you be trying to tell these stories without using my voice. Folks done tried that and you know what happened? Them stories had to go to the hospital. That's the truth! Them stories had to have highway bypass operations. Then they had to have bad grammar transplanted into them and take all kinds of pills to keep 'em from getting infections from literature. Then they had to take baths every day for about forty-eleven months. So, you leave these stories be. They don't be needing no clean clothes or grease for their hair and please don't come shining they shoes. What you got to understand is that the story is me. If you can't accept the story the way it rides on my voice, then that mean you can't accept me."
Voice is who I am.
Voice is who you are.
If I listen deeply to your voice, I am the recipient of a wonderful and irreplaceable gift—you.
If you listen deeply to mine, you will receive something very rare and precious—me.
Lester, Julius. Black Folktales. New York: Grove, 1970.
———. The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Vol. 1. New York: Dial, 1987.
Malcolm Jones (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Jones, Malcolm. "The Talespinner's Mind." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights in Children's Literature, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 74-7. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Jones expounds on Remus' role as the narrator of Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories, stating that, "not only was Harris one of the all-time great folktale collectors, but a subtle fiction maker as well."]
It would be nice to say that it's all voice, wouldn't it? In an oral tradition, that is, what else is there? The storyteller is pitchman, barker, emcee, preacher, stump speaker, barber over your shoulder, and beautician in your ear, mother and father murmuring while you lay you down to sleep, tucking you in with a tale. Pure, disembodied voice.
Would that it were so simple. Instead, we have something more complicated. Voices belong to somebodies. Tales get told for a reason. So, we have to know who is doing the telling. And why.
We say we are held prisoner by a good storyteller, but I wonder. In the cases of the two most famous storytellers I know, Scheherazade and Uncle Remus, one told stories to save her life, while the other was an ex-slave who in the presence of even a little white boy had to mind every word, watch every step. They were the prisoners.
Something goes on in the tale-teller's mind besides the story. Or rather, circumstances outside the story dictate certain things to the person spinning the tale. These are tale-tellers under pressure.
Scheherazade's circumstances are all part of the frame tale that surrounds the other stories. In the case of Uncle Remus, it gets a little trickier. You aren't supposed to be worrying about Remus getting lynched if he puts a foot wrong. He's just this harmless old man telling stories to Miss Sally's little boy, isn't he?
I'm not too sure about that. Joel Chandler Harris invented Uncle Remus out of necessity. To publish the slave tales he had collected, he needed a context, a mouthpiece to answer those questions mentioned above. Where was the voice coming from? Who was telling these old slave tales and Indian legends? Uncle Remus, that's who.
For his trouble, Harris would in time be accused of, first, purloining stories that rightfully belonged to black Americans, and second, of saddling those stories with this obsequious, woolly headed fiction.
I fear these charges are leveled most often by the same people who complain that the heavy dialect makes the stories unreadable, for certainly they could not make such charges if they had read the tales.
You don't have to read far in Uncle Remus to see that not only was Harris one of the all-time great folktale collectors, but a subtle fiction maker as well. Remus emerges no more or less subservient than a black man had to be in rural nineteenth-century Georgia, but more important he turns out to be witty, sardonic, subtle, and kind. In other words, he is not only admirable, he is interesting. Likewise, his animal stories, endless variations on the theme of the weak triumphing over brutish oppressors through guile, pluck, and a fairly flexible sense of fair play, first appear to be high-grade Aesopian imitation but prove on further examination to be nothing less than an elaborately symbolic vision of the relations between blacks and whites. Remus—which is to say, Harris—makes it clear many times that he realizes the importance of the stories. Harris seems to have been content to let those who would understand what he had uncovered do so without any prodding; what an astonishing thing for a white man to do in a society where segregation was viewed as not only excusable but condign.
So, naturally enough, when my partner and I sat down to retell the Brer Rabbit stories, the first thing we did was get rid of Uncle Remus. He served an important function for Joel Chandler Harris, but great creation though he is, that function is not intrinsic to the tales. They predate Remus, and with any luck they will outlive our grandchildren.
Nonetheless, Harris' problem was our problem. The question is still, who is telling these stories about rabbits and foxes and bears? If not Uncle Remus, then who?
A couple of southern white guys sitting out in Hollywood? The great ur-memory of us all? Again, a question without much of an answer. A better question, or at least one I have an answer for is, why tell the stories again?
Two reasons: Harris' dialect is impenetrable for a lot of people (not as impenetrable as you might think, but the perception is the reality in this case) and the vitality of the stories is obvious to anyone who reads or hears them. They speak to something in the human heart that never goes out of date. They are as close to the bone of myth as tales can get.
At the same time—and this is what continually attracts me—there is something distinctively southern about them. As a southerner, I am hard put to say exactly what this something is, but I know it has to do with the humor found in fatalism and the ironies found in almost every angle of existence. It has a lot to do with ease, not working when you don't have to, the coolness of the con (Brer Rabbit has the proper dream of a house for himself and his family, but he cons his chums into building it), and the importance of keeping square with reality. Brer Rabbit suffers at the hands of those more powerful than he, and so he is forever on the defensive, getting in a lick when he can, even when it is the first lick. He is not above a preemptive strike, because he knows that in the ultimate analysis, it is all he can do to stay alive, forget about staying even.
This is not a very cuddly, or polite philosophy, but it is honest, and therein lies its constant appeal. Brer Rabbit's tongue is coated with honey but he never lies to himself, and these stories don't lie either. They paint a world pretty and ugly by turns, but a world we never fail to recognize.
Without meaning to get fancy, and speaking only for myself, I have to say that I am possessed by these stories. I am their prisoner. Their world view is one that I grew up on. I read them unquestioningly, and given the chance, I retell them without an iota of self-consciousness. Their voice is my voice.
As for the practical aspects of retelling folktales, it would be simplistic to pretend that traditionally black, originally African stories are not changed when white people tell them, but how much and in what way, is hard to say, and besides the deed was accomplished long ago. Brer Rabbit now lives in everybody's neighborhood. Then there is the equally tough question, What happens when oral storytelling makes the transition to the printed page? The hard answer is, Something is lost. The writer, even a great writer such as Harris, can only approximate what the storyteller says. A real voice becomes a literary device. This is lamentable, but it is not tragic. On the contrary, there is something salutary in it. The writer is, in many cases, saving something that would otherwise be lost, and if reading pales beside hearing them, it is a sight better than not knowing them at all.
At any rate, when it came time to dismantle Harris' carefully constructed dialect, the decision as to how to rebuild was easy. The stories are southern and rural and should sound that way. We ended up with a mildly oracular vernacular, a voice that liked its own sound and didn't mind running on a bit.
There was nothing arbitrary about this, though. The stories themselves are so strong, their trajectories so direct, that you never need to worry about where you're headed. The rhythm and speed built into their structure dictate the rhythm and speed in the words used to tell them. These stories have been across so many tongues that they tell themselves. All you have to do is get out of the way.
Which brings me to the one thing I learned from this exercise, which was a lesson in humility. Never again will I set so great a store by the totems of originality or individual creation, and I think it might be a blessing for every creative writing student or anyone who fancies the writing trade to spend time retelling folk tales. A great good can be done by keeping traditional stories alive. At the very least, you learn a lot about how a story is put together.
I shouldn't preach. After all, I did my share of tampering, too. I think this is an irresistible part of storytelling. So, buried now in one of the stories is a fragment of a blues lyric by Willie Dixon that just seemed to fit a hollow corner. If it's apt, it will stay. If not, nothing is lost. For this is the way that stories go, I think, picking up a phrase here, a plot twist there, and so they thrive, like a stew pot that never leaves the heat and never goes empty, but dipped from and added to constantly, nourishes us right along.
Parks, Van Dyke, and Malcolm Jones. Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Keenan, Hugh T. "Joel Chandler Harris and Legitimacy of the Reteller of Folktales." In Sitting at the Feet at the Past: Retelling the North American Folktale for Children, edited by Gary D. Schmidt and Donald R. Hettinga, pp. 81-91. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Keenan reviews the accuracy of Harris's depiction of nineteenth-century Southern African-American dialects in his "Uncle Remus" stories and contrasts it against the works of Harris's successors who have crafted new adaptations of the "Uncle Remus" tales.]
In an essay entitled "The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Invention of Uncle Remus," Alice Walker tells of listening to her parents tell the same stories that Joel Chandler Harris recorded earlier in Eatonville, Georgia, the common birthplace of both writers. Until her family saw the Walt Disney film Song of the South (1946), she enjoyed these stories. But the propagandistic post-World War II slant of the movie, its highly sentimental view of the Old South (which includes the unrealistic egalitarian friendship of the little boy and the poor white Faver girl) made her angry. After the family saw the movie, Walker writes, "we no longer listened to [the tales]. They were killed for us. In fact, I do not remember any of my relatives ever telling any of those tales after they saw what had been done with them." She remained angry that "Uncle Remus in the movie saw fit largely to ignore his own children and grandchildren in order to pass on our heritage—indeed, our birthright—to patronizing white children, who seemed to regard him as a kind of talking teddy bear."
Though Walker later read the biography of Joel Chandler Harris written by his daughter-in-law, she shows no evidence of ever having read Harris's Uncle Remus books. If she had, she would have recognized that the teddy bear was Disney's invention, not Harris's. But Walker voices a complaint that has come to be voiced frequently against those that use materials not of their own culture. "He told a good part of my heritage," Walker claims, and he did so by making Uncle Remus the narrator.1
One does not have to look far in the journals on children's literature to find expressions of this stance. Rudine Sims in Shadow and Substance has criticized a number of white writers because as outsiders they failed to get the attitudes and details of black culture right. Nina Mikkelsen questions whether books based on materials from the black experience should be designed for black children only or written for both black and white children, for all children, for all economic levels.2 The same argument about cultural proprietary rights has been advanced for Chicano children's literature as well as that of Eskimos.3
But such proprietary claims are problematic. While anyone can admit that a person who grew up in a particular culture may be better informed as to the vital details and nuances, at the same time that does not guarantee that such a person may be the most effective writer for transmitting that culture's materials. Also, no writer wants to be excluded from a subject that may be interesting, or to be told that no amount of research will make up for the deficiency. All writers are interpreters, whether of their own culture or that of others. Every view is partial, limited to the experience of the individual writer.
There is also the broader matter of ownership of folk tales. Legally, such is an impossibility. No teller owns a tale, especially in an oral culture. What the teller contributes are a particular slant and embellishments. Then it is passed on to others who may do as they will with it.4 The opening to Gail Haley's A Story, A Story expresses the spirit of African storytelling.
We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.5
Literary works can be copyrighted; oral tales cannot. To treat oral tales as copyrightable reduces their universality and accessibility to any writer. Taken to an illogical extreme, a writer could be accused of having plagiarized from his own culture. An interesting example is the charge that someone placed against the African writer Cyprian Ekwensi of having plagiarized the oral Nigerian tale that became An African Night's Entertainment.6 His defense was that no one can own a folktale.
The tension of the legitimacy of the teller was one Joel Chandler Harris himself felt acutely. In 1880 he published Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation, his first collection of African-American tales. These stories were told in a black English dialect by an imaginary elderly black male to an imaginary seven-year-old white boy. This book and the six others he published subsequently constitute a body of literary materials marked by ambivalence, contradiction, and controversy. Though these elements were less evident for the author in his lifetime and for the work early in the twentieth century, they became more marked for the Uncle Remus narrator and the tales in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Harris himself was as ambivalent towards the teller and the tales as many later literary critics and folklorists. His regard for the stories as folklore and his attitude towards that subject and nineteenth-century folklorists changed radically between the time of the first book in 1880 and his last in 1908.
At first Harris promoted his literary productions of the Uncle Remus tales as folklore, even joining the American Folklore Society and corresponding with the British society, reading folklore journals and collections of folktales. His tales had appeared in the Atlanta Constitution first under the heading "Negro Folklore," a heading he would choose as the title of the 1880 book before the publishers reduced it to a subtitle. In this first collection Harris was careful to develop the character of Uncle Remus, in being accurate in his use of dialect, and in verifying the stories with other black storytellers. He was adamant that Uncle Remus was not like the minstrel figure of popular stage in language and demeanor.
His second book, Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), carried a lengthy scholarly introduction by Harris, supposedly based on his research at Harvard University.7 He describes his methods of verifying tales in the field and for comparison he quotes at length a Creole dialect version of an Uncle Remus tale in the first book. He takes pride in duplicating different kinds of black dialects, even giving the reader a brief but specific linguistic introduction to the Gullah that Daddy Jack uses (Nights xxviii-xxx). The frame has an equal complexity, for Harris made the storytelling situation more representative of a real oral tradition set in the period before the Civil War. The narrator is dispersed, as the stories are told by a varied group of adults to each other, with the little boy again as a listener. Besides Uncle Remus, the storytellers include Daddy Jack, a Gullah man from a coastal plantation; 'Tildy, a young house servant and nurse to the little boy; and Aunt Tempy, the middle-aged cook. These storytellers try to outdo each other by telling variants of the same tale.8 This structural device represents Harris's literary venture into representing comparative folklore.
But his first-hand knowledge of such stories began to run out in developing what became Nights with Uncle Remus. He turned to soliciting outlines of black folktales from others and to paying informants for their outlines. With the last three books, he often resorted to versifying variants of tales he had used in other books or to putting into black dialect folktales that he had read in books.
His third collection, Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), marks a radical change in Harris's attitudes towards the Uncle Remus tales, black dialect, folklore, and folklorists. In the introduction he apologizes for the stories because they are from second- or third-hand sources; he mocks his earlier enthusiasm for folklore in the introduction to Nights with Uncle Remus, satirizing the scientific pretensions of the subject. He apologizes for the dialect as being difficult to read. He concludes that he is interested only in the stories themselves and in their revelations of human nature. Finally, he dismisses the Uncle Remus narrator, saying that "the old man will bother the public no more with his whimsical stories."9
But after only a moderate success with other books for children, local color stories, and a few novels, in 1904 he took up the Uncle Remus tales again and produced three rather thin books that were more commercial and less authentic than the African-American materials he had used earlier. The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904) and Uncle Remus and Br'er Rabbit (1907) relied heavily on pictures to attract child readers. Unfortunately, the middle book, Told by Uncle Remus (1905), became the principal introduction to Harris's works for a later audience and often adversely affected public perception of his work. Walt Disney chose it as the basis for Song of the South.
Harris's statements about his relationship to the stories and their authenticity is marked by ambivalence throughout his career. In an 1880 letter to illustrator Frederick Stuart Church, he refers to himself over-modestly as "only the compiler" of the tales. This, however, was never strictly true during any period of his writing. He always worked to shape the stories to suit his audience and the context of each specific book. Yet at the end of his career, he could also label as "doggerel" an inferior versified Uncle Remus tale he had just written for the Uncle Remus's Magazine.10 At times Harris could be his own most severe critic while often remaining ambivalent about the Uncle Remus materials.
Folklorists were slower to turn against him. When they did, many were unfairly severe and often wrong. In her 1919 review of the posthumous Uncle Remus Returns (1918), collected and edited by Harris's daughter-in-law, anthropologist and folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons criticized both the human community of the frame and the animal community of the tales as being unrealistic because she had not found these elements represented in other recorded folktales. Even more severe critics like Richard Dorson were soon in full pursuit. And in their company was Bernard Wolfe, a journalist, who tried to blame Harris as the single cause for racism in the United States.11 His broad charges, inflammatory rhetoric, and misinformation damaged further the reputation of Harris's work. At the same time, the black scholar and folklorist Stella Brewer Brooks began to give Harris's work more credit in her 1950 book, Joel Chandler Harris, Folklorist.12 Eric Montenyohl's recent reassessment argues that "current folklore scholarship has certainly not exhausted the research potential of Joel Chandler Harris and his contributions to American folklore" (86).
Recent folklore scholarship has also established that Harris was correct in attributing most of his tales to African sources. As Florence E. Baer has shown in Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales, Africa is the immediate source for 122 (or 66.3 percent) of the 184 Uncle Remus tales in Richard Chase's collection. Some of the others may be African-American (168). This fact gives the lie to the assertion by many, including such folklorists as Dorson and journalists like Wolfe, that the stories were European. Also, as our knowledge of African culture has increased, we know that earlier folklorists like Elsie Clews Parsons were wrong in rejecting the animal community as an original component of the tales. Perhaps she failed to find such in her research because she was working at a time when the traditions of such tales had become more fragmented in America. Baer also suggests that the manner of tale telling in Harris's materials is more authentically African than earlier critics had allowed. These native African characteristics of storytelling include such things as the alliterative imitation of sounds, the repetition of phrases, the giving of titles and names to animal characters, and the use of chants and songs within the tales (Baer, 24, 166-67).
At the same time that recent folklore scholarship has reclaimed some of Harris's reputation, recent linguistic scholarship has offered a corrective to earlier appraisals of Harris as an accurate recorder of black English dialect of the late nineteenth century. Summer Ives had earlier made a convincing case for the accuracy of Harris's phonetic representation of the lexicon, or vocabulary, of Uncle Remus.13 But as Lee Pederson has shown in two recent essays, the syntax and style of Uncle Remus's language is not that of black speech. Instead, Uncle Remus's sentences are grounded in classical rhetoric. Pederson finds them to be based on Ciceronean and Senecan constructions and to carry examples of eighteenth-century "parallelism, antitheses, anaphora, tricolons, and metrical prose." He also shows how Harris altered the sound of this literary dialect through "elision, simplifications, assimilation, and vocalizations" in order to "contribute physically to the fluidity of the prose."14 Clearly, Harris was no simple compiler. He wrote the stories in the literary styles he had learned from examples of eighteenth-century literature in the library at Turnwold, which he had practiced in writing for a number of newspapers.
Whether or not this was Harris's intent, such a heightened style and syntax made Uncle Remus more like a traditional African storyteller. As recent studies have shown, artistic control of language, linguistic skill and variety, the use of formulaic openings and closings, the storyteller's insistence on the truthfulness of the material told, the acceptance of responsibility for it, and linguistic restrictions such as taboos and the uses of archaic language all characterize the traditional African storyteller after whom Remus is modeled.15 It remains for others to analyze more fully the ways by which Harris elevates Remus to the status of a griot.
There are three marks of authenticity to the folktale: the teller, the telling, and the tale. Nineteenth-century folklorists began by abstracting only the tale and then seeking to fit their specimens into a typology, establishing a chronology of variants in hopes of following them back to the original source tale. More re- cently, folklorists have turned away from source study and broadened their analyses to include oral styles. But even today too few give much consideration to the teller and to how the teller affects the tale told. In many ways Harris's literary re-creation gives a truer picture of African-American folk story telling than earlier folklorists did. Certainly his result was more interesting. And his sample of material was larger, so that the Uncle Remus collection represents a substantial proportion of the total corpus of African-American tales.
At the same time, one must recognize the limitations of that collection. Like any storyteller, Harris selected and slanted his materials to his nineteenth-century reading public of largely upper-middle-class white adults and children. The books were bought by adults and read by them to children. Consequently, most of the stories Harris provided for this joint audience are trickster stories. The sexual component of many stories and situations was eliminated or went unobserved by this earlier group of readers and hearers. Most remain unaware of the female sex of the Tar-Baby that the Rabbit "hits on," or of the dubious moral character of Miss Meadows and the Gals and her house that only male animals frequent.16 Racial matters are minimized: there are no stories of the John-and-Old Marster type, in which a clever slave outsmarts a plantation owner. Harris's stories also omit any scatological content, a prominent feature of many folk collections. (To see the difference, compare Harris's story of "Br'er Rabbit and the Mosquitoes" to the similar Ashanti story "Why the Elders Say We Should Not Repeat Sleeping-Mat Confidences," in which the husband blackmails his wife into silence by threatening to accuse her of wetting the bed.17 Even if Harris had known such stories, it is doubtful that they would have been acceptable to his reading audiences and publishers.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the tension of the legitimacy of Harris's retellings has centered not on those elements, however, but on dialect. The popularity of dialect stories of all kinds waned after the nineteenth century. As Walter M. Brasch's Black English and the Mass Media has shown, black English was in vogue during the Reconstruction period but reached a low in 1900. It came back during the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s and 1930s, but by then black English was being disavowed by many black intellectuals who "reasoned that whether or not Black English could more effectively convey certain thoughts than standard English, it had become too readily associated with inferiority" (149).
According to Leonard Diepeveen, there was an additional factor. The dominant black writers of the Harlem Renaissance period generally rejected African tales and folk materials in preference to models from higher culture. Because such materials had been popularized largely by white writers such as Harris in the nineteenth century, they were viewed also as part of a rural past to be risen above in the twentieth century.18 Zora Neale Hurston was an exception during this period in her use and enjoyment of dialect and folklore in her writings, but then she also consciously opposed the subjects and methods of the Harlem Renaissance writers.19
For a mixture of racial and linguistic reasons, both black and white readers and writers came to avoid dialect. This negative attitude of some educated black educators towards dialect is clear, for example, in the introduction written by the black author William J. Faulkner to his collection of stories based on those he heard as a boy from an elderly black man in Society Hill, South Carolina, between about 1900-1907. He heard them in dialect but he chose to put them in standard English because as he says, "I am opposed to allowing children, black or white, to use dialectal speech in school, and I would not want this book to encourage such language patterns."20 This feeling about nonstandard English has weakened, but it has not disappeared. Lucille Clifton has been criticized for allowing some of her characters to speak in a kind of dialect.21 And Joan Aiken has made a strong case for the use of dialect for the linguistic enrichment of writing.22 Two recent books by Priscilla Jaquith and Virginia Hamilton show that the difference of opinion about the effects of dialect remains quite strong.23
It is a tension reflected in the choices of two recent retellers of Harris's stories: Van Dyke Parks and Julius Lester. In Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and its two sequels, Parks eliminates the story narrator and sets the tales in a sugary-sounding Hominy Grove. The text is a somewhat distorted standard English substituted for the Gullah that Parks assumes erroneously all the tales were written in. There is no suggestion of black English, but a curious mingling of cultural levels.24
Julius Lester's The Tales of Uncle Remus and its sequels, however, recognize the significance of the linguistic abilities of the narrator. This collection reorganizes the tales in a meaningful sequence, providing transition from tale to tale as well as thematic development in each volume. The stories are retold "in a modified contemporary southern black English" with references to modern cultural artifacts such as too-tight jeans, K-Marts, and shopping malls. As to the narrator, Lester says that he considered inventing a more modern type but settled for representing him as a voice, "the voice of a people, the black people of Kansas City, Kansas; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Nashville, Tennessee; and the state of Mississippi" (Tales, xvii). It is a voice that directly addresses the reader in a familiar fashion. Such an approach widens the audience to take in both adults and children as in a traditional folktelling session.
Like Harris, Lester's emphasis is on the universal importance of the tales. He criticizes the scholars who reduce these tales to symbols for sublimated desires and repressions of black slaves, or to variants of West African folktales, or to chronicles of the survival techniques practiced by slaves to get around white masters. He argues that the Br'er Rabbit tales have had and continue to have a wider audience, black and white, that belies such narrow, partial interpretations, for Br'er Rabbit appeals to us because we all share his sense of rebellion, his delight in making disorder out of too rigid circumstances through the essential contradictions of being human. As Lester says, we delight in the tales simply because whether "black or white, slave or free, child or adult, Br'er Rabbit is us." Our delight comes from embracing the psychic wholeness that "includes loss as well as gain, mischief as well as kindliness" (More Tales, viii). Such tales keep us in touch with reality.
Lester's introductions to these volumes show his sensitivity to the original materials, his grounding in current scholarship on folklore, and his generous spirit in the transmission of the stories. These are some of the essential criteria for anyone retelling folk materials. Like a traditional griot, the teller must give the stories to the readers, not try to own them. In response to the query as to whether whites can tell the stories as well as blacks, Lester says the important things are the person's desire to tell the story and the story itself: "If you love the tale and tell it with love, the tale will communicate. Tell the tale as you would, not I, and believe in the tale" (Tales, xxi). And, one might add, it also helps a great deal if the writer or adapter is a literary craftsperson like Harris or Lester. Such a person can give the stories a literary quality, for the retelling of folk stories demands a lively teller, style, and text. Only in that way can a writer improve on the legacy of African-American tales bequeathed by Joel Chandler Harris. Only in that way can a reteller build on the folktales of the past.
1. "The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Invention of Uncle Remus," in Living by the Word (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981; rpt. 1989): 26, 29, 32. Her talk was originally given in 1981 at the Atlanta Historical Society.
2. Points raised in Nina Mikklesen's review of the book in Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Summer 1983): 39-40. See also Jane Granstrom and Anita Silvey, "A Call for Help: Exploring the Black Experience in Children's Books," Horn Book 48 (August 1972): 395-404. Interestingly the most adamant voice for this view was a nonblack publisher.
3. Opal Moore and Donnarae MacCann have written a series of essays on this subject, placing themselves as advocates for blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. They insist that writers for children must be of the race/culture that they write for or about. The first essay "Cultural Pluralism," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10 (Winter 1986): 201-203, was on children's books on black subjects. Given this line of thought, one might question their right to speak as advocates for cultures not their own. For a response to a position similar to that taken by Moore and MacCann, see Malcolm Usrey, "A Response to Frances Smith Foster: Ethnicity or Humanity: The Test of True Literature," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly 14 (Spring 1989): 37-38. See, too, Robin McGrath, "Editing Inuit Literature: Leaving the Teeth in the Gently Smiling Jaws," Cross-Culturalism in Children's Literature: Selected Papers from the 1987 International Conference of the Children's Literature Association, Susan R. Gannon and Ruth Anne Thompson, eds. (West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, n.d.): 31-35.
4. For an assessment of the survival of meaning and structure when a folktale is translated from one culture to another and becomes a variant, see C. W. Sullivan, III, "Narrative Expectations: The Folklore Connection," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15 (Summer 1990): 52-55. His is an argument for consideration of universal meaning, not narrow cultural confirmations.
5. Gail Haley, A Story, A Story (Hartford: Atheneum, 1970) . Also note the traditional African closing: "This is my story which I have related. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me" .
6. Information from lecture given by Dr. Osayimwense Osa of Bendel State University, Nigeria, fall 1990, at Georgia State University. This book recreates the situation, speaker, and purpose of a typical West African storytelling session.
7. Paul M. Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968): 105-107, 111-13, 127-30; R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987): 65-68; Joseph M. Griska, Jr., "Uncle Remus Correspondence: The Development and Reception of Joel Chandler Harris's Writing, 1880-1885," American Literary Realism 14 (1981): 27-30, for references in his letters; Eric L. Montenyohl, "The Origins of Uncle Remus," Folklore Forum 18 (1985): 136-37.
8. The best essay on this book is by John Stafford. "Patterns of Meaning in Nights with Uncle Remus," American Literature 18 (1946-47): 89-108.
9. See my entry on "Joel Chandler Harris" in American Writers for Children before 1900, Glenn E. Estes, ed., vol. 42 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1985): 222-40. I have drawn freely on materials in this essay and in my essay "Joel Chandler Harris' Tales of Uncle Remus for Mixed Audiences," in Touchstones 2, Perry Nodelman, ed. (West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1987): 118-27. Throughout the rest of his career, Harris continued to satirize the scientific pretensions of folklorists that he had accepted in Nights with Uncle Remus. See his satirical spoof of source hunting "The Late Mr. Watkins of Georgia: His Relation to Oriental Folk-Lore" in Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War (1898) and the running argument between Wally and the man in the machine in Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine (1903).
10. Letter to his daughters Lillian Harris and Mildred Harris, March 27 . Joel Chandler Harris Collection, Special Collections, R. W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.
11. Bernard Wolfe, "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit," Commentary 8 (July 1949): 31-41.
12. Joel Chandler Harris: Folklorist (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950). Brookes notes that Harris's interest in folklore seemed to have wavered by the 1892 book because he only gave three pages to the subject in its introduction as compared to eight pages in the first book and twenty-nine in the second one (33, 35). Other evidences of Harris's ambivalence are discussed on 35-37. She follows that with a comparison of an outline of a Negro tale with Harris's reworking of it that she says reveals "the craftsman's art" (39-40). She gives a detailed analysis of the character of Uncle Remus (44-53) and sums up his trickster tales by saying, "Never has the trickster been better exemplified than in the Br'er Rabbit of Harris" (63).
13. The Phonology of the Uncle Remus Tales. Publication of the American Dialect Society #22. (Gainesville, Fla.: American Dialect Society, 1954); "A Theory of Literary Dialect," Tulane Studies in English 2 (1950): 137-82.
14. "Language in Uncle Remus Tales," Modern Philology 82 (1985): 295-96. See also Pederson's "Rewriting Dialect Literature: ‘The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,’" in Joel Chandler Harris: The Writer in His Time and Ours, Hugh T. Keenan, ed., Atlanta Historical Journal 30, no. 3/4 (Fall-Winter 1986-1987): 57-70.
15. See Philip M. Peek, "The Power of Words in African Verbal Arts," in Journal of American Folklore 94 (1981): 19-43, esp. 34-35, 42.
16. For the identification of Miss Meadows' sporting house, see John Goldthwaite, "The Black Rabbit: Part Two," in Signal 48 (Sept. 1985): 148-67. For discussion of the Tar Baby and the dramatic implication of its female sex, see my essay "Twisted Tales: Propaganda in the Tar-Baby Stories," Southern Quarterly 22 (Winter 1984): 54-69.
17. No. 37 in Nights with Uncle Remus (1883). For the Ashanti story, see Susan Feldmann, African Myths and Tales (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1963): 184-86.
18. Leonard Diepeveen, "Folktales in the Harlem Renaissance," American Literature 58 (March 1986): 64-71. Similar information may be found in Sylvia Wallace Holton, Down Home and Uptown: The Representation of Black Speech in American Fiction (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1984): 112-17.
19. For evidence of the negative attitude of many prominent black writers to Zora Neale Hurston and her use of black English, see Brasch, 188-92.
20. The Days When the Animals Talked (Chicago: Follett Publishing Co., 1977): 7. He says this original dialect was a combination of "African words and cockney English." He wanted to avoid the Uncle Remus effect of heavy dialect (8). His book is divided into two parts: historical stories about slavery days and animal tales. There is no narrator for the animal tales. The persona in part one is very general.
21. "Writing for Black Children," The Advocate 1 (Fall 1981): 32-37. She adds that "a lot of the criticism about the language in my books comes from black people" (35).
22. "‘Bred an Bawn in a Briar-Patch’—Dialect and Language in Children's Books," Children's Literature in Education 9 (Nov. 1972): 7-23.
23. Jacquith's Bo Rabbit Smart for True (New York: Philomel Books, 1981) finds the Gullah of her source, a recording in 1949 by a white man Albert H. Stoddard to be "incomprehensible to the uninitiated" (8). Therefore, she puts the four Gullah tales of her picture book into a generally standard English. The title is the only part of the book that has a flavor of the Gullah language. She adds explanatory notes and a bibliography. In comparison, Virginia Hamilton is more successful in giving an impression of the original language of such tales in The People Could Fly (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). See her rendering of "Bruh Alligator Meets Trouble." Other tales are given in both standard colloquial English and various dialects of black English. Both writers fail, however, to give any sense of a narrator.
24. Cf. in Jump! the mingling of cultural levels that shows little regard for the integrity of language. The first story is set when "the moon was lots bigger than he is now" and concerns Br'er Rabbit who was "born little" (3). Note the echoic of the subjects of sentences with "he did" and "they did" (4). Later Br'er Rabbit "leapt off his stump bookity-bookity" (p. 12). And Br'er Fox is blamed for "playing Mr. Smarty and copying after other folks" (16). On the same page the phrase "and lo and behold" occurs. The animals "sagacite together" for company and thus were "in cahoots this way" (35).
Baer, Florence E. Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales. Helsinki: Suoalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1980.
Brasch, Walter M. Black English and the Mass Media. New York: University Press of America, 1981.
Chase, Richard, ed. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Nights with Uncle Remus. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1883.
———. The Tar-Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus. New York: Stokes, 1907.
———. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation. Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Co., 1981, reprint of 1880 edition.
———. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Edited with an introduction by Robert Hemenway. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
Keenan, Hugh T. "Joel Chandler Harris." In American Writers for Children before 1900, Glenn E. Estes, ed., vol. 42 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1985. 222-40.
———, ed. "Joel Chandler Harris: The Writer in His Time and Ours," in The Atlanta Historical Journal vol. 30, nos. 2 and 4 (Fall-Winter, 1986-87).
———. "Joel Chandler Harris' Tales of Uncle Remus for Mixed Audiences," in Touchstones, vol. 2. Perry Nodelman, ed. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1987. 118-27.
Lester, Julius. Further Tales of Uncle Remus: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, and Doodang, and Other Creatures. New York: Dial Books, 1990.
———. More Tales of Uncle Remus: Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, His Friends, Enemies, and Others. New York: Dial Books, 1988.
———. The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. New York: Dial Books, 1987.
Montenyohl, Eric. "Joel Chandler Harris and American Folklore." In Joel Chandler Harris: The Writer in His Time and Ours, Hugh T. Keenan, ed. Atlanta Historical Journal 30, no. 3/4 (Fall-Winter 1986-1987).
Parks, Van Dyke. Jump Again! More Adventures of Brer Rabbit by Joel Chandler Harris. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989.
———. Jump on Over! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and His Family by Joel Chandler Harris. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989.
Parks, Van Dyke, and Malcolm Jones. Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit by Joel Chandler Harris. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986.
Sims, Rudine. Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children's Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982.
Anthony L. Manna (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Manna, Anthony L. "Br'er Rabbit Redux." In Sitting at the Feet at the Past: Retelling the North American Folktale for Children, edited by Gary D. Schmidt and Donald R. Hettinga, pp. 93-108. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Manna notes the irony of Harris's role as a white Southern author who, through his collection of the "Uncle Remus" stories, has become regarded as one of the definitive voices of African-American folk literature. Manna also discusses how many modern African-American authors are seeking to reclaim the "Remus" stories.]
With the publication of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings in 1880, Joel Chandler Harris was secured a firm and lasting hold on African-American folk literature. Some forty years later, and seven other volumes of African-American story lore to his credit, two collections of which were published posthumously, Harris's status had risen to that of a national hero, akin to Hans Christian Andersen's, and the figure of Uncle Remus, his philosopher-narrator, had become so indelibly etched in the American spirit that he might well have been considered a revered national monument. Since Harris was the first writer to make a relatively comprehensive body of the slaves' lore accessible to a worldwide audience, he maintained his position as the sole arbiter of this important aspect of the American aesthetic for well over fifty years, until black American folklorists like Zora Neale Hurston and Arthur Huff Fauset took to the field in the 1920s and 1930s to explore the social and cultural contexts in which African-American folk narrative is given its distinctive shape and character (Abrahams xx). Harris, however, has remained an insistent literary presence, and his interpretive and stylistic influence over the material, particularly the tales that recount the machinations of the slippery trickster rabbit, are still felt, challenged, reworked, and even lauded as a touchstone to this day.
However shewed and overpraised Harris's vision of the tales and the realities of slavery can seem today in the light of the social and political changes that continue to alert us to the problems of equity and equality within society and within the realm of literature, Harris's retellings, and the ideology that underpins them, reflect at least one interpretation of African-American tradition. Although no longer deserving of emulation and unconditional respect, his versions of the tales provide current storytellers, writers, and readers with a legacy to mine as they form their own new versions which, like Harris's, mirror their own values, their sense of African-American oral traditions and styles, and their awareness of both the local and universal significance of story lore forged, at least in one moment of this country's history, in a crucible of oppression and exploitation.
To trace the literary and political reasons behind Harris's immediate rise to international notoriety and his steady fall from grace is to face head-on some of the most vexing problems surrounding folktale preservation. Harris's project can be particularly meaningful for writers as well as readers simply because his approach to preserving folklore material and the attitudes he brought to the task encourage all of us to consider the challenges writers face whenever they set out to render orally derived literature in a readable, written text. For Richard Bauman, the challenge should be driven by the need to create a text that integrates the oral and poetic conventions of folk literature without losing sight of its social context (2).
At work here are issues of license and accuracy, privilege and authenticity, authority and ownership, and, by virtue of their having made their way into the domain of childhood, the issue of how to make the tales accessible to children, both from within and outside the cultures the tales represent, in texts that clearly and vividly express the distinctive oral and cultural features and devices that organize oral literature. Harris's claim, for example, that he was simply transcribing and compiling folktales without altering them, summons up the perennial debate among folklorists, writers, and critics concerning the difference between the reteller's rights to a folktale and his or her fidelity to some fixed, immutable form of it, between authority and obligation, between, in Richard Dorson's words, folklore ("properly documented oral folklore collected directly in the field from the tellers of the tales and the singers of the folksongs") and "fakelore" ("a synthetic product claiming to be authentic oral tradition but actually tailored for mass edification") (5). "If they bear his own stamp," Dorson continues, "the collector cannot possibly have written the tales down as he heard them; each oral narrator possesses his own style, which differs greatly from literary style" (28). Charles Dickens would have agreed. Addressing the issue of ownership and authority, he insisted that "whoever alters [the tales] to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him" (48).
Prescriptions of this sort would restrict a writer, and the oral storyteller for that matter, to a literal translation of the tale in its pure, uncorrupted state. It is the authentic, the genuine tale on which Dorson and Dickens set their sights. The question of where this original tale might be found is another matter altogether, for the folktales we come to know as listeners, readers, or writers come to us by way of a long, complicated history of change and exchange. By its very nature, a folktale is always in flux, always emergent, and always subject to the idiosyncrasies and intentions of each teller, as well as each listener and each reader, in each social and cultural setting. For folklorists, one of the most fascinating facts about the genealogy of any folktale is that in the midst of so much change, some of its features remain relatively stable, the most noticeable of which are its basic structure and motifs. As Bauman says, "The models provided by generic conventions and prior renditions of ‘traditional’ items stand available to participants as a set of conventional expectations and associations, but these may themselves be used as resources for creative manipulation, shaping the emergent text to the unique circumstance at hand" (4). Thus, after the fact of a far distant initial and unrecorded telling of a tale, the most that anyone might hope to gain from a search for the original, and, therefore, to some folklorists and critics, the most authentic tale is, quite simply, another version of another version of yet another version, all of them stamped with, as Bauman says they should be, the distinctive character of each new teller—and writer—who spins the tale off of the basic ingredients according to the dictates of his or her values and convictions.
Without having access to the original tale or even a performance of it among the folk, tellers and writers need to look elsewhere if they hope to tell a tale that adequately represents the culture from which the tale emerged. In their urge to keep folktales alive, they can, for example, settle into various versions of the same tale. Doing this, they can track the recurring features that Bauman addresses and that Richard Dorson, referring specifically to African-American folktales, verifies. Narrative structures, vocal effects, stylistic techniques, rhetorical devices, motifs, and indigenous story types hold promise, as does an awareness of the features of traditional performance styles such as listener-performer relationship, the constitutive role of teller and audience, the social contexts for telling, and, relative to those intent on orienting the tales to children, children's status at storytelling events.
If Betsy Hearne is correct in proposing that, in folktales, "Each archetypal character represents a part of humanity, each action a part of life, each setting a part of existence," then what is at stake in the effort to rework a traditional story in order to pass it along in a culturally conscious form is a culture's identity and our understanding of it (93). According to Ralph Ellison, this is particularly pertinent with respect to African-Americans because, Ellison believes, the assumption that black Americans lack a tradition of any significant value was used in part to justify the devaluation and exploitation that slavery permitted (219). Had these white Americans been able to look beyond their own culturally conditioned view of the world, Ellison insists, they would have discovered a tradition that, "taken as a whole, [with] its spirituals along with its blues, jazz, and folktales … has … much to tell us of the faith, humor, and adaptability to reality necessary to live in a world that has taken on much of the insecurity and blues-like absurdity known to those who brought it into being" (222).
That Joel Chandler Harris should see value in the slaves' story lore and that he should stake such a large and enduring claim in it is surely one of the most glaring ironies in this country's cultural and social history. A white political journalist, Harris straddled the fence between, on the one hand, a progressive New South doctrine of industrialization and regional and racial detente and, on the other, Old South sentiments that supported racial segregation and justified slavery. Harris's widely known commentaries on the prevailing social and economic conditions in Reconstruction America provided his readers with a mixed bag of acerbic satire on the shifty politics of the day, of libertarian promises of regional and racial reconciliation, and, at the same time, of overt racist humor, and of nostalgic memories of the good old days when white plantocrats basked in the economic security that slavery guaranteed.
Prior to publishing the first volume of Uncle Remus tales in 1880, Harris's political commentary, in sync with the burgeoning—and patronizing—vogue of the period, took the form of dialect sketches. Several of these sketches, which Harris contributed to the Atlanta Constitution starting in 1876, featured the humorous observations of Old Si, an Atlanta black man and Remus's precursor, whose analyses ran the gamut from conventional wisdom about social and political matters and worldly advice about achieving racial dignity to caustic indictments of his own people's arrogance. While honing his skill as a dialect writer, Harris read a treatise on "Folklore of the Southern Negroes," published in the December 1877 issue of Lippincott's. The first of its kind, the article included a phonetically transcribed adaptation of "Buh Rabbit and the Tar-Baby." The story, as Harris later recalled, kindled memories of the tales he had heard as a youth from plantation slaves in rural Georgia. Two years later, Harris published his own version of Rabbit's skirmish with the Tar Baby in the Constitution, his urban and urbane Uncle Remus of the Constitution sketches now assuming his soon-to-be legendary role as the happy old-time rural raconteur and family guardian.
Although the Tar Baby tale and the others that followed in Uncle Remus immediately procured for Harris a prominent position among the small coterie of folklorists of his day, he was initially astonished, then intrigued, and finally bewildered and annoyed by this affiliation. As it turned out in the latter years of his career, Harris was so skeptical of folklorists that he made a burlesque of what he believed to be their penchant for purging the tales of human value by subjecting all of the folklore to an obsessive attraction to scientific proof of authenticity and origin. Following his own quite sophisticated treatment of comparative folklore in the early Remus collections, particularly concerning the African roots of the tales he compiled, Harris satirized the science of folklore in "The Late Mr. Watkins of Georgia: His Relation to Oriental Folk-Lore," found in Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War (1898), a collection of stories for his adult audience, and Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine (1903), a slight fantasy for children.
Harris's encounters with folklorists and folklore became a constant source of trouble and false starts throughout his entire career. At one point in time, he insisted that none of his folktales was "cooked," that "not one or any part of one is an invention of mine. They are all genuine folk-lore tales" (Julia Harris 158). Yet, in the introduction to Uncle Remus, he claimed, "that ethnological considerations formed no part of the undertaking which has resulted in the publication of this volume" (Chase xxii). And, at the same time, he insisted on the authenticity of the tales. "I took great pains to verify every story anew," he said to one of his correspondents, "and, out of a variety of versions, to select the version that seemed to be the most characteristic of the negro" (Julia Harris 156). For Harris, then, the tales must simply be good, homespun stories for children, which preserved a slice of prewar southern life and manners from, as he noted in the introduction to Uncle Remus, the perspective of an old slave" who had nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery" (xxvii). Given the ambiguity of his own political attitudes, Harris's excursion into comparative folklore might very well have distracted him from his primary intention: to keep the tales within the boundaries of an Old South ideology.
Harris's Subversive Rabbit
In each volume Uncle Remus is such a larger-than-life figure that the values and attitudes he espouses, and the frame he occupies, upstage the tales both politically and aesthetically. Both as a storyteller who spins his tales for the edification and enjoyment of his overseers' young son, and a faithful, resourceful family retainer, Remus is a sign of the times, a living testament to his era's apprehensions about the status and identity of its former slaves and its uncertainties about the social and economic changes that Reconstruction portended. Although, as Julius Lester has said in the foreword to The Tales of Uncle Remus, images of slaves who were indifferent to their condition appear in the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer's Project of the 1930s, among these same narratives Roger Abrahams discovered more embittered and critical reactions to slavery, accounts that figure into the story lore both Abrahams and Virginia Hamilton included in their collections of African-American folktales. Remus's utter silence about the extraordinary atrocities and personal disgrace the slavery system permitted turns on reality and then on Remus's credibility as a mouthpiece for the folk, and finally, Harris's legitimacy as a custodian of the folk's story lore. Remus's complete disregard for the true conditions of slavery puts him in league with those characters in literature and the mass media—Twain's Jim and the "darky" minstrel show entertainer, for example—who, according to Ralph Ellison, were created by white people "to repress the white audience's awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask" (215). The issue, then, is not that Harris was presenting an inaccurate portrait with his Remus configuration; the issue is that, being one dimensional, it is a portrait that serves up a stereotype.
The various roles and postures assigned Remus are as perplexing and contradictory as Harris's political and social views. Remus is at once self-reliant and self-effacing, arrogant to distraction and cloyingly obsequious, both patronized and patronizing. He may be an effective storyteller capable of drawing his audience of one into incident and theme through his deft orchestration of characters involved in devious plans. He may also be a wise household sage ("A heap er sayin' an a heap er doin's in dis roun' worl' got ter be tuck on trus'"); but he never achieves the heroic stature discovered in African-American lore that addresses the many slaves who defied the system by"gittin ovuh," by surviving hard times with dignity and grace (Chase 298).
Harris meant Remus to be emulable. In the introduction to Daddy Jake, The Runaway and Short Stories Told after Dark (1889), Harris informed his readers that Remus was endowed with special talents that set him apart from other slaves. For one, he was not required to work as hard. "He was vain of his importance," Harris wrote, "and the other negroes treated him with great consideration. They found it to their advantage to do so, for Uncle Remus was not without influence with his master and mistress" (vii). And in several areas of the frame in Nights with Uncle Remus (1883) and Daddy Jake, we learn that Remus was destined from youth to hold a privileged position among his people. Apparently, Remus's qualities and quirks were meant to counter the "inherent ignorance and weakness" Harris ascribed to the black race in his political commentaries (Bickley, 1978, 38). By playing it smart, Remus resembles the black minstrel showman who, in a grotesque reversal of reality, darkens his face and dresses the part to preserve the stereotype of black inferiority and white superiority.
Remus's privilege also reveals one of the most glaring inconsistencies in Harris's project. For one, it segregates Remus from the very folk he is supposed to represent. By making Remus an insider in Miss Sally and Mars John's household affairs ("the confidential family servant," Harris calls him in Daddy Jake ) and a trusted mentor to their son in the first four volumes and, in the later collections, to their pampered grandson, Harris distances Remus from the community (vii). This anomaly not only brings into question Harris's intention for reworking the tales, it also removes the tales and the tale-telling from a social context and, coupled with Harris's provision of an audience of one white child, gives the impression, particularly to children, that African-American story-lore was created to serve the white community.
Harris further compounds the negative implications of this mystifying arrangement by engaging Remus in an unsavory duel of status that pits him against his own race. Often the brunt of his criticism is borne by the few blacks that, from time to time, do make their way into his isolated world to swap stories and more importantly, to vie for attention and jockey for position: Aunt Tempy, the irascible servant, with whom Remus competes for the position of most favored worker, 'Tildy, a sassy housegirl, whom he derides because of her bad manners, and African Jack, a wizened, cantankerous storyteller with strange powers. In his privileged position Remus also berates his own daughter for sending her son to school. As he tells Miss Sally in one of the sketches in Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), "Wid me, a nigger is done gradiywated de minnit you puts de plough handles in his hand's" (Chase 334).
These forays into caste and class consciousness obviate against Harris's interpretation of the tales. In the introduction to the first novel, Harris insists that what Rabbit's exploits are really about is a social issue: "It needs no scientific proof to show why he [the Negro] selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness" (Chase xxv). While much commentary on Harris has assigned this interpretation a local significance, opting to view it as Harris's attempt to situate the tales in the power struggle between slave and master, that the trickster tales are in fact allegories of protest—bravura sketches that skewer those in power and exalt the common folk—is probably too generous an assessment of Harris's response to slavery. Given Harris's ambivalence about the racial issue, Bernard Wolfe suggests that another more likely possibility is that Harris's allegorical reading of the tales, keyed to the tenets of social Darwinism popular at the time, reveals what Harris saw as the need for blacks to revolt against the baseness of their own nature, their "inherent ignorance and weakness" (38). If so, the subversion Harris had in mind is fulfilled in part by Remus's superior status and natural endowments.
As though their interpretation of Harris's interpretation of the tales were an edict, scores of Harris's critics—even in the light of their misgivings about his racist leanings—have rallied around the revolutionary Rabbit. Robert Bone, for example, in the heat of the civil rights movement of the 1970s, discovered a "secret code" in the tales, which concealed the slaves' subversive sentiments in the comings and goings of the various animal characters. "The moral vision projected in these tales," Bone said, "is that of men who have been brutalized, degraded, rendered powerless—and yet who manage to survive by dint of their superior endurance and mother wit, their cunning artifice, and sheer effrontery" (138). More recently, Nina Mikkelsen, in a review of Harris's influence in the world of children's literature, insists that "thematically, the Uncle Remus tales set forth a rural, Southern, mythology, a code of behavior for the underdog, in which cunning and subterfuge replace open resistance, neither debate nor compromise being a possibility within the master-slave relationship" (3).
Retellers for children have followed suit. In The People Could Fly Virginia Hamilton reports that "the tales satisfied the slaves' need to explain symbolically and secretly the ruling behavior of the slaveowners in relation to themselves" (12). And in Jump!, Van Dyke Parks and Malcolm Jones propose that "tempered by hardship and nourished by hope, these tales are a testament to the belief that no one can be wholly owned who does not wish it" (vii).
While a political reading of African-American folktales may be altogether plausible, it cannot be the only reading—and for good reason. A political interpretation of the tales must, in the first place, overlook a number of important characteristics of the folktale genre, in general, and trickster tales, in particular. For any reader, teller, or writer, one of the most obvious of these characteristics is the fact that different versions of the same tale vary significantly from teller to teller and culture to culture. One can see this phenomenon at work, for example, by examining different versions of the well known tale of Rabbit's race with Terrapin. In each of these versions the plot is basically the same: Rabbit and Terrapin argue over which of them is the faster runner. Terrapin challenges Rabbit to a race that Terrapin wins by substituting several of his children in his place along the road so that he can cross the finish line ahead of Rabbit without having actually competed.
In Harris's version the tale ends with a cautionary moral tag intended to teach the little boy a lesson in human complicity.
"But, Uncle Remus," said the boy, dolefully, "that was cheating."
"Co'se, honey. De creeturs 'gun ter cheat, en den folks tuck it up, en hit keep on spreadin'. Hit mighty ketchin', en you min'yo'eye, honey, dat somebody don't cheat you 'fo'yo'ha'r git gray ez de ole nigger's."
In this version of the tale, Parks and Jones surround the basic story line with a running commentary that reveals a number of lessons the tale connotes to them. This aside sets the stage:
It always happens that way. Go where you will and when you may, and stay as long as you choose to stay, and right there and then you'll surely find that folks who are full of conceit and proudness are going to get it taken out of them.
This warning concludes their version of the tale:
Of course, that was cheating, and the creatures had begun to cheat, and then folks took it up, and it kept appearing. It's mighty catching, so you watch yourself, that somebody doesn't cheat you before your hair turns gray.
Julius Lester, in contrast, omits any reference to the tale's message, focusing instead on the ludicrousness of the competition and the irony in the match. His final stroke, quick and downbeat, leaves a lot to the imagination:
Brer Rabbit was a hundred yards from the finish line when Brer Turtle came from behind the post and crossed the line. "Soon as I catch my breath, I be pleased to take that fifty dollars, Brer Buzzard."
Brer Buzzard handed over the money, and Brer Turtle went home.
Although these versions are relatively similar with respect to story structure, plot incidents, character motivation, and the like, and although each can be appealing for different reasons, the writers' manipulation of the basic ingredients do signal different intentions, and, in each of these cases, quite different conceptions of the child as reader or listener. Inevitably, every new version of a tale draws readers or listeners into the tale in a unique way, and thereby influences, in just as unique a manner, how a particular reader or listener attends to the tale, what he or she contributes to the experience, and what he or she takes from it. Says Bauman about his transaction with tales told or read, "the focus is on the role of the reader, no longer as a passive receiver of the meaning inherent in the text, but as an active participant in the actualization—indeed, the production—of textual meaning as an interpretive accomplishment, much like the members of an oral storytelling audience" (113).
Folktales are particularly accommodating to variation because they are rooted in oral performance and formed through word-of-mouth repetition occurring over stretches of time. Versions and hence meanings vary because tellers, writers, audiences, and readers are so variable themselves. As Bauman says:
Events in these terms are not frozen, predetermined molds for performance but are themselves situated social accomplishments in which structures and conventions may provide precedents and guidelines for the range of alternatives possible, but the possibility of alternatives, the competencies and goals of participants, and the emergent unfolding of the event make for variability.
We can see this by tracking different written versions of even a limited number of tales that feature trickster-like characters. For example, while exploring analogues to Harris's tales in various regions of the world, Adolph Gerber discovered trickster animals in many guises: as Reynard the Fox in Caxton's versions of medieval stories; as Jackal in India; as Hare, Tortoise, Hyena, Fox, or Jackal in various regions of Africa; and as Bear in Scandinavia, regions of Russia, and eastern Europe (247). Abrahams traced the culprit's nefarious deeds to Spider, who appears in the form of Anansi, Anancy, and even Aunt Nancy, and an ominous, deformed youngster with extraordinary powers who lurks about in true trickster fashion as an "upsetter of order … that opens us up to life itself," absorbed, in turn, by a large cast of tricksters including Rabbit, Bouki (he-goat), Pigeon, Tortoise, John the Slave, John the Fool, and others representative of this world-wide motif (23).
Trickster is a ubiquitous, universal phenomenon that both predates and follows the phenomenon of slavery (though it may have absorbed it), and tricksters are found among storytellers and their audiences who lived and live out their days in every conceivable type of political and social milieu. A sower of discord, a breeder of alarm, trickster is as constant as at least one aspect of human nature and as changeable as the different forms and shapes he or she takes in the hands of different tellers, writers, listeners, and readers. Referring to Karoly Kerenyi's delineation of trickster, Ellison aligns the character with our instinctual drives. Trickster, he reports, is "never wholly subdued, ruled by lust and hunger, forever running into pain and injury, cunning and stupid in action" (217).
For Abrahams, one of the most noticeable—and appealing—traits that unite tricksters from all over the globe is their amorality. The trickster tales do not trade in moral lessons, Abrahams tells us, because trickster is driven by a code of behavior and ethics that, instead of supporting traditional precepts about right and wrong, challenges and confounds them. Always dicing with fate and balanced on the dangerous edge of things, tricksters steal, cheat, coerce, mock, deceive, and are at times instruments of torture and death; but in lieu of reprimand and punishment they usually reap the reward of yet another perfectly timed and perfectly maneuvered ruse—just for the pleasure of it. It is not a vision of morality we are used to, and certainly not one that figures into the typical adult notion of what children should learn and do. Abrahams puts it this way:
We witness the doings of characters who demand that while we listen to the narrative, we suspend not only our disbelief but the kind of moral conscience that asks that we judge such doings on moral grounds. The stories not only entertain but test the limits of the believable, by illustrating situations in which exaggeration, selfishness, and other kinds of reprehensible cutting-up are regarded as normal.
Trickster's irreverence may shock, but it also can spur us to consider the rules by which we live. In shaking things up, trickster often exposes the postures and pretensions of others, as, say, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Tracey Ullman, or Calvin, in Watterson's comic strip, tricksters of sorts in our own time, are wont to do through their clownish license. As Lester says, "the more we are alienated from Trickster, the more likely we are to believe the inflated ideas we have about ourselves … our certitude that we know, absolutely, what is right and what is wrong" (More Tales xii-xiii). Thus, by his nefarious deeds, trickster becomes a model of how not to act.
The rigidity of Harris's and others' diagnosis of trickster's political and social significance circumscribes the reach of trickster Rabbit's intoxicating freedom. By ascribing moral messages to Rabbit's deeds, critics and writers make Rabbit more characteristic of European than African-American story lore, for what is implied is that punishment or retribution must follow the crime. By turning that precept on its heels, the tales of Rabbit's exploits can become a common ground for readers or listeners of all ages, times, and places to reconsider, in the pleasure of the moment, their beliefs about themselves and others and perhaps to liberate them from rigid thinking, not the least important of which is their response to what Abrahams calls the "Black Achievement" (3).
Breaking Free of Harris's Hold
It is no easy task to wrest African-American folktales from the Harris tradition and align them with a more accurate awareness of African-American traditions. This is so, says Mikkelsen with reference to recent versions of the tales for children, because "even after revision has prepared the tales for a modern audience, it is invariably Harris's version that we remember, for the comic situation and the dialogue, for the original expressions, and above all, for the common thread that binds the tales: in trickery there is strength—and equality" (5).
Three recent collections of the tales, published for the children's book market, challenge such an assessment. Of the three, Hamilton's The People Could Fly is the most eclectic. In addition to a handful of animal tales, several of which depict Br'er Rabbit, Hamilton's collection includes fantasy and supernatural tales as well as tales that focus on the slaves' struggle for freedom. Julius Lester, like Van Dyke Parks, has compiled three volumes of tales that feature Rabbit (Parks worked with Malcolm Jones to compile Jump!, the first volume).
It is not surprising that each of these writers has eliminated the Remus figure and framing device, or, more precisely, has replaced Uncle Remus with a less cumbersome narrator. Hamilton and Lester construe their narrator as a "voice." For Hamilton, although the voice is her own, it also is meant to reflect images of "slaves and fugitives, some of whom are my ancestors" (xii). Similarly, Lester, in an article in The New Advocate, talks of "a flesh-and-blood human being whose voice is the embodiment of the community's voice" (144). Parks, in contrast, is less specific about the matter, allowing a vague reference to Harris's use of dialect to suffice (Jump Again! vii).
On the issue of dialect, Hamilton and Lester concern themselves with the significance of replacing Harris's gesture at representing black speech with their own, more culturally aware attempt to do the same in the light of their effort to make the tales readable and, at the same time, effective when read or told aloud. Both opted for a colloquial style that captures the cadence of the oral teller. While Hamilton's language has the polish of a written narrative, its exacting rhythms, its overlapping repetitions, its carefully phrased figures, and its vigorous diction render the tales authentic. Her telling of the "Tappin, the Land Turtle" is a case in point:
Tappin tell him, say, "King, we have terrible time on the earth. We can't get nothin to eat. I got six land chil'ren and I can't find food for them. The eagle, he got but three tree chil'ren and he can fly cross the ocean and get all the food he want. So would you please gimme somethin to feed my chil'ren?"
King tell him, "Aw-right, aw-right." He give Tappin a dipper, long-handle cup. He tell Tappin, "Take this, and when you want food for your chil'ren, say this:
Bakon cawhubo lebe lebe."
In order to justify the style he employs, Lester describes specific features of black English such as the relationship between sound, rhythm, and meaning, the integration of form and function, and shifts in tense to add drama and also to convey the feeling of what Abrahams calls "ongoingness" in African-American storytelling, that the incidents in the story are timeless and immediate (xix). Parks, whose style comes the closest of the three to standard English, only refers to the controversy concerning Harris's use of dialect.
On the page, each of these dialects takes a significantly different turn to significantly different effect. The following passages, from the concluding episode in the Tar Baby tale, demonstrate that even seemingly minor arrangements of the expressive features of a folktale can either capture or detract from the look and feel of its oral nature. Hamilton's version evokes vivid images of an authoritative, perceptive storyteller in motion, and embodies in one brief, resonating sentence the reversal of power and fortune the tale summons through Rabbit's knavish candor and Fox's honest dismay.
And that's what Brother Fox did. He sure did. Took Doc Rabbit by the short hair and threw him—Whippit! Whattit!—right in the briar patch.
"Hot lettuce pie! This is where I want to be," Doc Rabbit hollered for happiness. He was square in the middle of the briar patch. Here is where my mama and papa had me born and raised. Safe at last!"
"Didn't know rabbits have they homes in the briars," Bruh Fox said, scratching his tail.
He knows it now.
What Lester's version of this episode lacks in the way of Hamilton's subtle touches and carefully cadenced phrasing, he gains in the way of dramatic timing and broad humor, two hallmarks of his three volumes.
He snatched him off the Tar Baby and wound up his arm like he was trying to throw a fast-ball past Hank Aaron and chucked that rabbit across the road and smack dab in the middle of the briar patch.
Br'er Fox waited. Didn't hear a thing. He waited a little longer. Still no sound. And just about the time he decided he was rid of Br'er Rabbit, just about the time a big grin started to spread across his face, he heard a little giggle.
"Tee-hee! Tee-hee!" And the giggles broke into the loudest laughing you've ever heard.
Br'er Fox looked up to see Br'er Rabbit sitting on top of the hill on the other side of the briar patch.
Br'er Rabbit waved. "I was born and raised in the briar patch, Br'er Fox! Born and raised in the briar patch!" And he hopped over the hill and out of sight.
Characteristic of most of his versions, Parks's teller sacrifices implication to explanation and, in general, tells more than he shows in a relatively flat approximation of oral style. That is, his versions read better than they tell.
Br'er Rabbit, he opened up with a big ha ha ha so loud it made the other folks take to the bushes. He flung back his head and fetched out a whoop that you could hear from here to Hominy Grove. It surely was scandalous, the way Brer Rabbit could laugh, and he couldn't help but throw back some of his own sass.
He hollered out, "I was bred and born in a briar patch, Brer Fox—bred and born in a briar patch! There's no place I love better!"
And with that, he skipped off as lively as a cricket in the embers.
(Jump Again! 11, 13)
If the impressions of African-American storytellers that Abrahams gleaned from his extensive fieldwork have any validity, then Lester's written versions of the trickster tales, in contrast to Harris's, Hamilton's, and Parks's, come even closer to the mark of approximating the textures of African-American storytelling events. Relying exclusively on Harris's versions, Lester has arranged the tales and some of the material in Harris's frame in a contemporary key. He updates the tales without losing sight of trickster's traditional role as the unflagging paramour of disorder and discord. What makes Lester's versions authentic is not his adherence to the "original" tales, but his breaking free of them in order to accommodate his awareness of trickster's talent for pinpointing the foibles and failings of others.
The element that distinguishes Lester's versions of the trickster tales is his narrator. His narrator is an irreverent and urbane presence, his most remarkable (and endearing) trait being his talent for the type of "signifying talk that Abrahams discovered among storytellers throughout African-American communities. An apt complement to Br'er Rabbit's way with words and others, the signifying teller, among many other things, is prone to shaking things up by pitting people, as well as ideas, against each other, if not only for the pleasure derived from such jousting matches, then also for the purpose of preventing all who come into view from taking themselves too seriously. Signifying is a roundabout way of getting to the point—as in the "lying" posture assumed by storytellers, comedians, or children engaged in witty banter. "Signifying," Abrahams maintains, "becomes a stance toward life itself, in which the significance of a reported action cannot be interpreted as meaning only one thing, for it may convey many messages at the same time, even self-contradictory or self-deflating ones" (6). In its most political sense, Abraham believes, signifying can be a means to get around someone (the old master?) who has power over you. Think of it, in this sense, as a type of double talk.
This mordant manner allows Lester's narrator to focus on some timely, timeless, and controversial issues. For example, Lester's narrator says this about a feminist reading of the tales: "Tell you the truth, with all this here feminicity going around these days, I get scared that some of these feminiscists is going to put their mouth on these stories and next thing you know, we'll be hearing about the Foxperson and the Lionperson. But as long as I'm the one telling the tale, I say Brer Fox should've took his medicine like a man" (Further Tales 12-13).
When it works to best effect, this sardonic attitude towards things both sacred and mundane is a powerful storytelling strategy, for it permits the narrator to step away from an incident or circumstance in the tale in order, for example, to comment on its implications, to layer it with further drama, to punctuate it with humor, or to bring into question the teller's credibility ("Is this a lie or the truth?"). Although traces of this strategy are found in Harris's frame, Lester fills it out, making it less a contrived special effect than an overall stance organic to the impact of the tales themselves. Sometimes the strategy is used to align the tale with the state of contemporary affairs: "You know, Brer Turtle is a cautious kind of creature and he always carries his house with him. Don't know whether he's afraid of robbers or just what. (The ways folks be breaking into houses these days, seems to me Brer Turtle got the right idea.)" (Tales 27).
The signifying stance, Abrahams discovered, is also a strategy for drawing listeners into the tale and frequently to play off of them in an improvisational manner. Oral tellers do this sort of thing through interruptions, for example, or asides, or forms of direct address, which can relate the tale to problems or issues in the community. In Lester's case, the narrator employs such strategies to engage the reader or listener in an extended dialogue; we are, it seems, an unseen but always felt and heard presence for the narrator; we are, as it were, the other teller in the storymaking process.
In Lester's and Hamilton's hands, African-American folktales depict a world that is anything but morally glamorous. For some, this might seem to make the tales unsuitable for children—at first glance. But with so many versions available, including Harris's, of course, it becomes possible to encourage children to mine the shapes and textures of tales told over time and in their own particular time in order to see just how valuable a presence the storyteller's is, how he or she reads the world in order to make us better readers of the world in our own way. With so many versions available and, particularly, with so many tricksters on the prowl, children, as well as the tellers and readers who open the stories to them, will be in even a better position to create their own special version of a genuinely moral world, or at least to shape their own special interpretation of the one our storytellers reveal to us.
Abrahams, Roger, ed. Afro-American Folktales. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Bauman, Richard. Story, Performance, and Event. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Bone, Robert. "The Oral Tradition." In Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Chase, Richard, comp. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
Dickens, Charles. "Frauds on the Fairies." In Suitable for Children? Nicholas Tucker, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Dorson, Richard M. American Negro Folktales. New York: Fawcett, 1967.
———. Folklore and Fakelore. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Ellison, Ralph. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke." Partisan Review 25 (Spring 1988): 212-22.
Gerber, Adolph. "Uncle Remus Traced to the Old World." The Journal of American Folk-Lore 6 (October-December 1893): 245-257.
Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Knopf, 1985.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Daddy Jake, the Runaway and Short Stories Told after Dark. Illustrated by Edward Windsor Kemble. New York: Century, 1889.
Harris, Julia Collier. The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Hearne, Betsy. Choosing Books for Children. New York: Laurel, 1981.
Lester, Julius. Further Tales of Uncle Remus. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1990.
———. More Tales of Uncle Remus. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1988.
———. "The Storyteller's Voice: Reflections on the Rewriting of Uncle Remus." The New Advocate 1 (Summer 1988): 143-47.
———. The Tales of Uncle Remus. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1987.
Mikkelsen, Nina. "When the Animals Talked—A Hundred Years of Uncle Remus." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Spring 1983): 3-5, 31.
Parks, Van Dyke, and Malcolm Jones. Jump! Illustrated by Barry Moser. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
———. Jump Again! Illustrated by Barry Moser. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.
———. Jump on Over! Illustrated by Barry Moser. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.
Wolfe, Bernard. "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit: ‘Takes a Limber-Toe Gemmun fer ter Jump Jim Crow.’" In Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Paula T. Connolly (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Connolly, Paula T. "Crossing Borders from Africa to America." In Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, edited by Sandra L. Beckett, pp. 149-64. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.
[In the following essay, Connolly asserts that Harris compiled the "Uncle Remus" stories with a dual audience in mind—white readers who viewed the tales as folksy Southern fairy tales and African-American readers whose cultural heritage inspired the stories.]
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Jay Hansford C. Vest (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Vest, Jay Hansford C. "From Bobtail to Brer Rabbit: Native American Influences on Uncle Remus." American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 2000): 19-43.
[In the following essay, Vest challenges the critical opinion that Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories are mostly African in origin, asserting that fully a third of the tales have strong parallels to native legends from indigenous tribes from the southern United States.]
In a contemporary study of Native North American mythology, it has been stated that "mythological traditions … have been broken off completely in Georgia and Virginia" and, furthermore, that "in Virginia there are no living traces of Indian culture."1 Although this scholarly conclusion may shock and outrage Virginia's eight recognized tribes, the question of a living mythological tradition deserves attention.2 In addressing this question, I begin with a brief review of the folklore historically attributed to the Saponi-Monacan confederacy (the northern division of the eastern Sioux) inhabiting the Piedmont and the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina from whom—the people and the place—I am descended.
Affirmations of the Saponi-Monacan oral traditions may be ascertained from the early writings of John Smith, John Lederer, and John Lawson; however, William Byrd's History of the Dividing Line (1728) provides the most significant recorded account of Saponi-Monacan mythic lore. While surveying the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, Byrd employed a guide named Bearskin who was a Saponi-Monacan Native from the Fort Christanna Reservation in Virginia. During a Sunday evening in October, Byrd inquired of Bearskin "concerning the religion of his country." In one reference, Byrd writes: "He [Bearskin] believed that after death both good and bad people are conducted by a strong guard into a great road, in which departed souls travel together for some time, till at a certain distance this road forks into two paths, the one extremely level, and the other stony and mountainous."3 Affirming this reference, Lederer, when "enquiring the way to the mountains," consulted "an ancient man [who] described with a staffe two paths on the ground; one pointing to the Mahocks, and the other to the Nahyssans."4 In his colonial scholarship, Byrd appears to represent Bearskin's account in a Judeo-Christian ontology emphasizing soul-ego immortality. Characteristic of Native American metaphysics of nature is the idea of spirits or the personification of the energies that inform life; sometimes these have been referred to as gods but this also misrepresents their ontological existence. These spirits may be thought to be archetypal essences that contribute to the life force empowering the different species of being whether they be element, plant, or animal.
When I first discovered Byrd's attenuated account of Saponi-Monacan tradition, I recognized reference to several distinct traditional narratives that my elders had taught me during my childhood. Referencing a Rabbit-Trickster called Bobtail, these narratives involve adventures with a Terrapin, a Tar Baby, a Briar Patch, a Deer, and a Thunder-Spirit, as well as many other mythic encounters of animal-spirits including Buzzards, Bears, Serpents, and Eagles.
Stories of fabled animal-spirits are among the earliest recollected memories of my childhood and serve as exemplars of the oral narrative tradition that my grandparents and other elders passed to me. These narratives include an account of races between Bobtail and Terrapin, Terrapin and Deer, as well as encounters between Bobtail and Wolf.5 At first glance, these stories would appear to have antecedents in southern folklore. For instance, there are the stories "Mr. Rabbit Finds His Match at Last," "Terrapin Races," and "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" in the Uncle Remus collections written by Joel Chandler Harris.6 On the basis of this prima facie identification with Harris's work, many folklorists tend to identify these narratives and similar stories to be of African American derivation.7 Harris himself challenged that if ethnologists should discover that the narratives did not originate with the African, the proof to that effect should be accompanied with a good deal of persuasive eloquence.8 Folklorist Alan Dundes furthers this challenge, suggesting that advocates of the stories Native American origins must prove an "aboriginal White Rabbit trickster" manifest among the southeastern Indians.9 Accordingly, this essay is intended to extend the debate concerning Harris's collection while affirming an aboriginal Rabbit-Trickster motif among southeastern Indians, specifically including my own Saponi-Monacan heritage. Additional scholarship, which is in preparation, will further explore the respective folk motifs, interpret the myths in accordance with Saponi-Monacan tradition, and assess the modern simulations, such as "Bugs Bunny" and others, in comic characterization.
Before discussing Harris and the folklorists concerning the origin of these stories including the Rabbit-Trickster, permit me to invoke two traditional Native American axioms—the oral narrative tradition and the Nature.10 Initiating this study of the authenticity of these selected narratives, I begin with deference to my Native oral tradition. First, my father (b. 1919) heard these tales and other narratives from his great-grandmother's younger brother (b. 1825), who spoke Saponi; thus, collaterally through this elder's sister (b. 1818), members of my family may have known Byrd's Bearskin personally. I received the stories from my grandparents (b. 1886 and 1888), who could trace the narratives to a great-grandmother (b. 1784) and from her to another relative born around 1700.
My father was born at the tribal settlement of Hico, Virginia, located atop the Blue Ridge divide near Buena Vista, Virginia. Because of the racial codes, the elders were wary of outsiders and towns. Consequently, my dad was ten years old before visiting a village. My elders did not assimilate stories from outsiders and they did not read widely or even beyond a third-grade level. They had no contact with Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus narratives. There is no known or suspected African ancestry within our genetic heritage. Furthermore, the elders' telling of Rabbit-Trickster narratives and other mythic stories was restricted to winter and derived from an ageless oral tradition that embraced the enduring Native American way of life.11
In the second case, let us attend to the Nature and the difference between the African slaves' and the Native Americans' interaction with it. On the basis of archaeological evidence, the southeastern United States has been continuously occupied by indigenous people since 8000 B.C.E.12 Whether this periodicity obtained for the tribes encountered there by the first European invaders remains obscure, but we can conclude that these Natives adapted to the place and thus the Nature encountered there.13 African slaves, like Europeans, were confronted with a very different ecological system and environmental conditions from those of their homeland. In addition, African slaves were almost never permitted to leave the domesticated plantations—environments radically altered from those that the Natives originally occupied. Accordingly, they had very little contact with indigenous wildlife, particularly the timid, wary, and wild, habitat-demanding creatures who were cleared away in the name of the European ideological interpretation of the Edenic garden myth of Genesis.
Given this situation, why and how would newly arrived African slaves, having had no contact with wild nature, devote a significant number of narratives to wary creatures such as the wolf, the panther, the wildcat, and the bear—animals with no African counterparts? Other creatures such as the opossum, the raccoon, and the rattlesnake likewise had no counterparts in Africa, yet they found a prominent place in Harris's allegedly African plantation slave narratives. Furthermore, folklorist Richard Dorson has expressed surprise at the "prominence of the buzzard as a folk character" in Harris's "field" collection juxtaposed with the "known Negro repertoire."14 It is simply illogical to assume that African slaves would choose wild animals—wolf, panther, wildcat, and bear—with which they had little or no familiarity to be their folk-motif characters. Likewise, it does not obtain that they would quickly assimilate a knowledge of wildlife behavior consistent with that evident in the narratives. Indeed, the lack of African animal counterparts for the bear, opossum, raccoon, and rattlesnake make their prominent presence within the narratives extremely unlikely. Surely, the wild, wary, and unusual creatures and their roles as narrative characters are derived from some other font of ecological knowledge. Given the specific understanding of animal behavior and particular ecological knowledge evidenced in these narratives, they can only be derived from a source containing a deep Nature wisdom and an intimate environmental awareness that comes from long-sustained contact and observation.15 Thus, I believe this knowledge of the Nature manifest in the narratives provides a significant and telling clue regarding to whom these stories belong. The answer of origins has to be indigenous American Indians, that is, the Native peoples of the American southeast. Given these suppositions, let us now examine the folklore debate.
Folklorist Florence Baer writes that "Harris was convinced the Indians had adopted Negro tales," and Dundes makes this conclusion the principal theme of his critique, writing: "Perhaps the first indication that American Indians had borrowed African tales from Negro slaves and ex-slaves was the noting of a large number of parallels in Joel Chandler Harris's ‘Uncle Remus’ tales and the tales collected from the Cherokee and the Creek."16 The early orthodoxy, however, including the writings of John Wesley Powell, director of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Smithsonian Institution), informed Harris that "some of Uncle Remus's stories appear in a number of different languages, and in various modified forms, among the Indians; and he [Powell] is of the opinion that they are borrowed by the Negroes from the red man."17 The beleaguered author countered with a curious citation of Herbert H. Smith's Brazil and the Amazons demonstrating exact parallels between selected Amazonian Indian myths and the corresponding Brer Rabbit stories. Harris concluded: "This similarity extends to almost every story quoted by Mr. Smith, and some are so nearly identical as to point unmistakably to a common origin; but when and where? When did the Negro or the North American Indian ever come in contact with the tribes of South America?"18
Harris continues to counter Powell with further citations of Smith, who suggests the prima facie conclusion that the stories "originated in Africa, and were carried to South America by the Negro slaves." Nevertheless, Smith himself is ambiguous, continuing, "They [the stories] are told by savage Indians of the Amazon Valley (away up on the Tapajos, Red Negro, and Tapura). These Indians hardly ever see a Negro, and their languages are very distinct from the broken Portuguese spoken by the slaves. The form of the stories, as recounted in the Tupi and Mundurucu languages, seems to show that they were originally formed in these languages or have long been adopted in them." Despite this strong evidence against the diffusion of the stories by African slaves, Smith concludes that they were derived from Africa.19 In my judgment, this ambiguity can be understood only considering that Smith was reaching his conclusion based upon Harris's claim of the stories' African origin.20 Paradoxically, then, Harris attempts to justify his position of African narrative origins via Smith's work. It is a circular argument with a linear conclusion. Moreover, Harris has created an ideological axiom or rationalization that has passed largely unobserved under the guise of African diffusion.
Harris would have the reader believe that "the Negro" is the linchpin between North American and South American Indian narratives. A challenge to this position might well originate in linguistic and archaeological studies linking Amazonian tribes with the southeastern culture area. Certainly, the evidence of the Woodland period (1000 B.C.E.-700 C.E.), a time of extensive mound building, points to strong influences from Mesoamerica, including diffusion of important crops such as the bottle gourd
(Lagenaria siceraris standl.), squash (Cucurbita peopo L.), and a type of corn called tropical flint.21 The scope of this diffusion may not have extended to peoples and myths, but the archaeological parallels between North American and South American tribes cannot easily be dismissed. Cultural characteristics between Florida and the Circum-Caribbean are perhaps even greater than these Mesoamerican relationships. At the outset of the sixteenth century, Florida was inhabited by two primary Indian groups, the Calusa and the Timucua. Both of these groups manifested linguistic association with Antillean culture—Calusa with Arawakan and Timucua with Carib—both of which are derived from South American linguistic families. Given that the archaeological and linguistic parallels between Florida and the Antillean culture cannot easily be dismissed, a similar narrative presence must be considered probable.22 Conversely, if we follow Harris's circular reasoning, the only thing that we are allowed to conclude to be shared between Indians of North America and South America is African slaves.
Minding this specter of doubt, let us turn to the character of Harris's ethnography. Literary critic Louis Rubin Jr. has pointed out that Harris's discovery of Uncle Remus was made over time and was further an invention for political purposes. Gradually developing the Remus character from an Atlanta Constitution column, Harris advertised for more stories when he had exhausted his stock of recollections. Dutifully, his readers supplied him with new materials.23 His advertisement in the Darien (Georgia) Timber Gazette of December 1879 read: "We could be glad if any of our readers who chance to remember any of the Negro fables and legends so popular on plantations would send us brief outlines of the … main incidents and characters…. The purpose is to preserve these quaint myths in permanent form. Address J. C. Harris, c/o Constitution."24 Given that most slaves did not read, an advertisement like this could have produced a widely erratic response. Certainly, it does not work to authenticate Harris's sources.
Furthermore, the Uncle Remus character is itself gradually evolved from early prototypes preceding Harris's collecting of myths and folklore. Writing sketches of Georgia life, Harris began with "Markam's Ball" and "Jeems Robinson" as his early prototypical Remus in his 26 October 1876 "Roundabout in Georgia" column. These stories were begun as a replacement column for the Atlanta Constitution writer Sam Small, who contributed dialect sketches of political allegory featuring a character called Old Si.25 By 31 October 1876, "Remus" has a minor role in the sketch "Politics and Provisions," and not until 28 November does "Uncle Remus" emerge as a regular feature in the Constitution. In later sketches, it is clear that the Constitution's Remus is concerned with the "politicians for their ineffectuality and slick city Negroes for their willingness to take a dole from the government, or steal a neighbor's chicken, instead of doing an honest day's work."26 Thus, Harris used the Atlanta Remus to comment on "the Reconstruction scene and the city Negroes' ‘thin veneer of culture’" while still developing the down-home Uncle Remus.27 Accordingly, Harris evidences a willingness to manipulate the character for social and political ends. Nevertheless, according to Rubin, Harris "liked to pretend that he wrote without artifice of art, and that he had done little more than transcribe the Negro folktales that won him worldwide acclaim. Yet he once showed Ray Stannard Baker the drafts of sixteen introductory passages to a single story."28 Multiple accounts of the same story reveal Harris's willingness to rework the materials according to the tastes of his audience.29 Thus, it appears that Harris regularly took narratives from whatever source and fitted them into his Uncle Remus folk motif; he clearly was serving his creative purposes and not attending African American ethnography.
Following the publication of his first Uncle Remus book, Harris found himself amid an exciting folklore debate. Although he professed to simply stumble upon oral traditions from southern African slaves, he whimsically began referring to himself as an "accidental author" and a "cornfield journalist."30 Nevertheless asserting the idea that "ethnological considerations formed no part of the undertaking," Harris implicitly claimed the role of folklorist when he began "simply" writing down the stories that every "plantation mammy in the South knew."31 His characters Uncle Remus, the little boy, and Ms. Meadows are significant literary inventions outside the folklore forum which manifest both his creativity and personal agenda. Harris's insistence that the narratives "are of remote African origin" blinded him and his sympathizers to other possible considerations.32 Conversely, Dorson was unwilling to accept the Africanist origins theory and called Harris's contentions of "remote African origins" for the tales "quite erroneous."33 This perspective is supported by the Stanley Elkins school of history that concludes that the slave crossings were so brutal a passage that they served as a cultural filter, preventing the transmission of African folklore to America.34 Despite this theory of a "middle passage filter," there can be no doubt that some African folklore survived the Atlantic crossing.35 However, Harris's claim that he had verified many of the narratives in Angolan folklore is grossly overstated. Indeed, only three narratives can be positively linked to Angola, a region of southern Africa that was not a point of origin for the slave trade.36
Recognizing several parallels between the Remus stories and European accounts of "Reynard the Fox," folklorists Thomas Crane, F. M. Warren, and Adolf Gerber began tracing many of the Uncle Remus narratives to the "Old World."37 In fact, two Uncle Remus stories are virtually identical to comparative German accounts and cannot possibly be of African origin.38 Noting the popular occurrence in the West Indies of Anasi, the Spider-Trickster, Dorson casts doubt on the Rabbit as an African Trickster folk motif.39 Indeed, the spider is absent in the African American narratives derived from the United States, a point that challenges the prospects of a migration via the middle passage. The complete substitution of the African Trickster figures—spider, jackal, tortoise, and weasel—into Brer Rabbit therefore is highly improbable.40 The so-called Cunnie Rabbit of African narrative, which has sometimes been championed as Brer Rabbit's prototype, is really not a rabbit at all.41 In fact, the only African rabbit motif formally manifest in the Remus collection is derived from the Hausa, the Bushmen, and the Hottentots.42 Oddly, its point of origin is southern Africa, outside the slavetrade region of the central coast. The burden of proof for African origins of the Remus tales rests therefore with specific accountability of African sources for each individual tale.43
In presuming to know "the Negro as a person before he knew that he was a problem," Harris has been championed for his noblesse oblige toward African Americans. In this context, he is read as an interpreter of the "Negro" to those "to whom the Negro had almost ceased to be a person."44 While this perspective may have significantly constituted Harris's political agenda, it also may reveal his misreading of the original narrative metaphors and the allegorical imposition of his ideology upon the stories. Kathleen Light has rightly acknowledged that Harris could not consider alternate origins of the narratives "because for him the allegorical interpretation of the stories depended upon their being original with the Negroes."45 Moreover, aided by the passage of many years, his work may reflect a vivid gift for fantasy and creative artistry.46
The creative framing devices—Uncle Remus, the little boy, and Ms. Meadows—that Harris created suggest a literary quality rather than an oral tradition. Commenting upon the author's artistry, Mark Twain wrote to Harris:
You can argue yourself into the delusion that the principle of life is the stories themselves and not in their setting, but you will save labor by stopping with that solitary convert, for he is the only intelligent one you will bag. In reality the stories are only alligator pears—one eats them merely for the sake of the dressing. "Uncle Remus" is most deftly drawn and is a lovable and delightful creation; he and the little boy and their relations with each other are bright, fine literature, and worthy to live…. But I seem to be proving to the man that made the multiplication table that twice one is two.47
Equating the framing devices (Uncle Remus, the little boy, and Ms. Meadows) with dressing and the stories with "alligator pears," Twain significantly directs our inquiry toward the narrative framework.48 Uncle Remus has been characterized to be as great a creation as Brer Rabbit.49 Nevertheless, Harris denied any use of literary art or Twain's "dressing" in the Remus creation.50 He explains: "He was not an invention of my own, but a human syndicate, I might say, of three or four old darkies whom I had known. I just walloped them together into one person and called him ‘Uncle Remus.’"51 As "dressing," Uncle Remus is a benign, autocratic old fellow who tells animal fables to a little boy by the big house while dodging the child's "troublesome questions with a pontifical authority."52 In this authorial manner, Uncle Remus betrays Harris's apparent defensiveness regarding his creation's folkloristic qualities. Furthermore, it is clear that Harris increasingly projected his own ideas through Uncle Remus.53 Dorson notes that the tales, bearing the creative stamp of the author, are transformed into an artistic fiction.54 Accordingly, despite Harris's claim to oral tradition on the Turner plantation, his interests were primarily literary since his mother read The Vicar of Wakefield to him at a very tender age. In fact, Harris's claim to an authentic oral tradition is questioned by George Fenwick Jones, who cites his use of "brief outlines of the main incidents and characters" when composing the dialect sketches.55 Jones further suggests that this experience and translations of Reynart the Fox influenced Harris's artistry, which is decidedly not oral in character, with its reflection of the medieval animal epic.56 Consequently, there is little foundation to consider Harris to be a compiler of African American folklore.
In terms of Indian borrowing of the narratives, we must carefully consider Powell's objections that "the stories appear in a number of different languages, and in various modified forms."57 In 1927, John Swanton, in the Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, records several stories that appear to be clearly borrowed from cultures other than the specified tribes.58 For instance, among the Creek the stories, "The Devil's Tasks," "The Boy and the Lion," "The Animal Helpers," and "The Monkey Girl" appear to have been borrowings. Likewise, among the Hitchiti there is "A Rip Van Winkle Story," among the Alabama there is the "Story of the Mule's Return," and among the Koasati there are the "Locust and Ant" and "The Dog and Heron"; likewise, among the Natchez, there are "The Fox and the Crawfish," "The Twelve Irishmen," "The Two Irishmen," and "Jack and the Beanstalk." The presence of these stories clearly reflects narrative assimilation from outside sources. Nevertheless, note that in no single case are these stories universally present across the specified culture area. Conversely, the Rabbit-Trickster is universal across each of these tribal narrative collec- tions; indeed, it is present throughout the southeastern culture area. This condition indicates the primacy of the Rabbit-Trickster as a southeastern Indian folk motif while demonstrating the long and evidently slow rate of external narrative assimilation within a culture area. Consequently, Powell's objection to Harris on language and form variance appears justifiable.
However, Harris's trump card would seem to be his plantation experience, during which he heard original accounts of the narratives from "bonafide" African slaves. Nevertheless, this observation may have been a matter of selective perception. Irving Hallowell has written that "in the colonial period of our history some Indians shared the status of slaves with Negroes."59 European enslavement of American Indians began with Christopher Columbus, who in 1494 sent more than five hundred Indians to Spain and the slave market.60 After the enslavement of the Natives of Espanola for exploitation in Spanish gold mines, captives experienced high mortality, leading slavers to raid the Bahamas and Florida in the early 1500s. Accordingly, southern American Indians were consigned to slavery in the West Indies concurrently with the first African slaves, who were introduced there between 1501 and 1503.61 During the 1520s, over 150 eastern Siouan Indians were taken as slaves from the Cape Fear River area by Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón.62
There are several accounts of Indian enslavement in Virginia. For instance, as Old Dominion began asserting its colonial institutions in the early 1600s, the practice of educating Indian children at the College of William and Mary became a ruse for officials to sell the children as slaves.63 Following a Powhatan uprising and the Treaty of October 1646, Indian prisoners were kept by the English and made servants.64 Despite an act of 1660 in Virginia that "Indians [were] not to be sold as slaves," it later became legal during Bacon's Rebellion to enslave tributary Indians who had committed acts such as fighting or who were deemed hostile by the English.65 In fact, following a May 1676 attack upon the Occaneechi (Siouan), the Virginia General Assembly passed laws "declaring all Indians who deserted their towns or harbored hostile Indians to be enemies, and any Indians captured in ‘war’ were to be slaves."66 By 1682, the Assembly "declared all servants who were not Christians at time of purchase, as well as all Indians sold by ‘neighboring Indians or any other’ people, to be slaves."67
The proprietors of colonial South Carolina identified Indian enslavement in that colony, writing: "Mr. Maurice Matthews & Mr. James Moore have most Contemptuously disobeyed our order about sending away Indians & have contrived most unjust warrs upon the Indians in order to the getting of Slaves & were Contriving new warrs for that purpose."68 Matthews and Moore were associates within a group of powerful Carolina planters known as the Goose Creek men who were notorious for their incitement of tribal allies to war upon neighboring Natives whom they captured and sold as slaves.69 The Carolina colonist Dr. Henry Woodward reports in 1674 to Lord Shaftsbury, "Trade was opened from St. Giles' plantation for ‘deare skins, furrs and young Indian slaves.’"70 Emphasis is given to Woodward's account in the following year (1675) when "a Chisca (Yuchi) woman … escaped from slavery in Carolina" to the Spanish Apalache in Florida.71 While the Carolinians engaged in limited Indian wars prior to 1680, there were a series of clashes that "developed the notorious traffic in Indian slaves, in which South Carolina achieved a bad eminence among the English colonies."72 In 1680, the colonial Proprietors charged that the powerful Charles Town slave-dealers created the Westo (Indian) War for the purposes of selling Indian slaves in the West Indies.73 Following this precedent, the Carolinians regularly encouraged and conducted Indian slave raids against tribes, as diverse and far away as the "Winyahs from the North Carolina border, Appomatox from Virginia, Cherokee from the mountains, and Chatot from the Gulf of Mexico."74 Expanding this commerce in Indian slaves, the Carolinians encouraged intertribal wars, which were "extraordinarily wasteful in [their] effects, and led to rapid penetration of the interior."75 Noting the 1690-1700 war with the Choctaws, Vernon Crane writes that "the ultimate aim of the English was to exhaust them by wars in order to seize their lands and send them all slaves into distant countries."76
Indian slavery also was practiced for the Carolina domestic economy. In a 1704 raid upon the Apalachees, Moore boasted of returning with four thousand captive Indian women and children slaves for the colony.77 Crane further notes that traffic in Indian slaves spread to other colonies and the West Indies. While many southern Indian slaves were shipped off to New England and the West Indies, southern plantations remained rich with enslaved Natives.78 Crane notes, for example, that "in 1708, when the total population of South Carolina was 9,580, including 2,900 negroes, there were 1,400 Indian slaves held in the province."79 Although not peculiar to South Carolina, Indian slavery reached greater proportions there than in any other English colony. Following the Tuscarora War in 1711, at least seventy-five of these North Carolina and Virginia Iroquian peoples were brought to South Carolina as slaves.80 Available records reveal that a minimum of 5,500 Indians were enslaved in the Carolinas.81 Although Indian groups survived in the South, those who remained as slaves melted into the black population.82 Furthermore, Charles Royce notes that "systematic slave hunts had nearly exterminated the aboriginal occupants of the Carolinas before anybody had thought them sufficient importance to ask who they were, how they lived, or what were their beliefs and opinions."83
While many Carolina Siouans were sold onto plantations within their original homelands, others were sold as captives into West India bondage.84 Actually as early as 1638, the Massachusetts English had deported many of the conquered Pequots to the Bermudas as slaves.85 Transportation of Indian slaves to the West Indies included captured Kussoe Indians during the war of 1671-74.86 In fact, six hundred householders on Jamaica reported holding fifty-one Indian slaves between the years 1670 and 1700.87 Governor Cabrera of St. Augustine expressed his grief over Indian enslavement and the slave trade with Barbados.88 In 1636 the Barbados governing council announced that "Negroes and Indians that come here to be sold, should serve for life."89 Not to be outdone, the Virginia English decreed that all Nanzaticos aged twelve years and older were to be sold in servitude in the West Indies. Accordingly, an entire Powhatan tribal group was eliminated from Virginia and enslaved in Antigua.90 Curiously enough, parallel narratives to the Uncle Remus collection appear in folklore collections from the West Indies and these stories are likewise questionably attributed to African origins.91
By now the Native American origins of the narratives should be clear, but the story of Indian assimilation into the African American population does not end in the biracial South. Another factor contributing to the narratives' identification with African American origin is the racial integrity codes that governed the South. Governor William Gooch promised "the better government of Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians" with a 1724 Virginia law that deprived men in those categories of their political franchise. Indeed, as early as 1705 the Virginia Assembly decreed that "the child of an Indian and the child, grand child, or great grand child of a negro shall be deemed, accounted, held and taken to be a mullato." The legislative intention was clearly to include Indians among the colony's colored population, thereby creating a biracial—white and colored—society. Politically exclusive of Native Americans, southern colonies began legislating Indians into oblivion. In 1712, South Carolina followed Virginia with apartheid legislation, which North Carolina also affirmed in 1712 and 1741.92 A century later, the Virginia General Assembly passed an 1823 law stating, "Be it enacted and declared, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That the child of an Indian and the child, or great grandchild of a Negro shall be deemed, accounted, held and taken to be a mullato."93 In this pre-Civil War period, anyone declared black or mulatto was subject to severe civil depravation, including enslavement. Later, with the Virginia Racial Integrity Law of 1924, the state continued to acknowledge only two races, white and black. This law reads: "It shall be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white or American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of an American Indian."94 The product of Dr. W. A. Plecker, registrar of the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, this statute outlawed Indians in Virginia; Plecker had decided that no Native Americans remained in Virginia, and he was determined to legislate those claiming to be Indians out of existence. Plecker systematically altered Indian birth, death, and marriage certificates to read "colored" or "Negro." Thus, at this time no one could claim a Native American racial heritage, and if they attempted to do so they were labeled mulatto or black by the state.95 Common throughout the South for over three centuries, these laws certainly made it possible for Harris to identify Native Americans as African Americans based upon erroneous biracial apartheid conditions.96 Furthermore, it is also possible that circumstances such as these could have forced Native Americans into African American communities, thereby allowing for the sharing of the narratives.
It is instructive to note that Harris admits that several Virginia correspondents recalled having heard the stories throughout their lives.97 A Dr. Thorton Whaling, said to be the greatest collector of Negro folk tales next to Harris, testified hearing narratives, which were subsequently published by Harris, in approximately 1866 from his own "black mammy in Virginia."98 Furthermore, linguist Darwin Turner notes that the early Uncle Remus used a Virginia slave dialect, which was later replaced by the coastal Georgia Gullah.99 Curiously, this change occurred following Harris's public advertisement for sketches and outlines of slave stories when a respondent notified him of the African slave Gullah dialect. Given the Virginia racial integrity laws and biracial apartheid, these reports may reflect informants who cannot be treated exclusively as slaves of African ancestry. Indeed, when the region's history of Indian enslavement and the biracial apartheid legislation exclusive of a Native race are considered with the southern Indian Rabbit-Trickster narratives, there is every reason to conclude that the informants are derived from Native ancestry. Acknowledging this integration history of "Br'er Rabbit at the Square Ground," Leitch Wright Jr. significantly recounts the racial blending of Indians and African slaves during the plantation era.100 He concludes that Br'er Rabbit had no middle passage but "was on hand to greet African slaves when they arrived in the South."101
Dissemination of Native American narratives in the South began in the seventeenth century through explorers and traders, examples being Lederer's 1672 observations and Byrd's 1728 Saponi-Monacan account, as well as Lawson's 1701 report. These adventurers and travelers were accompanied by an active Indian fur trade. In this era, the primary overland trade center among the Indians was the Occaneechi (Saponi-Monacan) island; all traders departed from this village when traveling over the Catawba trail, which then branched out to the various Native centers.102 Entertainment via oral narratives was among the most sophisticated forms of Native hospitality. Accordingly, stories, including mythic narratives, were transported in the travelers' remembrance from selected Native villages. Thus, you will find these stories and several others that I can disclose, as well as identify with the Byrd account of Bearskin's religion, in cultures outside the original Native heritage and homeland. Furthermore, there was the removal of the Yuchi from Georgia to Oklahoma; their mythology, collected by W. O. Tuggle, also has a role in establishing the Native American authenticity of the narratives.
Writing, "Mr. Tuggle's collection of Creek legends probably will be published under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, and will serve a noteworthy contribution to the literature of American folklore," Harris did acknowledge a collection of "Creek" Indian narratives.103 In 1877, Tuggle, a Georgia attorney, was "appointed legal agent to represent the Creek Nation in negotiating a sizable claim against the federal government."104 While in Oklahoma, Tuggle won the confidence of the Yuchi chief, Samuel W. Brown Jr., and with meticulous care he "collected an extensive number of Indian fables and tales."105 Among the narratives collected by Tuggle are several accounts of Terrapin races, including one with the Rabbit and another with the Deer.106 Recognizing that the Yuchi (Siouan) spoke a different language from the Creek, Tuggle's work reveals an original Siouan mythology from the southeast. Its acknowledgment of the Rabbit and Terrapin races comport with the Saponi-Monacan narratives that were preserved in the oral tradition of my elders.
Although apparently lacking the evidence of Indian slavery and the racial integrity codes of the South, folklorists have dismissed the Tuggle collection and have dogmatically defended Harris's claim that Native Americans borrowed the narratives from African slaves. In this context, Dundes's work has been most emphatic; his criticisms are based upon the folk tale type index as an infallible guide and the fact that the Hare is the principal Trickster figure in East Africa.107 In the case of the folk tale type index, there is an Old World prejudice implying a primacy of narrative origination in the Middle East or Africa. Referring to this special study of folk tale origins, Friedrich von der Leyen wrote: "The homeland of any given folk tale can generally be judged to be the region in which the richest harvest of variants appears; furthermore, where the structure of the tale is most consistent, and beliefs may serve to illuminate the meaning of the tale. The farther a folk tale wanders from its home, the greater the damage to its configurations."108 Reflecting the ideas of folk tale diffusion, many schools have emerged which attempt to explain cultural affinities united across humanity. These schools have suggested a place of origin for such cultural affinities and respectfully concluded it to be either Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, or somewhere between the Nile and the Indus, and, in a modified formulation independent of the Old World, the valley of Mexico has been championed.109 However, this theory of narrative diffusion largely is based upon the archaeology of Western civilization, that is, on the primacy of its origins. Exhibiting this ideology, Dundes writes: "If a folktale is widely reported in Africa and in Afro-American tradition and that same tale is not found in Europe, one can only conclude that one has an example of an African/Afro-American folktale."110 Never mind that the Rabbit or Hare is only "widely reported" in East Africa; it is the prejudice of the folk tale diffusion theory which primarily compels Dundes's conclusion. Consequently, in the folklorist's view, all Native American narratives that have analogous forms or apparent counterparts in the Old World are said to be imports to the Indians in the New World. This axiom reflecting the origin of West- ern civilization also appears to reference that civilization's imperialism—both intellectual and sociopolitical—in the conquest of the Americas.
Nevertheless, Dundes's dependence upon an East African Hare-Trickster provides a substantiative case for debate. Concluding erroneously that the Rabbit does "not figure as a trickster figure outside the southeast in American Indian folklore," Dundes, like Harris, builds a house of cards based upon a future "enterprising" study of African and East African tale types that will (someday) provide "overwhelming" evidence for his position.111 While literary critics Louise Dauner and Bernard Wolfe have both questioned the African origin position, Dundes and Baer have chosen to dismiss their criticisms. Dauner rightly acknowledges that most African slaves were taken from the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast in West Africa, while Wolfe writes: "Folklore study indicated that if the Negro did have stories about the rabbit back in Africa, they were not these stories, and the rabbit was most decidedly not this rabbit. Brer Rabbit's truer ancestor, research suggests, hails from elsewhere."112 Implying that Wolfe is attempting to suggest Brer Rabbit as a "Negro recast" "European trickster," Baer ignores the implications of a Native American origin and thereby evidences the Old World prejudice identified earlier.113 Likewise, Dundes's obliviousness to a Native American Rabbit-Trickster outside the southeast is an unpardonable omission of scholarship, given identification of "the Great Hare, Manabozho, of the Algonquian Indians of Eastern North America [as] one of the most important figures in Indian Myth" when critiquing "the Uncle Remus Fables."114 With this point, we should have some idea that Dundes's claim denying a Rabbit-Trickster outside the southeastern culture area is absolutely absurd.
Responding to an American Indian Rabbit-Trickster narrative submitted to the Critic in 1882 by Rev. Joseph Anderson of Waterbury, Connecticut, Harris was forced to acknowledge the aboriginal Great Hare of the eastern woodlands cultural area.115 Unequivocally acknowledged among the northeast Algonquian tribes, the Rabbit-Trickster is called Manabozho or Nanabush among the Ojibwa and the Menominee. It is also present among midwestern Siouans including the Winnebago, the Iowa, the Oto, the Ponca, the Omaha, the Osage, and the Dakota.116 Consequently, this acknowledgment of the Hare (which is found well into the Plains cultural area) among midwestern Siouans is highly significant, given that Yesang (Tutelo), a variant of Saponi-Monacan, has been recognized as mutually understandable among the Winnebagos. Indeed, Paul Radin's authoritative study of the Winnebago Hare Cycle is among the foremost accounts of American Indian mythology.117 Mesoamerica also offers a Rabbit-Trickster presence outside the southeastern cultural area; for instance, the first year of the Aztec calendar system is symbolized by a rabbit (toctli) hieroglyph.118 Particularly favoring the rabbit, Mayan oral literature manifests the Trickster's presence from Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Belize, Guatemala, and Chiapas.119 John Fought reported that among the Chorti, a Rabbit-Trickster account ranks as the outstanding narrative performance.120
In the southeast, the aboriginal Rabbit-Trickster is universal across four distinct Native American language families. Evidenced among the Biloxi and Ofo, Siouan languages closely related to Saponi-Monacan, Rabbit-Trickster tales and several others manifest great similarity to those given to me by my elders.121 Of related interest, the Cherokee of the 1782-88 era reported a settlement adjacent to the Hiwassee River known as Chestowee, the "Rabbit Place." Significantly, this town occupied a former Yuchi (Siouan) village site.122 In general, the Rabbit-Trickster manifests a universal presence across the southeastern culture area; according to Swanton, it is present among the Creek, the Hitchiti, the Alabama, the Koasati, and the Natchez. Likewise, it is present among the Choctaw, who agreed to their treaty at "Dancing Rabbit Creek," a clear reference to the Rabbit-Trickster.123 Swanton also records several Chitimacha myths that have direct parallels with several Remus accounts.124 The Rabbit-Trickster is likewise prominent in Florida Seminole folklore.125 Widely manifest among the Cherokee, the Rabbit-Trickster is memorialized in the individual named Sleeping Rabbit, an 1829 tribal official.126 Working with monolingual Cherokees, Native folklorists Jack and Anna Kilpatrick recorded the Rabbit-Trickster as the central character of many Cherokee stories and declared that "the Rabbit and the sticky statue was borrowed from the Indians by negro slaves."127
In a contextual analysis of the Harris collection, Celia Blackmon found that thirty-three stories were "in similar, if not identical, form in Cherokee and Creek Indian lore."128 Although Dundes has attempted to dismiss this study on the basis that Blackmon fails to employ the folk tale type index, a careful reading of her thesis manifests an acknowledgment of previous folk tale type analysis. Following the folk tale analysis of Stella Brewer Brooks, Adolf Gerber, and Anne K. Stevens, Blackmon noted that seventeen narra- tives "cannot be traced anywhere in the Old World."129 This significant finding is buttressed by thoughtful analysis of plot, framework and language parallels, as well as studies of characterization and motive, all of which indicate Native American origins for the specified thirty-three narratives. Given the literary and historical considerations that I have detailed within this essay, there is little reason to doubt or question Blackmon's findings, nor is there any basis for the withering dismissal that Dundes conveys.
The Rabbit-Trickster's integration across four major language groups—Algonquian, Siouan, Muskogean, Iroquoian—and geographically from the Arctic to the tropics and from the Great Plains to the Atlantic shores, as well as Mesoamerica and northern South America, would seem to bear out Powell's concern expressed to Harris and likewise satisfy von der Leyden's folk tale homeland criteria. Accordingly, suggesting that ethnologist James Mooney exaggerated a Cherokee Rabbit-Trickster when speaking of a "Great White Rabbit who he claimed was the hero-god, trickster, and wonder-worker of all the tribes east of the Mississippi from Hudson bay to the Gulf," Dundes's dismissal here appears feeble in the face of the overwhelming evidence.130 Moreover, in a contemporary report with Mooney's, Hendron (1895) likewise declares that among the Virginia Algonquians—Powhatan confederacy, Pamilco, and others—"a mighty great hare" appeared as their "chief god."131 Answering Dundes's challenge, we may conclusively turn to William Strachey's The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania, written in 1610 and published in 1612, well before the presence of any African influences or slaves in North America, wherein the author identifies "a mightie great Hare" as "the Chief god" among the Native Americans.132
Recording two Rabbit-Trickster narratives, Strachey is referencing the Powhatan lore of his association in tidewater Virginia. One cannot, however, dismiss the Siouan Saponi-Monacan as the keepers of these tales. In a 1724 visit to the Saponi-Monacan of the Fort Christanna Reservation, the Rev. Hugh Jones noted that "they [the Indians] have certain Hieroglyphical Methods of characterizing things."133 Addressing a petroglyph site along the James River falls at Westham, a Richmond medical doctor, Harry Easterly, reported an image of "a man with a mouth, eyes and rabbit-like ears" etched upon one of the granite boulders there. Dated by archeologists to the Woodland era, this image clearly bespeaks the "mightie great Hare" and manifests an age of 2,500 years.134 Recalling that Siouan occupation of the area dates from the Woodland era and the Powhatan remark to John Smith that the Saponi-Monacan annually occupied the James River falls during the autumn, there is strong evidence to suggest that this petroglyph is the image of none other than Bobtail himself. Recording his 1724 sojourn among the Saponi-Monacan, Jones made a curious reference to a creator figure called Mohomny who lives beyond the sun.135 Among the narratives that Strachey recorded, there is an account of the dead traveling together with a mighty great Hare to a land beyond the sun.136 Furthermore, in Winnebago, a language mutually understandable with Tutelo (Saponi-Monacan), Ma-un-na, or Earthmaker, appears cognate with Jones's Mahomny. The rabbit is sometimes called cottontail (Mon shtinge); among the Osage and several other Siouan languages close linguistic cognates are manifest.137 For example, rabbit is mastinca in Dakota, ma shciñ ge in Omaha, and ma schciñ é in Otoe, and earth is Mayan, which is reminiscent of the Winnebago Maunna and the Omaha Mon-dhin-ka-ga-he, Earthmaker.138 These significantly related terms suggest that the Jones Ft. Christanna reference Mahomny bespeaks earthmaker or the "mightie great Hare." In any case, we have the "aboriginal White Rabbit trickster" motif that is absolutely pre-African among the American Indians; Dundes's challenge to the American Indian origin theory of Brer Rabbit and Harris's plantation contentions should now be put to rest.139
In considering the foregoing discussion, it should not be concluded that all of the Joel Chandler Harris narratives are Native American; in fact, I suspect that only one-third are derived from American Indian sources. The remainder are likely original to African and European narrative traditions. Including tales such as "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story," the Brer Rabbit or Bobtail narratives are, however, clearly Native American.140 It is troubling, however, that an esteemed folklorist such as Dundes would ignore the overwhelming Rabbit-Trickster lore of American Indians in order to champion an African diffusion. While his mistake is in part a measure of sympathy for the African American cause during the turbulent struggle for civil rights, it nonetheless compromises the ongoing struggle that nonrecognized groups of Native Americans face as a result of the shared denial of civil liberties in the segregated South. Furthermore, it alienates and denies the primal intellectual heritage that Native Americans have given the world. The sharing of these narratives in plantation life demonstrates an African adaptation to the traditional Native American culture, and, as the gene pool merged among captives—Indian and African—the original heritage was lost in the biracial apartheid conditions of the pre-civil rights era. In liberating southern blacks, it is poetic that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was likewise freeing southern Native Americans, whose ancestors contributed to his cultural and possibly his genetic inheritance, freeing them to reclaim their Indian identity and openly recover their traditional narratives and lifeways.
1. John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985), 2.
2. The commonwealth of Virginia officially recognizes eight tribes; these are the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Nansemond, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, and Monacan. Activities regarding these tribes are reported to the governor and general assembly by the Virginia Council on Indians, 8007 Discovery Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23229-8699.
3. William Byrd, William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (1728; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 199-203.
4. John Lederer, "The Discoveries of John Lederer" (1672), in The First Explorations of the Trans-Allegheny Region by the Virginians, 1650-1674, edited by Clarence Walworth Alvord and Lee Bidgood (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1912), 149.
6. See Joel Chandler Harris, "Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings," in The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, complied by Richard Chase (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955).
7. Alan Dundes, "African Tales among the North American Indians," Southern Folklore Quarterly 29 (1965): 207-19; and Florence E. Baer, Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales, FF Communications edited for the Folklore Fellows, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Helsinki: Academia Scientiaram Fennica, 1980), 7-12, 44-45; among many.
8. Harris, Complete Uncle Remus, xxv.
9. Dundes, "African Tales," 218-19.
10. In this usage, I am referring to the special relationship to nature which is characteristic to Native American religious traditions. See, for example, Joseph Epes Brown, The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982), 60, 64, 70. Particularly significant here is the ecological notion of power in reference to the sacred, hich Brown calls a metaphysic of nature.
11. Additional reference to this heritage is recorded in my "The Buzzard Rock: Saponi-Monacan Traditions from Hico, Virginia," Lynch's Ferry: A Journal of Local History (Lynchburg, Virginia) 5, no. 1 (spring-summer 1992): 26-30; see also Vest, "My Mother's Brother," 116-22.
12. Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 44-45.
14. Richard M. Dorson, American Negro Folktales (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1967), 16.
15. Henry E. Harman, in "Joel Chandler Harris," Bookman 61 (June 1925): 435, notices the character and extent of the ecological knowledge in these stories.
16. Baer, in Sources and Analogues, for example, acknowledges "J. W. Powell, of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of [American] Ethnology, [who] agreed with Harris on the scientific importance of his work, but Powell leaned toward the belief that the Negro tales were ‘borrowings’ from the North American Indians" (8). Dundes, "African Tales," unequivocally dismisses this view, arguing a Native American borrowing from Africa. See Dundes, "African Tales," 207.
17. Harris, Complete Uncle Remus, xxii.
18. Ibid., xxii-xxiii.
19. Ibid., xxii-xxiv.
20. Apparently, the Remus stories had reached Smith, and he had responded favorably to Harris. R. Bruce Bickley Jr., in Joel Chandler Harris (Boston: Twayne Publishers, G. K. Hall & Co., 1978), noted that "Folklorists such as the Amazon researcher H. H. Smith and J. W. Powell of the Smithsonian's Bureau of [American] Ethnology were impressed by the tales" (37).
21. Hudson, The Southeastern Indians, 57-77.
22. See Charlotte D. Grower, "The Northern and Southern Affiliations of Antillean Culture," American Anthropological Association—Memoir 35 (1927); M. W. Stirling, "Florida Cultural Affiliations in Relation to Adjacent Areas," in Essays in Anthropology (1936; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 351, 358; W. W. Ehrmann, "The Timucua Indians of Sixteenth-Century Florida," Florida Historical Quarterly 18 (1940): 168-91; Julian H. Steward and Louis C. Faron, Native Peoples of South America (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959), 316-17, 35; and James A. Ford, A Comparison of Formulative Cultures in the Americas: Diffusion, or the Psychic Unity of Mankind, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol. 11 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969).
23. Louis D. Rubin Jr., "Uncle Remus and the Ubiquitous Rabbit," Southern Review 10 (Oct. 1974): 793-96.
25. See Eric L. Montenyohl, "The Origins of Uncle Remus," Folklore Forum 18, no. 2 (spring 1986): 136-67; and Eric L. Montenyohl, "Joel Chandler Harris's Revision of Uncle Remus: The First Vision of ‘A Story of the War,’" American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 19, no. 1 (fall 1986): 65-72.
26. Bickley, Joel Chandler Harris, 30-32.
28. Rubin, "Uncle Remus," 790.
29. John Stafford, "Patterns of Meaning in Nights with Uncle Remus," American Literature (May 1946): 95.
30. Thomas H. English, "In Memory of Uncle Remus," Southern Literary Messenger 29 (Feb. 1940): 77-83.
31. Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (New York: D. Appleton, 1894), 4.
34. Ibid., 166.
35. See William Bascom, African Folktales in the New World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
36. See Robert Bone, "The Oral Tradition," in Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, edited by R. Bruce Bickly Jr. (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981), 131-32, 192; and Linda S. Chang, "Brer Rabbit's Angolan Cousin: Politics and the Adoption of Folk Material," Folklore Forum 19, no. 1 (1981): 36, 44-45.
37. See Thomas F. Crane, "Plantation Folk-lore," Popular Science Monthly 18 (1881): 824-33; F. M. Warren, "Uncle Remus and ‘the Roman De Renard,’" Modern Language Notes 5 (May 1890): 257-70; Adolf Gerber, "Uncle Remus Traced to the Old World," Journal of American Folk-Lore 6, no. 23 (Oct.-Dec. 1893): 245-57; Elsie Clews Parsons, "Joel Chandler Harris and Negro Folklore," Dial 66 (1919): 491-93; also Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926; reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), 36.
38. This point has been emphatically stated by George Fenwick Jones, "Reincke Fuchs and Brer Rabbit: Oral or Written Tradition?" in Vistas and Vectors: Essays Honoring the Memory of Helmut Rehder, edited by Lee B. Jennings and George Schulz-Behrend (Austin: Department of Germanic Languages, College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas, 1979), 44-53.
39. Dorson, American Folklore, 185.
40. For the consideration of these African motifs, see, for example, Colonel A. B. Ellis, "Evolution in Folklore: West African Prototypes of the Uncle Remus Stories," Popular Science Monthly 48 (1895): 93-104; Anne K. Stevens, "An Inquiry into the Sources of the Beast Tales of Joel Chandler Harris" (master's thesis, Columbia University, 1921); and Puckett, The Southern Negro, 34.
41. This creature is a "water deerlet," or chevrotain, noted for nimbleness and cunning. See Puckett, The Southern Negro, 34.
42. See William Bascom, "Moon Splits Hare's Lip (Nose): An African Myth in the United States," Research in African Literatures 12, no. 3 (fall 1981): 338-49.
43. Jones, "Reinke Fuchs and Brer Rabbit," 44.
44. English, "In Memory of Uncle Remus," 82.
45. Kathleen Light, "Uncle Remus and the Folklorists," Southern Literary Journal 7 (1995): 93-94.
46. See Jones, "Reincke Fuchs and Brer Rabbit," 51.
47. Quoted in Julia Collier Harris, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918), 169-70.
48. See Nina Mikkelson, "When the Animals Talked—A ‘Hundred Years of Uncle Remus,’" Children's Literature Quarterly 8, no. 1 (spring 1983): 3-5, 31, who initializes a narrative framework exploration of the stories.
49. English, "In Memory of Uncle Remus," 82.
50. Joel Chandler Harris, introduction to Uncle Remus and His Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1892), x.
51. Quoted in Julia Collier Harris, Joel Chandler Harris, 146. As a footnote, Ms. Harris explained: "Mr. J. T. Manry, who worked under father in the office of the Monroe Advertiser at Forsyth, is of the opinion that the name ‘Uncle Remus’ was a souvenir of the Forsyth days. The ‘town gardener,’ who once belonged to Dr. A. H. Sneed, the village postmaster, was called ‘Uncle Remus,’ and Mr. Manry recalls that the old negro's name appealed to father's imagination at that time."
52. Dorson, American Folklore, 175.
53. Darwin T. Turner, "Daddy Joel Chandler Harris and His Old-Time Darkies," in Critical Essays, 119.
54. Dorson, American Folklore, 175.
55. Ibid., 48; see also Hugh T. Keenan, "Joel Chandler Harris and the Legitimacy of the Reteller of Folktales," in Sitting at the Feet of the Past: Retelling the North American Folktale for Children, edited by Gary D. Schmidt and Donald R. Hettinga (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 81-91.
56. Jones, "Reineke Fuchs and Brer Rabbit," 50.
57. Harris, Complete Uncle Remus, xxii.
58. John R. Swanton, Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 88 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1929).
59. A. Irving Hallowell, "American Indians, White and Black: The Phenomenon of Transculturalization," Current Anthropology 4 (1963): 522.
60. Donald Grinde Jr., "Native American Slavery in the Southern Colonies," Indian Historian 10, no. 2 (1977): 38.
61. A. F. Chamberlain, "African and American: The Contact of Negro and Indian," Science 17, no. 419 (1891): 85.
62. J. Leitch Wright Jr., The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South (New York: Free Press, 1981), 103-4.
63. See Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 168.
64. Ibid., 87.
65. Charles C. Royce, Indian Land Cessions in the United States, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual Report, 1896-97, pt. 2 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1899), 567; Rountree, Pocahontas's People, 139. Enslavement of Indians by the English is further discussed by Almon Wheeler Lauber in Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States (1913; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1969), 105-17.
66. Ibid., 97-98.
67. Ibid., 139.
68. Quoted in Amy Ellen Friedlander, "Indian Slavery in Proprietary South Carolina" (master's thesis, Emory University, 1975), 19.
69. Wright, in The Only Land, 102-25, discusses these colonials.
70. Vernon W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732 (1929; reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 16-17, emphasis added.
71. Ibid., 17.
72. Ibid., 17-18.
73. Ibid., 19.
74. Ibid., 21.
75. Ibid., 23.
76. Ibid., 68.
77. Wright, The Only Land, 114.
78. Ibid., 114. It should be noted that "in the early eighteenth century the Boston News Letter printed frequent advertisements of runaway Carolina Indians," thereby promoting sale of the Indians as slaves in New England.
79. Ibid., 112-13.
80. Friedlander, Indian Slavery, 37.
81. Robert William Snell, "Indian Slavery in Colonial South Carolina, 1671-1795" (Ph.D. diss., University of Alabama, 1972), 3.
82. See William Harlen Gilbert Jr., "Surviving Groups of the Eastern United States," in Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948), 419, where surviving Monacan groups from whom I am descended are reported in Rockbridge and Amherst Counties, Virginia. See also Friedlander, Indian Slavery, 80.
83. Royce, Land Cessions, 630.
84. Ibid., 631.
85. Friedlander, Indian Slavery, 37.
86. Chamberlain, "African and American," 86.
87. Friedlander, Indian Slavery, 8.
88. Ibid., 29-30.
90. Rountree, Pocahontas's People, 121.
91. Baer, Uncle Remus Sources, 12.
92. Vaughn, Roots of American Racism, 17-19.
93. William Waller Henning, The Statutes at Large (Philadelphia: Thomas De Silver, 1823), 4:252.
94. The Virginia Racial Integrity Law, no. 5, Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia, Richmond, 1924, 535.
95. Peter W. Houck, M.D., Indian Island in Amherst County (Lynchburg, VA, Lynchburg Historical Research Co., 1984), 72-73; see also Paul T. Murray, "Who Is an Indian? Who Is a Negro? Virginia Indians in the World War II Draft," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95, no. 2 (April 1987): 215-31; and Susan Greenbaum, "What's in a Label? Identity Problems of Southern Indian Tribes," The Journal of Ethnic Studies 19, no. 2 (1991): 107-26. For a thorough discussion of this matter see J. David Smith, The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 1993).
96. See Charles M. Hudson, The Catawba Indians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1970), 69-71, wherein he identifies the biracial problems generated by Black Codes in South Carolina; see also David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: A Short History, 1540-1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951), 569-90, 632; William H. Gilbert Jr., "Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States," Social Forces 24 (1946): 438-47; William H. Gilbert Jr., "Surviving Indian Groups of the Eastern United States," Smithsonian Report for 1948 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949), 407-38; Brewton Berry, "The Mestizos of South Carolina," American Journal of Sociology 51 (1945): 34-41; Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan Co., 1963).
97. Joel Chandler Harris, "Indian and Negro Myths," Critic (9 Sept. 1882): 239, acknowledging correspondence with a presumed woman from Richmond; Julia Collier Harris, Joel Chandler Harris, 165, referencing a letter exchanged in 1880 with Alexander H. Stephens of Virginia; and Stevens, "Origins of the Beast Tales," 13-14, referencing correspondents Dr. James P. Smith and Mrs. R. E. Puryear, both of Richmond.
98. Stevens, "Origin of the Beast Tales," 14.
99. Turner, "Daddy Joel Chandler Harris," 113.
100. Wright, The Only Land, 248-78.
101. Ibid., 266-67.
102. This role of the Occaneechi in the southeastern fur trade is documented in W. Stitt Robinson, The Southern Colonial Frontier, 1607-1763 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979); see also Crane, The Southern Frontier.
103. Joel Chandler Harris, introduction to Nights with Uncle Remus (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1883), xxx.
104. W. O. Tuggle, Shem, Ham and Japheth: The Papers of W. O. Tuggle, edited by Eugene Currant-Garcia with Dorothy B. Hatfield (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1973), 2.
105. Ibid., 3.
106. Ibid., 305-7; see also Swanton, Myths and Tales, 53-55.
107. Dundes, "African Tales," 218, where he cites Alice Werner, "Some Notes on East African Folklore," Folklore 26 (1915): 60-75.
108. Friedrich von der Leyen, Das Märchen, 3d. ed. (Leipzig, 1925), 36.
109. For a discussion of these theories, see Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions of Fairy Tales, Legends, and Symbols (1951; reprint, New York: Harper Perennial, 1990), 46-47.
110. Alan Dundes, "African and Afro-American Tales," Research in African Literatures 7 (1976): 183.
111. Dundes, "African Tales," 217-19.
112. Louise Dauner, "Myth and Humor in the Uncle Remus Fables," American Literature 20 (May 1948): 134; and A. B. Ellis, "Evolution in Folklore," Popular Science Monthly 48 (Nov. 1895): 93. Puckett, in The Southern Negro, explains, "Roughly speaking, the six to twelve million Negro slaves brought to America came from that portion of the West Coast of Africa between the Senegal and the Congo rivers…. The principal markets were about the mouths of the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, and Congo, and the majority of blacks were obtained from this West Coast region" (3). For Wolfe quote, see Bernard Wolfe, "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit," Commentary 8 (1949): 31-41.
113. Baer, Sources and Analogues, 12.
114. Dauner, "Myth and Humor," 134. It is ironic to find Dundes in this position, given his withering attack upon Celia Blackmon Taylor, "Cherokee and Creek Folklore Elements in the Uncle Remus Stories: A Comparison of the Tales by Joel Chandler Harris and Legends of the Southeast" (master's thesis, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1959) in Dundes, "African Tales," 210-11.
115. Joel Chandler Harris, "Indian Legend of the Rabbit," Critic 2 (1882): 218, 239.
116. Bierhorst, Mythology of North America, 213-14.
118. See Charles E. Dibble, "The Aztec Writing System," in Readings in Anthropology, edited by Jesse D. Jennings and E. Adamson Hoebel (New York: McGraw Hill, 1972), 299-303.
119. Munro S. Edmonson, ed., Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Literatures, vol. 3 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 55, 99.
120. John Fought, "Cyclical Patterns in Chorti: (Mayan) Literature," Ibid., chapter 6, 141.
121. James Owen Dorsey and John R. Swanton, A Dictionary of the Biloxi and Ofo Languages, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 47 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1912); and Dorsey, Dakota Grammar, xxi.
122. See Thurmin Wilkens, Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of People, 2d. ed., revised (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 16.
123. Swanton, Myths and Tales; Royce, Land Cessions, 641.
124. John R. Swanton, "Some Chitimacha Myths and Beliefs," Journal of American Folklore 30 (1917): 474-78.
125. Robert F. Greenlee, "Folktales of the Florida Seminole," Journal of American Folklore 58 (1945): 138-44.
126. House, Memorials of the Cherokee Indians, Feb. 15, 1830, Presented to Congress March 15, 1830, 21st Cong., 1st sess., 1830, H. Doc. 31.
127. Jack F. Kilpatrick and Anna G. Kilpatrick, Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1964), 35.
128. Blackmon, "Cherokee and Creek Folklore Elements," vii.
129. Ibid., 8-9.
130. Dundes, "African Tales," 217-18, referencing James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Nineteenth Annual Report, pt. 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1900), 232. Dundes also asserts that Mooney was influenced by Hartly B. Alexander, North American [Mythology], The Mythology of All Races, 10 (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1916), 67, observing the Algonquian demiurge and trickster—"The Great Hare." Unwittingly, Dundes acknowledges here the Rabbit-Trickster outside the southeastern culture area, a fact that he emphatically denied when concluding "African Tales" (218).
131. Samuel Rivers Hendron, Ph.D., "Government and Religion of the Virginia Indians," in Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, edited by Herbert B. Adams. Thirteenth Series 11-12 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1895), 29.
132. William Strachey, The Historie of Travel into Virginia Britania, edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, Hakluyt Society (1612; reprint, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967), 102-3, wherein the author gives a detailed account of the Hare's role as chief god and recounts several stories.
133. Hugh Jones, The Present State of Virginia (1724; reprint, New York: Joseph Sabin, 1865), 16.
134. Harry W. Easterly Jr., "The Indian Rock Carvings of Westham," Quarterly Bulletin, Archeological Society of Virginia 45, no. 2 (June 1990): 60-74.
135. Jones, State of Virginia, 16.
136. Strachey, Travel into Virginia Britania, 102-3.
137. Francis LaFlesche, A Dictionary of the Osage Language. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 109 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), 313.
138. Rev. S. R. Riggs, ed. Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language, Smithsonian Institution, Contributions to Knowledge, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1851), 320; J. Owen Dorsey, "How the Rabbit Killed the (Male) Winter," American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 2 (1879): 128-32; J. Owen Dorsey, "The Rabbit and the Grasshopper: An Otoe Myth," American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 3 (1880): 24-27.
139. Dundes, "African Tales," 219.
140. Hudson, Southeastern Indians, 499-500, cites this classic narrative; it is also included in my Saponi-Monacan oral narrative inheritance. See also Vest, "My Mother's Brother," 116-22.
Robert Cochran (essay date spring 2004)
SOURCE: Cochran, Robert. "Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris." African American Review 38, no. 1 (spring 2004): 21-34.
[In the following essay, Cochran describes Harris as a man of two personas: one, a journalist who publicly supported white Southern culture—including slavery—and the other, a folklorist who was raised on African-American storytelling and espoused different beliefs than his journalist self.]
Fer all I kin tell you, de man mought er bin ez w'ite ez de driven snow, er he mought er bin de blackes' Affikin er de whole kit en b'illin'. I'm des tellin' you de tale, en you kin take en take de man en w'itewash 'im, er you kin black 'im up des ez you please.
—Joel Chandler Harris, "The Adventures of Simon and Susanna" (Complete Tales 459)
A century ago Joel Chandler Harris was famous. His first and best known book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, sold more than 7,000 copies in its first month in 1880. It's been in print ever since. Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, the stars of his stories, took their place in the nation's cultural lexicon, and Harris himself was much celebrated. Teddy Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House and Mark Twain tried to interest him in a joint lecture tour. Children clamored for Uncle Remus and were shocked to find that Harris was white. Harris was much too shy to lecture—he couldn't even bring himself to read for children—but he was a prolific writer, churning out seven additional Uncle Remus collections, a fictionalized memoir called On the Plantation, and various shorter and longer fictional works. But Joel Chandler Harris claimed his fame as the creator of gentle Uncle Remus, the teller of Brer Rabbit's triumphant underdog tale. They were the ones who made him, in Twain's admiring phrase, the "oracle of the nation's nurseries."
But then, no surprise, the long honeymoon ended. Harris's stock began to fall. Critics took his world apart, separated storyteller Uncle Remus from story hero Brer Rabbit to the disadvantage of the former. Brer Rabbit was in fact elevated in this revision, recognized as "a revolutionary black figure" from African American traditional lore, the black core of an otherwise white work (Songs and Sayings 29). He is, and this is one of the deep roots of his power, a Signifying Rabbit, in the fullest sense of that term as carefully described by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and situated in African American literature by Henry Louis Gates. His situation is understood as echoing that of his anonymous black creators, and his antics are not at their root comic at all, but deadly serious maneuvers allowing his survival and even triumph in a world ruled by enemies bent upon his destruction. When Brer Rabbit outwits and eventually destroys Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox, his victories are interpreted as supplying at least vicarious pleasure and at most pragmatic advice to black audiences whose position in the world is appreciated as deeply analogous.
Uncle Remus, however, the teller of Brer Rabbit's subversive tale, went down with his author. He was a cartoon, an offensive stereotype, an Uncle Tom, the literary creation of a white author with an obvious regional agenda. "Uncle Remus, the creation of Joel Chandler Harris, is one of many masks employed by the Plantation School to justify the restoration of white supremacy," according to Robert Bone's 1975 analysis (Bickley, Critical 139). The old man, it was noticed, was so much a creature of his author's nostalgias that he was presented in the first collection's introduction as possessing, preposterously, "nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery" (Songs and Sayings 47).
Meanwhile Harris himself fell from grace even more precipitously, and much more completely, than Remus. Harris's editorials, and more especially his popular magazine articles, were bursting at the seams with paternalist nonsense and irritating defenses of Southern racial mores. Darwin Turner, in a lengthy, meticulous, scrupulously fair, and influential 1968 study, was especially dismayed by the attitudes put forward in Harris's three-part "Observations from New England," published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1883. If slavery is muted to a benign "discipline" in the introduction of Remus, Harris in his own voice describes slavery as "an institution which, under Providence, grew into a university in which millions of savages served an apprenticeship to religion and civilization" (Editor and Essayist 166). Turner's response to this outrageous misuse of both logic and language is rightly contemptuous: "It is ironic to use the term ‘university’ to describe the practices of a system which legally prohibited the formal education of slaves. It is presumptuous to praise slavery for giving religion to the Africans, who observed a religious faith long before they became American slaves" (Bickley, Critical 126). It's impossible to withhold assent from Turner's critique, and tempting to add that the inclusion of Providence sneaks in the appalling idea that the human institution of slavery enjoyed divine support, that apprenticeship is by definition a temporally limited contract, and that the savage in any slavemaster relationship is surely the master. Shoddy logic, tendentious prose—this is indeed sorry stuff.
The famous Uncle Remus tales, then, combining such disparate elements, were necessarily, said the new critique, formal hashes, the black traditional tales at their center obscured by the crude racial stereotypes on their surface. Harris's work was at best a ridiculous idealization of a slave-based plantation society and at worst a bald exploitation of African American culture. By 1981 fellow Georgian (and fellow Eatontonian) Alice Walker was working him over for cultural theft: "As far as I'm concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage" (32).
The attack was thus two-pronged at its heart: Harris the man was judged politically incorrect at a deep level, a paternalist and genteel racist; and Harris the author was clumsy and amateurish, yoking servile Uncle Remus to unbowed Brer Rabbit in awkward union. Biography was enlisted in explanation: In 1862, Harris, an illegitimate child who never knew his father, went to work as a boy of fifteen in the printshop of Joseph Addison Turner's Turnwold plantation, near his home town of Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia. While there he heard from slave storytellers the Brer Rabbit tales that would make him famous. Years later, in the 1870s, working as a prominent newspaperman and editorialist for the Atlanta Constitution, he developed the character of Uncle Remus for "humorous" newspaper sketches aimed at white Southern readers. Finally, in 1880, he made his name by tying the traditional black folktales to the local color "character," adding an adoring little white boy as listener. The result, despite huge popular success, was judged a failure a century later because the constituent elements were recognized as incompatible. Harris, wrote Robert Hemenway in 1982, was "an author retreating from an adult, public world of difficult decisions," attempting to project his paternalist nostalgia for a lost world "through a medium that he could mimic but never fully comprehend" (30-31). A white man, in short, was peddling a black culture he didn't understand, and he was turning it to purposes it could not serve.
Recent scholarship has swung back somewhat from this nadir. Defenders of Harris the man, insisting upon appreciation of the pressures of his position as a Southern journalist, have insisted upon his persistent liberalism, within these constraints, on racial matters. His stinging rebuke of Jefferson Davis in an 1882 Constitution editorial is cited, as are his fulsome praises of Abraham Lincoln (in the novel Gabriel Tolliver ) and Booker T. Washington (in a 1904 piece for the Saturday Evening Post). Wayne Mixon describes Harris's piece on Davis as "perhaps the most withering attack of his journalistic career" (460) and notes that it "took courage for a white southerner to praise Washington publicly after 1901, as Harris did, for when news of the black leader's dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family reached the South ‘the cry from Dixie resembled the howl of a mob’" (479).
Scholars have also insisted on the intimacy of Harris's personal acquaintance with the Brer Rabbit stories. Bruce Bickley's 1978 Twayne study suggests that Uncle George Terrell and Old Harbert, the slave men at Turnwold who were Harris's models for Uncle Remus, "helped fill the place of the absent father in Harris's life" (24). In 1981, Joseph Griska called Remus "one of the most intriguing father-figures in American letters" (Bickley, Critical 212). Mixon, in 1990, pushed such observations to what may be a surprising conclusion: "As a man, his nostalgia was more for a black world than a white one" (459).
Defenses of Harris the author have been even more interesting, stressing Uncle Remus's control of the story-telling context and his persistent, if oblique, critique of plantation values. Sometimes even the most innocuous-looking alterations bear a greater weight than is immediately apparent. The opening story of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, for example, was called "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox" when it was first published in the Atlanta Constitution, but retitled "Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy" for the book-length collection. Initiates—it may seem a small change, but it looms larger in light of Remus's systematic undermining of Mars John's world view and the substitution of his own in its place. As Raymond Hedin noted in a 1982 study, Harris's relocation of the story (in the Constitution version the boy listened in his home, not in Remus's) is no less significant: In his own cabin "Remus becomes a shaman, and the tales become instruments of initiation into a world the boy can learn from only to the extent that he leaves his own world behind" (Hedin 85).
An equally unobtrusive phrasal device subverts racial stereotypes by their immediate extension. In Gabriel Tolliver it is deployed to describe the old clergyman Jeremiah Tomlin: "In common with the great majority of his race—in common, perhaps with the men of all races—he was eaten up with a desire to become prominent" (162-63). In The Bishop and the Boogerman, Randall Holden, another clergyman, is described by the same device as "a pattern, a model for the men of his race, and indeed, for the men of any race" (139). Finally, in his 1904 Saturday Evening Post article "The Negro of Today," Harris's praise of Booker T. Washington exploits it as a rhetorical query: "But is it not true that a man like Booker Washington is an exception in any race?" (Editor and Essayist 143). His race, any race, all races—by such phrasings racial distinctions are themselves consistently undermined. Taken together these syntactic ploys, too recurrent to be inadvertent, reveal themselves as quite obviously deliberate, and unveil a Harris quietly but insistently pursuing an anti-racist agenda.
Remus, it thus turns out, contrary to a century of earlier readings, is a remarkably complex character, and his author was less clumsy than has been realized in his integration of Brer Rabbit's traditional tales and their literary frames. His smiling surfaces and apparent orthodoxy may have misled nineteenth-century readers, leading to their complacency, just as the author intended. The same smiles then misled twentieth-century readers, leading to their displeasure, though Harris of course could not have anticipated this.
All these recent close examinations of Harris's work as a fiction writer and as an editorialist were long overdue. Generations of crudely racist illustrations, culminating in a staggeringly obnoxious movie, Disney's 1946 Song of the South, perpetuated and popularized approaches that understood Harris's stories as simpleminded tales aimed at entertaining children. (Mixon, for one, notes that Harris "was poorly served"  by most of his illustrators, and a closer look at Alice Walker's critique of Harris reveals that Harris himself is never cited—the real targets of censure are Song of the South and the remarkably saccharine Julia Collier Harris, Harris's daughter-in-law, who edited the 1918 Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris.) In sum, critics of the 1960s/1970s and defenders of the 1980s/1990s shared a determination to bring a sharper analytic attention to Harris's writing, and their conclusions are right on the money.
But they don't go far enough. Time after time, careful readers tiptoe up to the idea that Harris after all knew exactly what he was doing, only to step quickly back, insist again that "irony seems lost on Harris" (McDonald xxiv) or that "Harris probably did not understand this part of the story" (Hemenway 28). It's high time, then, to at least consider the possibility that Harris constructed his tales and their framing narratives with consummate skill and deliberate cunning, that multiple ironies were not only not lost upon him but were in fact something of his stock-in-trade, and that he was, in short, something of a Brer Rabbit among authors. Uncle Remus, by such an approach, is revealed as a secret hero of Harris's work, a figure wholly worthy of comparison with Brer Rabbit himself. In creating him, Harris put forward, covertly, by extraordinarily oblique means, a vision that would have shocked and horrified the great majority of his readers, had they understood him.
Harris was careful to see that contemporary readers didn't understand him, disguising the core of his vision with a rich battery of rhetorical misdirections and false leads. Fundamentally, Harris's strategy as a writer is of a piece with that of Remus the storyteller and Brer Rabbit the character. Each presents himself as a benign figure in full compliance with expected mannerisms and behaviors. I am what you think I am, they say to readers—gentle plantation romancer, "venerable old darkey" (Songs and Sayings 90), mischievous rabbit. Meanwhile, behind the smiles, the same threesome busies itself, each on his own level, with the exposure and demolition of such stereotypes.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate the strategy. In "Why Mr. Possum Has No Hair on His Tail," Remus rebukes the little boy for excessive familiarity with the "no 'count" Favers children. Such behavior, he says, would "‘fetch Ole Miss right up out'n dat berryin'-groun' fum down dar in Putmon County, en w'at yo' gran'ma wouldn't er stood me and yo' ma ain't gwineter stan' nudder’" (Songs and Sayings 130). This whole passage has attracted comment for the comedy of Remus's class consciousness, the retainer's vicarious pride in his employers' superior station. But under the condescending laughs it may not be noticed that "yo' pa" is unmentioned and that Remus himself ("me and yo' ma") occupies his place in parental authority.
The similarly titled "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," offers a more extended passage. Here the little boy appears at Remus's cabin at dinner-time, apparently sent away without supper for "a-cuttin' up" at the table. No sooner does he arrive than the voice of his father summons his return. The boy rises to go, but Remus intervenes. "‘Des set right whar you is, honey,’" he says. He then goes to the door and addresses the father in a voice "that could be heard half over the plantation": "‘Mars John, I wish you en Miss Sally be so good ez ter let dat chile 'lone.’" Here Remus allies himself not with Miss Sally but with Ole Miss, who is cited again in support of correct practice. "‘I ain't been use ter no sich gwines on in Ole Miss time, en I ain't gwine git use ter it now’" (Nights with Uncle Remus 113-14). Once more, and a bit more openly in this instance, Remus asserts his control, his assumption of the paternal role.
Finally, there is "A Story of the War," which brings Yankee soldiers to the Abercrombie plantation, where they are greeted in the "settin'-room" by a strikingly constituted "family" of unwilling hosts. Ole Miss is there, and Miss Sally, and Uncle Remus, sharpened axe in hand. Daughter, mother, and …? In all the story, there is no mention, however oblique, of a husband for Ole Miss, a father for Miss Sally and Mars Jeems. The erasure of the father, so inconspicuous in "Why Mr. Possum Has No Hair on His Tail," and only a shade more insistent in "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," is here more glaring. There is plenty, however, of the language of paternity. When Mars Jeems, a Confederate soldier, asks Remus to take care of his mother and sister in his absence, he calls him "Daddy." He does this three times, not including Remus's own explanation that "‘all Old Miss's chilluns call me daddy’" (Songs and Sayings 181-82).
Exactly this same omission of the father also occurs in the deeply autobiographical On the Plantation, published in 1892. When young Joe Maxwell leaves home for his new job as a printer's apprentice, he "kisse[s] his mother and his grandmother good-by," and during his journey remembers "his mother, whom he ha[s] last seen standing at the little gate smiling at him through her tears" (On the Plantation, 14, 16). But here too, as in "A Story of the War," there is no mention of a father. This, too, as with the syntactical ploy discussed earlier, is too recurrent for coincidence. It is obviously deliberate, a clear matter of authorial purpose, despite its careful masking.
A secret center thus stands revealed. Again and again Harris, the child whose father omitted himself, revenges himself by undermining and omitting the fathers—Mars John, the unnamed husband of Ole Miss, the father of Joe Maxwell. And with the dismissal, the patriarch's authority and hierarchy are likewise undone. Again and again Remus (or Harbert, in On the Plantation ) acts not as a marginal servant, but as a central parent. Even on the rare occasions when Mars John is present, as in "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," his authority is systematically undermined.
When the boy interrupts a story about a Putnam County witch to report that "‘Papa says there ain't any witches,’" Remus dismisses "Papa" with contempt: "‘Mars John ain't live long ez I is’" (Songs and Sayings 144). These deprecations of paternal opinion reach their peak in the 1892 Uncle Remus and His Friends, perhaps most assertively in "Why Brother Bull Growls and Grumbles." Hearing the bellow of a passing bull, Remus opens the story by first assuring the boy that "‘he got a mighty good reason fer gwine on that way,’" and then immediately asking who is available to tell him what that reason is: "‘You may spit on yo' thumb en turn over de leaves in Marse John's liberry, yit you won't fin' out in um. You may ax Marse John, you may ax Miss Sally, you may ax a preacher, yit; but none un um'll ever tell you.’" Where then can he turn? "‘Den who kin tell you? Me!’" (Uncle Remus and His Friends 81)
Most instances are much less confrontational, but Remus's contrast of his own wisdom to that of the boy's father is recurrent, and invariably works to the father's disadvantage. Again and again, his stories are loaded with asides and anecdotes critical of "Marse John's" actions and vision of the world. When his unorthodox account of a great flood provokes a query as to the whereabouts of Noah's ark, Remus brushes it aside with a marvelously succinct mix of agnosticism and cultural relativism: "‘Dey mout er bin two deloojes, en den agin dey moutent’" (Songs and Sayings 66). In "Why the Negro Is Black" he blithely asserts both an original black creation—"‘time wuz we'n we 'uz all niggers tergedder’"—and the great numerical predominance of "merlatters" while ostensibly addressing the child's notice of his own white palms. Mixed race people, he reports, "‘wuz sech a crowd … dat dey mighty nigh use de water up’" (Songs and Sayings 151).
Two things should be noted here. First, what Remus says is strikingly at odds with regional (and national) norms (and laws). Second, what he says is disguised by how he says it. He is, in short, and here we reach the heart of this essay's purposes, Signifying,1 in the sense that his discourse includes an "implicit content … which is potentially obscured by the surface content" (Mitchell-Kernan 314). Remus, it emerges, is much more than an "Uncle," and he has more than mere stories to present. He's a father, and he takes his paternal responsibilities seriously. He knows a larger world than Mars John's, and has a deeper wisdom to pass on. At one point, reacting to an account of Brer Rabbit's success in obtaining chickens from Brer Fox, the little boy plugs in lessons clearly learned from Mars John: "When Brother Rabbit got the chickens from Brother Fox, he was really stealing them." Remus immediately affirms that theft is the accurate description, but his subsequent dismissal of the Big House bromide (and Christian commandment) is a sweeping one: "‘Dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat. But what wuz Brer Fox doin' when he got um? … No, honey! Dey's a heap er idees dat you got ter shake off.’" Remus goes on to conclude that "‘dey's a heap er folks lots wuss dan Brer Rabbit when it comes ter takin' what ain't der'n’" (Uncle Remus Returns 105-06). In other instances where Remus encourages the boy to "snatch up" (Songs and Sayings 131) and bring to him everything from tea-cakes (71) to candles (130), it is clear that such ideas have indeed been shaken off. Remus here serves his own ends, of course, but he also perseveres in his reeducation of the boy.
The little boy needs it, too. He'll soon enough be grown, soon be out on perilous ground beyond Remus's protection. That dangerous world is inadequately understood by Mars John, who has been sheltered by birth and upbringing from too many harsh realities. Nobody told him Brer Rabbit tales, and he's much the stupider for it. He is, in fact, a Brer Bear figure transposed to the human sphere, overly confident in his own power and position, and insufficiently alert to the world's hazards. His complacent opinions about witches, like his self-serving bromides about stealing, are childishly shallow. He's living a lullaby, and he's finally a dangerously inadequate father—go out armed only with his lessons and you'll soon be lunch. All this, and no less, is carried by Harris's use of the word initiates in the opening story. Throughout the animal tales, the perspective of Brer Rabbit is privileged, and that of Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox is undermined, just as in the human frame Remus's perspective continually wins out over that of Mars John. Eventually, just as in "A Story of the War" and On the Plantation, a complete erasure/replacement is accomplished in the Brer Rabbit cycle as well. Near the end of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, after Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and finally Brer Fox have been done in, Remus allows that "‘some say dat Brer Rabbit's ole 'oman died fum eatin' some pizen-weed, en dat Brer Rabbit married ole Miss Fox’" (155).
"Me an yo' ma"? White children call a black man Daddy? Brer Rabbit marries Miss Fox after he kills her husband? In earliest, Edenic times, "we 'uz all niggers tergedder"? Put such instances together (and there are countless others) and they surely emerge as beyond coincidence, as deliberate, though covert, subversion of the "Plantation School" values Harris's work ostensibly supported. The familiar plantation romance is turned upside down, its foundational ethnic hierarchy undone. The Old Plantation's traditional patriarch, the Mr. Man who in the animal stories is even more feared than Mr. Lion, is not just away at war or on business, with his loyal vassals confirming his power by acting as his agents even in his absence. He's entirely absent, completely unmentioned. Massa's in the cold cold ground, dead or disappeared. Uncle Remus is Daddy. The slave is the master.
How did Harris ever get away with this? It is a shame that no evidence exists to suggest that the Uncle Remus tales came to the attention of Herman Melville, then living in obscurity in New York, or that Harris himself appreciated Melville's dark tales, because a Melvillian subtlety and subversiveness may offer a useful key to a fuller understanding of Harris's achievement. It was Melville, after all, who noted that even Solomon "a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism" (Letters 130), and who found it characteristic of genius to "delight in hoodwinking the world" (Complete Shorter Fiction 246), to communicate "the little lower layer" (Moby Dick, 164) by means of "cunning glimpses … covertly, and by snatches" (Complete Shorter Fiction 239). It was Melville, too, who noted that Shakespeare employed "the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago" to articulate indirectly "the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them" (Complete Shorter Fiction 239).
Working in exactly this way, proceeding by "cunning glimpses" and covert insinuations, Harris not only violates the ultimate taboo of Old South racial codes, but presents the violation in positive terms, as a tranquil domestic scene. The ostensibly separate races are mixed at every level, from the allegory of Brer Rabbit marrying Miz Fox, to the figurative language of Mars Jeems and his sister calling Remus "Daddy," to the vast crowd of "merlatters" who generalize this state of affairs in "Why the Negro Is Black," to the mythic origin story where all humanity are "niggers tergedder." Meanwhile, speaking in his own voice, Harris is blithely reassuring Northern and Southern readers that to worry about "The Bugaboo of Social Equality" is "to make a problem out of something that never had an existence" (Editor and Essayist 155-56).
Harris's writings, then, display a persistent and conscious manipulation of his culture's social and literary conventions, a deliberate tension between a surface in comfortable accord with the dominant sentimental pieties (and related ideological projects) of the day and a subversive subtext profoundly critical of those same pieties. Recent criticism has not been much interested in authorial control, especially since the much celebrated "death of the author" announced most famously by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. But despite such influential obituaries and the no less obvious constraints upon writers exercised by everything from linguistic history and convention to various "authorities of delimitation," authors clearly attempt to direct the responses of readers by the deliberate cultivation of their expectations. They also, in at least some instances, manage a purposeful misleading of at least some audiences. Any "discursive formation" or system of meaning, even the most totalizing, despite its aspiration to spatial and/or temporal universality, is riddled with holes and fissures, lacunae which are at one and the same time weaknesses and opportunities (Foucault, Archaeology 42, 74). Terrae incognitae honeycomb all maps. Despite (and because of) its formidable network of interlocking institutionalized powers, the ruling episteme (Foucault's term, from The Order of Things) is a slow-moving beast. Its claims to "panoptic" range notwithstanding, it has its blind spots. It can be fooled; it is vulnerable to Signifying. And authors, experts in verbal mischief, are just the folks for the job. If Melville's terminology offers a detailed formal description of these strategies as Harris employs them, the African American aesthetic of Signifying reveals its deeper cultural sources, points to the skilled black storytellers who taught him the tricks of his trade.
Perhaps such subterfuges are clearest in situations where subversive narratives must pass the scrutiny of a vigilant and obviously hostile censoring authority. In November, 1941, in a Norway occupied by German troops since the spring of 1940, a children's book by Frithjof Saelen entitled Snorri sel (Snorri the Seal) appeared in stores. Billed as "a fable in color for children and adults," the book was not only approved for publication by Nazi censors but praised by the German-controlled press. Its narrative was a simple one: Snorri is a little seal, vain about his coat, who escapes his enemies (a polar bear named Brummelab and a killer whale named Glefs) primarily through the aid of a walrus named Bart. Norwegian readers noted instantly what Nazi censors missed, a covert allegorical subtext in which Snorri represented Norway, Brummelab the Soviet Union, Glefs Germany, and Uncle Bart England. The book was loaded with giveaway details for those who were looking—an ice floe shaped like Norway, Bart's British mustache. It was less than a month before the occupation authorities caught on, but by then the whole press run (12,500 copies) had been snapped up by skilled Norwegian readers (Stokker 89-93).
Harris, of course, was writing in much less perilous circumstances. But a censorship no less thoroughgoing for all its unofficial character than that which faced Saelen was in place in his own society, and he knew perfectly well that a straightforward expression of skepticism toward prevailing segregationist orthodoxy or open acknowledgment of substantial mixed-race populations in an era of anti-miscegenation legislation would be greeted with hostility (if published at all), just as Saelen knew he would be promptly arrested (and not published at all) had he attempted a straightforward political essay. Both men thus made their initial feints generic ones, disguising their subversive messages in ostensibly harmless tales intended for children, and both men succeeded in their purposes not as "autonomous" authors (that's a straw house built for the author as First Little Pig, easily demolished by Big Bad Critic's first huff and puff) but very much as devious ones, accomplishing their public and private ends via the simultaneous exploitation and undermining of reigning discursive rules and audience expectations.
As early as 1879, in "As to Southern Literature," Harris made clear his understanding of the need for indirection. Describing Thackeray as a writer who "satirized the society in which he moved and held up to ridicule the hollow hypocrisy of his neighbors," he immediately noted the hostility such works would encounter in Harris's homeland: "The Southern Thackeray of the future will doubtless be surprised to learn that if he had put in an appearance half a century earlier he would probably have been escorted beyond the limits of our Southern clime astraddle of a rail." What Thackeray did in England, Harris emphasizes, could not be done in the late-nineteenth-century American South: "He took liberties with the people of his own blood and time that would have led him hurriedly in the direction of bodily discomfort if he had lived in the South" (Editor and Essayist 44). Harris, then, absorbing these lessons, would do it differently. He would, like Melville and Shakespeare, employ "dark characters" to communicate his "little lower layer" indirectly, "covertly, and by snatches."
As it happened, of course, Harris had no need for Melville (or Shakespeare), since he had immediately at hand, in Brer Rabbit's Signifying tales, a no less sophisticated model of encoded discourse. George Terrell and Harbert, telling Brer Rabbit's wonderful tales to the listening boy, taught him not only the covert critique of their matter, but also the even more subversive lessons of their Signifying method.
On their surface, then, the Brer Rabbit tales, "A Story of the War," and On the Plantation serve the healing, future-oriented ends Harris shared with Atlanta Constitution editor and prominent New South advocate Henry W. Grady. Uncle Remus is entirely benevolent, a saccharine figure comforting to descendants of the folks who owned him; "A Story of the War" marries the Yankee soldier to the Southern belle in a sentimental romance of intersectional harmony; On the Plantation is dedicated to "philanthropist" plantation owner Joseph Addison Turner. This is the level of Harris the editorialist, whose voice predominates (but never wholly submerges its subversive other) in "Observations from New England" and the other pieces that have dismayed contemporary readers. And there can be no question that this is the voice heard, even in his better known work, by the overwhelming majority of Harris's early readers. The "cultural work" of the famous Uncle Remus/Brer Rabbit collections, then, like that of Harris's newspaper editorials and essays, is accurately described as ideological in this sense. In the name of a future-oriented vision of regional reconciliation they offered a wholly sanitized historical fantasy in place of the brutal realities of the slave-based plantation economy of the antebellum South. The sins of the past were occluded in the service of a hoped-for harmonious future.
But under these surfaces, such anodyne lullabies are persistently undermined, revealed as illusory, childlike evasions of an immeasurably larger, darker, more complex, and finally more lively world. Turner, as the powerful and articulate spokesman for antebellum Southern ideology who gave Harris his start as a writer, is an obvious surrogate father figure. It seems inevitable that he gets the dedication, a page of his own at the volume's front. But George Terrell and Harbert, the slave men who told him of Brer Rabbit's triumphs, emerge as the boy's true mentors, the teachers of his deepest lessons. They get the book itself, its center and heart.
Such obliquities were of course absolutely necessary. Harris lived in Georgia and earned his pay as a Southern newspaperman. He was, like Remus, like Brer Rabbit, operating within constraints. But, like them again, he was far from helpless. With his artful words he put forward his world, as he knew it and as he wished it, right under the noses of a society he knew it would appall. The boy who listened to Brer Rabbit tales on pro-slavery zealot Joseph Addison Turner's plantation had learned their lessons well. Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart's desire. He was, like Remus with his alternative "deloojes" and crowds of "merlatters," Signifying. Harris's dedication of On the Plantation to Turner serves, along with a host of other subsequent misdirections, to distract readers from his repudiation of the world Turner held dear. In that less well known but equally subversive work, the "Georgia boy" who is a thinly disguised portrait of Harris aids and abets runaway slaves and Confederate army deserters.
Back down in Putnam County, in "A Story of the War," the Yankee soldier confronted by the interracial domestic tableau on the Abercrombie plantation fails, of course, prefiguring generations of readers both Northern and Southern, to understand the scene before his eyes. He stresses Remus's age, calling him "ole man," dismisses his own vision of blood on Remus's axe with a laugh, and soon leaves after failing to locate the livestock and food Remus has carefully hidden. Remus, once again, is triumphant, this time as master of the plantation. The Yankee soldier, Remus says, "‘wouldn't never laft dat day ef he'd know'd de wukkins er Remus's mine’" (Songs and Sayings 183). Indeed he wouldn't. And thousands of readers wouldn't have laughed either, had they recognized the no less subtle workings of Harris's mind. He was every bit as skilled at disguising his meanings as Brer Rabbit was at duping wolves and foxes, as Remus was at hiding corn and hogs, and the "wukkins" of his mind and pen have long remained unplumbed.
The closing paragraph of "A Story of the War," for its part, contains Uncle Remus's oblique but unmistakable claim that it was he, after all, who arranged the alliance of Miss Sally with her Yankee suitor. He is, again, despite the superficial obsequies that misled and comforted generations of readers, the master of the house, here busying himself with managing the happy marriage of a "daughter" who seems to have no other father but he. Chastized by this husband's sister—"‘But you cost him an arm’"—for the wartime shot that saved Mars Jeems and wounded her brother, Remus answers that if he took one arm he gave four in return: "‘I gin 'im dem,’" says Uncle Remus, pointing to Mrs. Huntingdon, "‘en I gin 'im deze’"—holding up his own brawny arms (Songs and Sayings 185).
But who except Harris himself could appreciate such subtleties, would read through the bland surfaces of Remus's "half-confident, half-apologetic" manner (Songs and Sayings 178) to the wily, undermining messages of his matter? Who would be for him what captive Norwegians were for Saelen? The record is admittedly thin, since most reviewers, those who praised Harris together with those who damned him, took the surface for the whole and understood him as a nostalgic plantation romancer. But countering voices are not wholly absent. The young North Carolina journalist Walter Hines Page, for example, noted in an 1881 letter that Harris "hardly conceals his scorn for the old aristocracy," adding that "you can find here and there in ‘Uncle Remus's’ sayings a sly thrust at the pompous life of the Old South" (qtd. in Hendrick 152).
There is also the even more interesting 1904 letter to Harris from Mrs. Mary C. Turner of New Orleans. Writing for an African American women's group, the Phillis Wheatley Woman's Club, she offers "heart felt thanks" to Harris for his "encouraging words," informs him that his name has been added to the group's "book of friendship," and adds that the club members have resolved to pass on his stories to their children (Mixon 478). Here the central image of Harris's collections, a revered elder speaking intimately to a loved child, is carried by print across time and space to other elders and other children. Thanks to Harris's labors of remembering and recreating, thanks that is to his Signifying mastery of the oral register he heard and his skill with the textual medium he worked in, the wit and wisdom he heard at the knee of George Terrell and Harbert are passed on to a new generation by mothers reading to their children. What more could a writer ask?
In an often-quoted 1898 letter to his daughters, Harris, who was famously self-deprecating in his public assessments of his accomplishment, calling himself a mere "cornfield journalist" (Life and Letters 345), permitted himself a somewhat more complex analysis. His "editorials for the paper" were all his own, he allowed, but this proper self was not in fact "a real, sure enough author" because the famous stories were the work of an internal "other fellow" who "takes charge" whenever "I take my pen in my hand." This "other fellow," most significantly, holds highly critical views of the editorials and magazine articles of the "cornfield journalist": "He regards them with scorn and contempt" (Life and Letters 384-85). In fact, and by now it should come as no surprise, the "other fellow" views the "cornfield journalist" with an attitude remarkably similar to that of Uncle Remus toward the opinions of Mars John, or that of Brer Rabbit for the attitudes of Brer Fox or Brer Bear. Darwin Turner's criticisms of Harris's magazine articles were on the mark, but at least a part of Harris's own consciousness had arrived at the same conclusions seventy years earlier, and had penned his own critique.
It is difficult to articulate precisely, but the central point is not that Harris consciously urges a subversive political message (though he surely does this). There is every reason to suppose that the gradualist and paternalist views put forward in his prefaces, magazine articles, and Constitution editorials had Harris's honest if highly qualified support. There is, similarly, no reason to suppose that the dedication of On The Plantation to Turner is a deliberate mockery, even though the book itself demolishes the basic tenets of Turner's world view. The surface of Snorri sel, by contrast, seems entirely diversionary—although one might imagine (as Nazi censors necessarily did imagine) reading it to a child as a cautionary tale centered not on opposition to German occupation but on the pitfalls of vanity and the importance of good friends.
With Harris, however, things are more complex. Both levels of the story reflect some aspect of his purpose. First, the surface narrative produced by Harris the prominent editorialist was pleasing to a great many contemporary readers, who rewarded him with a comfortable living and a respected niche in the world. Only later, when a new politics and poetics came to power, did this narrative fall from grace and its author come in for opprobrium. His second voice, however, his hidden narrative, had anticipated such critiques by half a century. It found few sympathetic readers at first, and was produced in response to deeply personal and private needs by "the other fellow," the Harris who held the pieties of his surface narrative in contempt. The fundamental point is psychological and formal at its core. If Harris could not entirely escape the dominant views espoused by the most influential men of his place and time, his mind and heart were nevertheless held, and even more deeply, to a very different order. And he had the skill to manage the articulation of both. He made it by the censors (in part because a part of him subscribed to the censorship's values) and he got his heart's truth told. Careful attention to his famous collections shows heart and head working together to produce analogously tensioned Brer Rabbit tales and Uncle Remus frames that manage at one and the same time to satisfy (even as they also criticize) Southern readers, reassure (even as they sometimes rebuke) Northern ones, and celebrate the deeply personal sense of interracial "family" that is Harris's own best purchase on childhood's prelapsarian security.
This sort of divided self is not so very unusual, after all, as any number of recent and not so recent studies demonstrate. Consider for instance the story of Amanda America Dickson, as told in Kent Anderson Leslie's Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege. Her father is David Dickson, an ambitious, innovative, and wealthy Georgia farmer, who in 1848 rapes her mother, a twelve-year-old slave girl named Julia. When he dies thirty-seven years later, in 1885, his carefully written will leaves the great bulk of his estate (some $400,000) to Amanda America, his only child, making her perhaps the richest woman in Georgia. Unsurprisingly, vigorous legal challenges were mounted by a host of (white) claimants, with the Georgia Supreme Court eventually upholding the will. (The Atlanta Constitution of course gave these legal proceedings extensive coverage, and it's even possible Joel Chandler Harris may have written one or another of the generally positive reports and editorial comments on Amanda America Dickson's legal triumphs.)
In the years before his death Dickson had cherished his two grandsons from Amanda America's marriage to a white Civil War veteran, shocking more than one visitor by his practice of dining with his daughter and her boys, who reportedly clambered into his lap and called him "Pappy" (Leslie 65). David Dickson, then, begins as a rapist and ends as the doting grandfather of his "merlatter" descendants, living most of his adult life with his sense of family ties completely at odds with the mores of a society in which he occupied a prominent and public place. Family won out; blood was thicker than ideology.
A nearly identical situation occurs in Pauli Murray's classic memoir Proud Shoes, first published in 1956. Murray's paternal grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, a child born of the rape of a North Carolina slave woman by her master's son, is raised (along with three other daughters of another son by the same mother) by her Aunt Mary Ruffin Smith. This rapist father, like David Dickson, also dotes upon his daughter, and this daughter's granddaughter, writing a century later, notes her own two-mindedness: "I couldn't hate Sidney Smith when Grandmother talked about him" (Murray 52). Murray, narrating her own family's tangled history, subtitles her book The Story of an American Family and reaches the same conclusions as David Dickson: "As Grandmother said, blood was thicker than water" (Murray 46).
For Joel Chandler Harris, it wasn't a matter of blood. For him, it was the ignominious experience of illegitimacy, the sorrow of the fatherless child. In each of these instances children are born into conditions of outrage—Joel Chandler Harris into abandonment, Amanda America Dickson and Cornelia Smith out of the greater horror of rape—and grow into an encompassing sense of family at least in part self-created. Pressured by racist, sexist, and classist ideologies that, whatever their differences, share their abstract urge to binary, determined, black-and-white simplifications, people resist being pigeonholed, insist on working out their own richly textured, finely cross-grained destinies. Personal identities reveal themselves as maddeningly complex matters, tangled mixes of the inherited, the enacted, and the imagined. Pauli Murray's grandmother, after all, grew up to marry a black Union Civil War veteran, but she also insisted fiercely upon her own heritage: "‘My daddy was a Rebel, and I'm a Rebel, too,’" she said. When her schoolteacher daughter complained of disrespectful treatment by white supervisors she called "dirty Rebs," her mother brought her up short: "‘There's not one of those white folks in the school system that's any whiter or haughtier than you. You look and act just like a Rebbish Smith, and you can't help yourself. You're one of them’" (Murray 157).
If Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, then, insisted that her daughter was at least in part a white woman passing for black, Joel Chandler Harris, as a man whose "nostalgia was more for a black world than for a white one," was in some sense only passing for white when he billed himself as a "cornfield journalist" and spouted nonsense about the hand of God guiding the "discipline" of slavery. The "other fellow" knew better; he held such views in "scorn and contempt." The best name for this "other fellow" should by now be clear. It is Remus, after all, who tells the tale, just as it is the "other fellow" who takes over when "I take my pen in my hand." It was as black Uncle Remus (or, more precisely, as Remus's "son") that white Joel Chandler Harris found at once his freedom and his voice.2
Harris was still in his teens when he sat at the feet of the black men who became his models for Uncle Remus. He went on to sign letters as Remus. He had a grandson named Remus. His evenings listening to George Terrell and Harbert were absolutely critical formative experiences; such scenes were what he knew of childhood. These wise men were in the deepest sense (emotionally, spiritually, culturally) his fathers, men who taught him a way to live adroitly (and more especially to speak adroitly; that is, covertly) in a dangerous world. Can we doubt, given what he made of them, his profound apprehension of the tales he was told? Can his sure mastery of their Signifying method remain in question? Joel Chandler Harris didn't "steal" Alice Walker's inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own, and in his work he accomplished, in addition to the skillful textualization of a rich African American oral tradition which made him famous, the intimate personal testimony that Nietzsche found at the heart of all great achievements of mind—"a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir" (13).
In the setting of the Uncle Remus stories, as in the abandoned cabin of On the Plantation, where a boy, two runaway slaves, and two Confederate deserters shelter together and tell stories to one another, as in the account in Nights with Uncle Remus of a wonderful night in 1882 when Harris, normally so reticent, swapped stories with a group of black laborers at a train station in Norcross, Georgia—in all of these Harris recreates his most treasured moments in idealized form. Harris, it turns out, was both nourished as a child and trained as an artist by black storytellers who were in turn both mentors and fathers to a boy whose acquisition of their gifts to him was more profound than even the man he became could appreciate fully.
Joel Chandler Harris was a painfully shy, deeply private man. In a famous letter written on his twenty-second birthday, December 9, 1870, he offered his friend and confidant Mrs. Georgia Starke a bleak summary of his life: "My history is a peculiarly sad and unfortunate one" (qtd. in Cousins 83). His indirections and obliquities no doubt served psychological as well as pragmatic ends. But with all his wiles and evasions he leaves no doubt as to the shape of his ideal order, his sense of life's best gifts. Harris's dream, it turns out, was not so very different from another famous Georgian's. Though he lacked Dr. King's courageous martyr's heart, he possessed in full measure a very similar appreciation of the powers of the word. Harris's carefully disguised critique reaches to the very center of his region's society, but he issues it from wholly utopian marginal havens. This Georgia, its racist hierarchies momentarily undone in moments of unconstrained egalitarian communication, with boys and old men and runaways of every stripe taking shelter and comfort together, with black workers and a white traveler passing a night exchanging stories at a railroad depot, was for Harris the desired country; these humble gatherings were for him the beloved community. At its heart is his cherished family, insistently if covertly affirmed. The little boy's mother is a young white woman who loves him. His chosen father, strong and knowing and generous with his wisdom, is an old black man.
1. In capitalizing "Signifying," I follow Mitchell-Kernan and Gates, who use both italics and capitalization (among other devices) to indicate meanings specific to African American speech.
2. My thinking on the whole matter of Harris's "passing" as Remus and/or a "son" of black slaves owes much to conversations with Susan Marren and Janet Wondra.
Bickley, Bruce, ed. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Hall, 1981.
———. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Cousins, Paul M. Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1968.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Harper, 1976.
———. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Harris, Joel Chandler. The Bishop and the Boogerman. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1909.
———. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
———. Gabriel Tolliver. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1902.
———. Nights with Uncle Remus. 1881. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
———. On the Plantation. 1892. Fredericksburg, VA: Sergeant Kirkland's, 1997.
———. Uncle Remus and His Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.
———. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. 1880. New York: Penguin, 1982.
———. Uncle Remus Returns. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Harris, Julia Collier, ed. Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1931.
———. The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Hedin, Raymond, "Uncle Remus: Puttin' On Ole Massa's Son." Southern Literary Journal 15 (1982): 83-90.
Hemenway, Robert. "Introduction." Harris, Songs and Sayings 7-31.
Hendrick, Burton J., ed. The Training of an American: The Earlier Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, 1855-1913. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
Leslie, Kent Anderson. Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.
McDonald, William C. "Introduction." Harris, On the Plantation vii-xxxv.
Melville, Herman. Complete Shorter Fiction. New York: Knopf, 1997.
———. Moby Dick. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.
Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia. "Signifying." Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973. 310-28.
Mixon, Wayne, "The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Time." Journal of Southern History 56 (1990): 457-80.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. New York: Harper, 1978.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966.
Stokker, Kathleen. Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940-1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
Walker, Alice. Living by the Word. San Diego: Harcourt, 1988.
Dauner, Louise. "Myth and Humor in the Uncle Remus Fables." American Literature 20, no. 2 (May 1948): 129-43.
Studies the roles of humor and ancestral legend in the creation of the Uncle Remus stories.
Mixon, Wayne. "The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Time." Journal of Southern History 56, no. 3 (August 1990): 457-80.
Attempts to establish Harris's potential empathy towards the struggles of nineteenth-century blacks.
Ritterhouse, Jennifer. "Reading, Intimacy, and the Role of Uncle Remus in White Southern Social Memory." Journal of Southern History 69, no. 3 (August 2003): 585-622.
Reviews Harris's views on race over the course of his life.
Ronnick, Michele Valerie. "Plutarch's Life of Alexander and Joel Chandler Harris's Story of ‘Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox, and Two Fat Pullets’ (1918)." Mississippi Quarterly 51, no. 2 (spring 1998): 323-25.
Critical examination of Uncle Remus Returns.
Stafford, John. "Patterns of Meaning in Nights with Uncle Remus." American Literature 18, no. 2 (May 1946): 89-108.
Examination of the levels of significance for various audiences of Harris's Nights with Uncle Remus.
Additional coverage of Harris's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 49; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 137; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 11, 23, 42, 78, 91; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 19; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 2; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.