Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings
Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings
UNCLE REMUS, HIS SONGS AND HIS SAYINGS
Uncle Remus Brand Syrup was sold during the first half of the twentieth century; in the early twenty-first century B and G Foods sells Brer Rabbit Syrup and Brer Rabbit Molasses. Beatrix Potter, one of several children's writers in Europe, England, and America influenced by the phenomenal popularity of Joel Chandler Harris's first book, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), privately asked her editor whether he thought anyone would notice if she recycled some of Harris's animal names in her Peter Rabbit stories; Harris's Miss Molly Cottontail and other critters suddenly had a new identity. Rudyard Kipling said that when he was fifteen, in 1881, the Uncle Remus stories ran like wild fire through his English public school. One can read Mark Twain's account of meeting Harris in New Orleans in Life on the Mississippi (1883) before rereading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and watching for shades of Uncle Remus in black Jim.
The sudden international increase in scholarly and popular folktale collecting that started in the 1880s is almost statistically tied to the enthusiastic response to Harris's first and second collections of Uncle Remus stories. Walt Disney bought all the rights to Harris's Uncle Remus books and characters in 1939 for $10,000; he would parlay that investment into a 1946 film, Song of the South, that grossed $13 million, including its five releases and at least fifty editions of Brer Rabbit storybooks. The tar baby, like Melville's great white whale, has evolved into a multilayered, multicultural literary symbol. Harris's metaphoric legacy, measured simply in terms of Uncle Remus's folktale expressions that have entered popular language and popular culture—for example, briar patch, Brer Rabbit, laughing place—is immense.
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS IN HIGH COTTON
Joel Chandler Harris (1845–1908), the self-conscious and stammering, illegitimate son of Mary Harris and a still-unknown father, could not have imagined that retelling the African American folktales he had heard during the 1860s and 1870s would create such a rich and diverse legacy. Harris was born in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, the geographical center of Middle Georgia cotton country and whose traditions of rich humor and local color were created about the time of Harris's birth by neighboring authors A. B. Longstreet, Richard Malcolm Johnston, William Tappan Thompson, and Charles H. Smith ("Bill Arp"). Harris learned to write by setting type and composing short pieces from 1862 to 1866 as a printer's devil at nearby Turnwold Plantation, owned by Joseph Addison Turner, a miscellaneous genius and man of letters who published America's only plantation newspaper. Harris proved to have a discriminating ear and retentive memory, and at Turnwold he was fascinated by the Brer Rabbit African American trickster folktales told by Turner's slaves, Aunt Crissy, Old Harbert, and Uncle George Terrell. After the Civil War, Harris began to acquire a regional reputation as a newspaperman, a "cornfield journalist" as he self-deprecatingly styled himself, by holding a series of increasingly visible newspaper positions in Macon, Forsyth, and Savannah. He retreated to Atlanta in 1876, with his wife, Essie, and their two infant sons, to escape the yellow fever outbreak on the coast; the Atlanta Constitution learned he was in town and hired him immediately. When the staff dialect-writer left the paper on medical leave, Harris took over his regular column and instinctively started retelling some of the trickster stories he had absorbed at Turnwold. He created as his storyteller an amalgam of the Turner slave narrators, whom he named Uncle Remus after an old black gardener he had met in Forsyth.
By the end of Harris's career, Uncle Remus and his fellow storytellers, also modeled after slaves and former slaves Harris had met, would narrate 185 African American trickster tales and other folk stories, collected in a total of nine volumes, three of which appeared posthumously. Richard Chase edited The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus in 1955. Two-thirds of these Brer Rabbit trickster tales and related folk stories—which comprise the largest and most influential gathering of African American folktales published in the nineteenth century—derive their deep structures and primary motifs from African folktales that were brought to the New World and then retold and elaborated upon by African American slaves living in the southeastern United States. The remaining stories have their roots in European and Native American folklore. In addition to his importance as an amateur folklorist and story collector, Harris left four other legacies. He was an important newspaper comedian, for a time as widely read and beloved as his friend Mark Twain. Harris was also a pioneering New South journalist, especially during his quarter-century as associate editor, with Henry Grady, of the Atlanta Constitution, where he relentlessly campaigned for sectional and racial reconciliation after the Civil War. Additionally, he was an influential and popular children's author and a well-regarded local color short fiction writer and novelist, who created several memorable black and poor white characters. His frequently anthologized short stories include "Free Joe and the Rest of the World," "Mingo," and "At Teague Poteet's."
IN THE SHADOW OF UNCLE REMUS: HARRIS'S LITERARY HEIRS AND PROTESTERS
Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Harris's second Brer Rabbit collection, featuring four black narrators and gathering seventy-one tales, is an ambitious and important re-creation of African American folklore as it is performed. But Harris's most famous and influential work continues to be his first book, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings. This volume, illustrated by F. S. Church and J. H. Moser, anthologized thirty-four Brer Rabbit stories, seventy Uncle Remus aphorisms, nine plantation songs, twenty-one sketches about Uncle Remus's disgruntling post–Civil War experiences living in Atlanta, and a short story about how Uncle Remus once saved Marse John from being shot by a Yankee sniper. A. B. Frost became Harris's preferred illustrator when he created over a hundred drawings for the handsome revised 1895 edition of Uncle Remus. Harris's first book has never been out of print. In 1926 four hundred high school and college English teachers ranked Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings fifth among the ten most enduring works of American literature. Poe's tales held the top position, followed by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Uncle Remus was next, followed by Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911), Bret Harte's tales, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). In its various editions, Uncle Remus has sold several million copies and has been translated into at least thirty foreign languages; Barnes and Noble lists more than ninety editions of Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus tales and their various adaptations in its online inventory for 2003.
As popular as the book has proven to be, it actually took only one story from the 1880 collection to ensure the permanence of Harris's legacy: the tale of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. Even if listeners do not know Harris by name, they typically know this widely recycled story. The danger of being caught in a double-bind tar baby trap, where the more you fight it, the worse it gets, and Brer Rabbit's celebrated reverse-psychology pleading with Brer Fox not to throw him into the briar patch—the very place he can find safety—have become internationally recognized metaphors. These metaphors have worked their way into an enduring variety of literary, social, political, and popular culture contexts, as the first section of this essay suggests. Yet paradoxically, the more Harris's reputation grew, the more his body of work became the center of controversy, especially during the Harlem Renaissance and the height of the civil rights protests.
Writers indebted to Harris include Twain, who called Harris America's "only master" of black dialect. Twain invited Harris and George Washington Cable to accompany him on an ambitious national platform tour, but Harris declined because of the stuttering problem that had afflicted him all his life; with Harris's blessing Twain took the tar baby tale on the road, later noting that this story was invariably his most-requested performance piece. Harris and Twain exchanged ideas for "The Golden Arm" story with which Twain entertained lecture audiences, and Huckleberry Finn shows numerous analogues in characterization and motif with Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings and with "At Teague Poteet's," among other works by Harris. Because of their national statures and their mutual interest in folk-tales, rural life, and dialect, the American Folklore Society made Harris and Twain charter members in the 1880s. When Harris died in 1908 and Twain in 1910, obituaries from around the world mourned these two most beloved of American authors.
Charles Chesnutt launched his career by trying to separate himself from Harris's legacy and his huge following, arguing that Harris was a storytelling folklorist whereas he was creating his own artful, folklike tales. But Houghton Mifflin, which had also become Harris's major publisher beginning in the early 1890s, nevertheless helped market Chesnutt's first book, The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (1899), by holding onto Brer Rabbit's long ears, as it were—printing on the cover two white rabbits and a bearded old black man's smiling face. In at least a partial validation of this cover design, Uncle Julius's lucky rabbit foot is an important motif in one story; rabbits, however, living or dismembered, play no other roles in these conjuration tales. The face is by implication Julius's, yet, down to the three-quarter-face beard shape, Julius also looks suspiciously like James Moser's 1880 rendering of Uncle Remus, the frontispiece of the first edition of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings.
Zora Neale Hurston alludes to and partially retells Brer Rabbit tales in her essays and fiction, Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, too, knew Harris. Harris's legacy is inescapable for southern writers drawing black and poor-white characters. Faulkner uses an elaborate tar baby metaphor throughout Absalom, Absalom! (1936), the plot of which also roughly parallels the storyline of "Where's Duncan?"—a tale of miscegenation and retribution that is one of Harris's darkest local color stories. Faulkner even owned a copy of Harris's virtually unread novel, Sister Jane (1896); if he knew this book, he was certainly conversant in Harris's more popular works. Fellow Georgian O'Connor liked to send her friends postcards from Eatonton's "Uncle Remus Museum" (still open to the public in the early twenty-first century), two restored slave cabins bolted together that contain some Harris memorabilia. O'Connor quipped in her cards that this particular structure was the only air-conditioned slave cabin in the South. (Harris's fully restored West End, Atlanta, Victorian home, the popular "Wren's Nest," is his official museum and the Harris Association's headquarters.) Ralph Ellison refers both directly and indirectly to Harris's Brer Rabbit tales in Invisible Man (1952), Shadow and Act (1964), and Going to the Territory (1986). Toni Morrison reflected extensively in interviews about the profound, lingering effects of hearing and visualizing in her childhood Harris's rendering of the tar baby story, and she features tar baby characters in Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981)—which in fact includes four tar babies—and Beloved (1987).
But Alice Walker, Eatonton's other famous literary offspring, begrudges Harris's influence, arguing that he effectively stole a major part of her black folk legacy from its authentic African American creators. Harris, a white man, added insult to injury by also using the white publishing industry to make a small fortune out of time-honored, traditional, black folk materials. Walker has for two decades been echoing the concerns of other black critics, from the Harlem Renaissance and from the 1960s and 1970s on. Meanwhile, at another point on the literary spectrum, a whole gallery of protagonists in children's stories—from Kim's animal friends in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books (1894–1895) and Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit (1902) to Howard Garis's Uncle Wiggly (1912–1940), A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926, 1928), and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952)—were influenced by Harris's creation of street-smart, recognizably human animal characters who speak "de same like folks."
BEYOND THE "FUN" AND "GIGGLE": THE COMPLEX RHETORIC AND SOCIOLOGY OF THE UNCLE REMUS TALES
Harris embedded his retold animal folktales in a rhetorically sophisticated narrative frame featuring Uncle Remus and a little white boy listener, who is the son of the plantation master. Uncle Remus's affectionate but also mentoring interrelationship with the boy is an important pairing in the long line of fictional male friends of mixed race—Natty Bumppo and Chinkachgook, Ishmael and Queequeg, and Huck Finn and Jim. In Harris's second volume, Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), three other black narrators also tell folktales: Aunt Tempy, the uppity and privileged cook in the big house; 'Tildy, the often impertinent housemaid; and Daddy Jack, a sagacious old Gullah Negro from the Sea Islands of Georgia, who performs stories complexly counterpointed with conjuring chants and musical refrains. Uncle Remus himself proves, however, to be the most fully developed and gifted vernacular storyteller of the group. Remus's character gradually evolves in the later Uncle Remus collections, even as his young white listener grows up and marries, eventually sending his own rather sissified son to learn at the knee of the seemingly ageless old man.
On one narrative level, Uncle Remus appears to be telling only entertaining, harmless slapstick animal tales drawn nostalgically from the pre–Civil War, Old South plantation tradition. These stories typically highlight the stupidity of the physically stronger animals, who are almost invariably trapped by their own attempts to ensnare Brer Rabbit. In the introduction to Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, however, Harris acknowledges the allegorical significance of the stories he was retelling. He also notes that he is trying to show a side of black character and experience that Harriet Beecher Stowe does not treat in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Clearly, Brer Rabbit is the black slave's alter ego and trickster-hero, and the so-called stronger animals represent the white slave owners. On deeper symbolical and archetypal levels, furthermore, Uncle Remus's role is to initiate his young white listener into the complex realities of adult life. Yet at the same time, Uncle Remus has been educating entire generations of readers—young and old, white, black, brown, red, and yellow—about the destructive power plays and status struggles among members of the animal kingdom who clearly represent socially and ethnically different, jealous, contentious, and even openly warring, members of the human race itself.
Regularly, too, Brer Rabbit, as the archetypal trickster, crosses traditional boundaries in order to stir things up and effect changes in the system. As James Baldwin once observed, the artist is an incorrigible disturber of the peace; so, too, Brer Rabbit, who cannot stand for the neighborhood to be too quiet or complacent. Thus Brer Rabbit creates chaos, challenges the power structure, or raises Cain for the sheer heck of it. And he survives his own hair-raising escapades because, as his tricky old shaman creator, Uncle Remus, counsels, he knows how to use his "thinkin' masheen," a more powerful weapon than his adversaries' brute strength.
Uncle Remus is an accomplished role-player and trickster himself. While affectionately telling the little white boy superficially entertaining tales, he is also exploring, just below the surface, the precariousness of life in a violent, predatory world of interracial strife and class warfare, with its constant assaults on the human body and spirit. As Uncle Remus, "with unusual emphasis," once stops to explain to the little white boy and to his fellow raconteurs 'Tildy, Aunt Tempy, and Daddy Jack in Nights with Uncle Remus, "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" (p. 290). Uncle Remus's Brer Rabbit tales celebrate human resourcefulness, courage, and resiliency in the face of oppression. But he also challenges his readers and listeners to find a common ground and common humanity, free from slavery, terror, and violence—where the human spirit can find its best expression, not in trickery and subversion, but in mutual understanding and compassion.
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R. Bruce Bickley Jr.