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Joel Chandler Harris, 1848-1908, Frederick S. Church (Frederick Stuart), 1842-1924, and James Henry Moser, 1854-1913
Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation. By Joel Chandler Harris. With Illustrations by Frederick S. Church and James H. Moser
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881.


Joel Chandler Harris, celebrated fiction writer and Georgia newspaperman, was born on December 9, 1848 in the town of Eatonton, Georgia as the illegitimate child of Mary Ann Harris and an Irish laborer. Despite gaining international fame, chiefly due to his animal folktales told through the voice of Uncle Remus, Harris's personal nature was decidedly more reticent. Throughout his life he suffered acute embarrassment due to his short stature, shocking red hair, and severe stammer. While plagued by his insecurities, which no doubt contributed to his frequent refusals to give public readings, Harris was naturally inclined toward humor and practical joking. As a youth he was known for being a clever prankster, a trait that would later manifest itself in the characters of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the other "creeturs" that populate his Uncle Remus tales.

Harris moved to Turnwold Plantation in 1862, where he was first introduced to the plantation lore that later would inspire his fiction. The thirteen-year-old Harris was apprenticed to Joseph Addison Turner, with whom he worked on his weekly newspaper, The Countryman. Sharing Harris's sharp wit and joking manner, Turner willingly served as his mentor. He also gave the young apprentice access to his expansive collection of books and encouraged him to develop his literary style, so that after only a short tenure at Turnwold, Harris was publishing his own poetry and essays in The Countryman. Yet his most significant experience on the Turnwold Plantation is indisputably the time he spent in the slave quarters listening to African American folktales. These stories provided much of the material for the Uncle Remus tales, and Harris would later model many of his African American characters, including Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy, 'Tildy, and Daddy Jack, on the storytellers of his youth. Though he would not begin writing his animal folktales for another decade, Harris's work demonstrates his remarkable memory for the stories as well as the nuances of dialect in which they were told.

Turner's newspaper folded in 1866, at which time Harris began the first of a series of newspaper jobs that garnered him wide respect as both a reporter and an editor. He worked in Macon, Georgia, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Forsyth, Georgia, ultimately gaining enough experience to land a position as a regular humor columnist with the Savannah Morning News. He began courting Esther LaRose during this time, and the two were married in 1873; they had nine children together. In 1876, he moved his family to Atlanta where he secured a position with the well-known Constitution, which, under the direction of Henry Grady and Evan Howell, was positioning itself as the New South's most progressive journalistic voice. Between 1876 and 1880, Harris made his own contribution to the newspaper's rising prominence with his sketches of an African American character named Uncle Remus, a shrewd storyteller who reminisces about plantation life in the Old South. In 1879, Harris created Uncle Remus's first animal tale which received such praise that it and subsequent animal tales were printed in newspapers all over the country. In November 1880, D. Appleton published Harris's first collection entitled Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation, which sold 7,500 copies in its first month and achieved international acclaim. In 1895, Harris published a revised edition of Songs and Sayings with illustrations by A. B. Frost. He completed eight volumes of Uncle Remus stories in all, two of which were published posthumously. Joel Chandler Harris died on July 3, 1908. In 1955, all 185 tales were collected under the title The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus.

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Saying includes thirty-four folktales narrated by Uncle Remus, an elderly man living in a cabin on Sally and John Huntington's plantation. His listener is their seven year-old son John, who returns nightly to Uncle Remus's side to hear about the fates of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, Brer Tarrypin, and fellow animals as they enter into contests, pull pranks, and do their best to outwit each other at every encounter. The tales champion the weaker animals over the stronger ones, and range from playful trickery to violence, abuse, and destruction. Harris never spoke at length on the allegorical dimension of the tales, most likely due to his incapacitating shyness, yet readers and critics alike have noted the parallels to antebellum social hierarchy. Brer Rabbit, who is the central character of the tales, resembles the African archetypal trickster figure. Brer Fox, who presents the greatest threat to Brer Rabbit, is suggestive of the dominant white race. While the majority of the tales are recreated from African fables, brought to the New World by enslaved Africans and shared over generations among enslaved African Americans living in the South, others are derived from European or Native American sources.

Arguably the best-known Uncle Remus tale is "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story," in which Brer Fox successfully entraps Brer Rabbit by setting a tar-baby out on the big road right across Brer Rabbit's path. Brer Rabbit becomes confounded with the tar-baby's obstinate refusal to exchange pleasantries. He hits the tar-baby only to become entangled in the black tar. About this time Brer Fox makes his appearance on the road and hints that Brer Rabbit will be his dinner. In characteristic fashion, Uncle Remus ends the tale abruptly, leaving young John in suspense. Several days later, after questioning Uncle Remus about Brer Rabbit's fate, John learns that Brer Rabbit narrowly escaped death by begging Brer Fox to do anything but throw him into the "brier-patch." A gullible Brer Fox does exactly that and quickly realizes his mistake when he sees Brer Rabbit emerge up the hill from him, shouting "Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—Bred en bawn in a brier-patch!" After Brer Rabbit's narrow escape in the tar-baby episode, he retaliates in a later tale by saddling Brer Fox and treating him like his horse. Other tales describe Brer Tarrypin outwitting Brer Rabbit in a race (similar to the tortoise and the hare fable), Brer Rabbit stealing Brer Fox's hunting spoils, and Brer Wolf losing his hide in a wooden chest full of boiling water.

The tales are followed by a series of plantation proverbs written in dialect that reflect on various aspects of an agricultural lifestyle, such as harvesting, cooking, cleaning, and keeping up with the neighbors. Harris also records several plantation songs, which are mostly of a religious nature, in dialect. He then returns to Uncle Remus in the final section of the book titled "His Sayings," which includes brief sketches of Uncle Remus that Harris likely wrote for the Atlanta Constitution before embarking on the animal tales. These tales feature Uncle Remus in the urban setting of Atlanta where he often stops by the Constitution office to share a thought or converse with the editors there. Although less compelling than the animal tales, these city tales demonstrate the evolution of Uncle Remus's character.

Harris's animal tales have been celebrated for their psychological complexity as well as for their use of dialect. His interest in the southeastern oral tradition as manifested in the Uncle Remus stories garnered him praise as an important regional humorist. Yet much criticism of Harris has also pointed to an underlying racism in his work, specifically with regard to his stereotypical depiction of Uncle Remus. For this reason both Harris and his narrator, Uncle Remus, fell out of favor with later twentieth-century readers. Recently, however, scholarship has attempted to redeem them. For example, scholar Robert Cochran argues that Uncle Remus is more complex than stereotypical and that Harris weaves an anti-racist stance subtly throughout the Uncle Remus tales, aware that any overt subversion would alienate readers.

Harris would go on to write several "adult" fiction books in the local-color tradition, but his characteristically optimistic outlook at times interfered with his ability to portray the depths of human experience. A prolific writer throughout his life who held the titles of esteemed newspaper editor, children's book writer, novelist, American folklorist, humorist, and local-color writer, Harris, through the voice of Uncle Remus, remains best known in his role as storyteller.

Works Consulted: Bain, Robert, Joseph M. Flora and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana Statue University Press, 1979; Cochran, Robert, "Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris," African American Review 38:1 (2004): 21-34; Hart, James D., ed., Oxford Companion to American Literature, 6th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; The New Georgia Encyclopedia: < nge/Article.jsp?id=h-525>; Smith, Steven E., Catherine A. Hastedt, and Donald H. Dyal, eds., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920, volume 188, Detroit: Gale Research, 1998; Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950, volume 11, Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

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