The forgotten author: A place in history for Uncle Remus
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Joel Chandler Harris on the porch of the Wren's Nest, where he wrote the Br'er Rabbit stories.
Photo of the man Joel Chandler Harris modeled Uncle Remus after, Owen Terrell.
"Uncle Remus," by Joel Chandler Harris.
NOT BLADE PHOTO
"Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit," published in 1906.
NOT BLADE PHOTO
Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear from "Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation," by Joel Chandler Harris. Illustrations by Frederick S. Church and James H. Moser.
"The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit From Stories Collected by Joel Chandler Harris."
"The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus," by Joel Chandler Harris.
By Sheryl James
ATLANTA — Long ago, during and right after the Civil War, a young teen worked on a plantation near the small town of Eatonton, Ga. During the day, he was a typesetter apprentice for the plantation owner’s local newspaper that circulated all over Middle Georgia — a scenic rural area of rolling hills, lush trees and, back then, cotton fields as far as the eye could see.
During his free time, the lad, who came from a poor family, hung out with the slaves in their cabins. With his ragged red hair, freckled face and heavy stutter, he often just sat and listened to some unusual, entertaining tales he never had heard before.
The main storyteller was an older gentleman who had been a slave all of his life. He related his stories in the heavy “Negro” dialect of that day. They featured the same main characters in a variety of situations: Brer Rabbit, a wily, skinny little rabbit; and his foes, the sly, scheming Brer Fox, and the bumbling, lumbering Brer Bear, among others. Brer Rabbit always managed to outwit his smarter, stronger foes.
The teen, who later described himself as “forlorn and friendless,” never forgot these stories.
Many years later, in 1876, when he was in his late 20s and a newspaper writer, he recreated one of them for an article. The simple little folktale was an instant hit. So he wrote a few more these tales. He presented them in the same format, with the old “Negro” gentleman, Uncle Remus, sitting in his chair, imparting stories — and wisdom — in the old dialect to the little white son of the plantation owners:
Once ’pon a time, Mr. Man had a gyarden so fine dat all de neighbors come ter see it. Some ’ud look at it over de fence, some ’ud peep thoo de cracks, an’ some ’ud come an’ look at it by de light er de stars….
This young man and his stories became famous. In fact, by the time he died in 1908, he and Mark Twain were the most widely read authors in America.
What price folklore?
As Black History Month unfolds, it would seem fitting to celebrate this man, whose name, unlike Twain, is all but forgotten by the general public: Joel Chandler Harris. After all, his wise, ever-present protagonist was a black slave, and his eager protege was a white boy.
The stories featured character animals, and their messages were appreciated by all. Plus, it’s now understood that the tales originated in Africa, among the very people who later became slaves in the American South; thus, they are authentic African folklore.
But though you can still find his books in libraries and book stores, Harris and his work for decades have been controversial. His work is largely bypassed in formal education, and outside of limited circles, his memory is only overtly celebrated at the Uncle Remus Museum in little Eatonton, where Harris was born and worked on the plantation; and The Wren’s Nest museum in Atlanta.
But while Harris’ name is forgotten, when people hear Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, many immediately connect it with racism.
Harris’ Uncle Remus has been “long reckoned by many scholars and readers to be a racial stereotype and a sad vestige of the Old South nostalgia.” So wrote Lain Shakespeare (yes, as in William), Harris’ great-great-great grandson and former executive director of the Wren’s Nest, Harris’ Atlanta home-turned-museum, in a 2004 publication titled, “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong, The Greatest Trickster Hero Ever Ignored.”
The creator of this alleged racist stereotype must, therefore, be a racist, as well — cleverly masquerading as a writer of children’s literature, the thinking goes. An unfortunate, somewhat flawed film made by Walt Disney 40 years after Harris’ death, “Song of the South,” fueled this theory substantially.
Another major charge was articulated to great effect by Alice Walker, the renowned African American author best known for her 1982 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel, “The Color Purple.” Ironically, Ms. Walker also hails from Eatonton.
In a 1980 essay, “The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Creation of Uncle Remus,” she said Harris had stolen a good part of her heritage. Even worse, it has been added, he profited greatly from doing so.
So, what are we to make of all of this?
A look at the man’s life provides important context.
A humble beginning
Harris was born an “illegitimate” child in 1848. His parents never married, and his father fled shortly after Harris was born Dec. 9, 1845, according to the heavily researched 1987 book, “Joel Chandler Harris, A Biography and Critical Study,” by R. Bruce Bickley Jr. The 1848 birthdate reflects that listed in a family Bible more recently discovered. But this still may be wrong. Many believe Harris lied about his age to avoid serving in the Civil War.
Harris’ father was long believed to be an Irish laborer, but no one ever will know for sure, says Pat McDade, docent and hostess at the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton — which was constructed with materials from three slave cabins. Early Harris family works only report that his father “ran off because he would never be accepted,” she says.
Already stigmatized by his illegitimacy and poverty, his assumed Irish heritage (the Irish were frowned upon at the time), his red hair, freckles and stutter, Harris also was small and skinny.
These factors, and the ridicule they brought, formed in Harris a life-long “deep-seated anxiety and insecurity about his public and private self,” Mr. Bickely wrote.
Harris himself later admitted to an “absolute horror” of strangers.
But his mother, from a middle-class family, read her son stories, which inspired him to write. He also received some education in a local school — where he was essentially a delinquent and practical joker.
At around age 14, he had to drop out to find work. On March 4, 1862, he saw an advertisement in the first edition of the newspaper, The Countryman, published by Joseph Addison Turner, who owned the nearby Turnwold Plantation. The ad read, “Active intelligent white boy, 14 or 15 years of age is wanted at this office to learn the printing business.” The Uncle Remus Museum has an original copy of that newspaper.
Impressed by Harris’ written application, Turner hired the lad. Harris moved to the 1,000-acre plantation to work for room, board and clothes. But he received far more than that.
Turner, seeing great promise in his young apprentice, gave him access to his immense library, which offered Harris a classical education — and Turner’s social acceptance and affection.
Meanwhile, Harris enjoyed his easygoing hours with the slaves, and enjoyed the affection and mentoring of the main storyteller, Owen Terrell, among others. He clearly felt more at home there than in more formal circles.
A major figure in his own rite, Turner reportedly treated his slaves well, and when the war ended, offered them sharecropping jobs. Mr. Bickley is quick to note, however, that “not all of the influences that Turner had on Joe were positive ones.” He cites Turner’s “fierce sectionalism, both political and literary, and his devotion to the plantation ideal,” i.e., the institution of slavery.
Harris cared deeply for Turner. (When Turner died, Harris remarked, “I don’t think his own children lament him more, or will remember him longer, than the forlorn and friendless boy.”)
So Harris had two father figures at Turnwold: Turner, and Terrell — who is believed to have inspired the Uncle Remus character. All of this would find a home in Harris’ stories. Harris’ much heralded gift for picking up and preserving dialect began here as well.
In May, 1866, the Civil War over, Harris had to leave Turnwold. He was just 18 — or thereabouts. He worked for several newspapers until 1876, when he was hired at the Atlanta Constitution. Post-war Atlanta had “exploded” to a population of about 22,000 people. By this time, the clearly gifted Harris had written everything from editorials to humorous pieces, for which he was quickly gaining a reputation.
Harris married Mary Esther LaRose in 1873; the couple eventually raised six children in the Atlanta home that is now the Wren’s Nest Museum, so named because Harris refused to dislodge a wren’s nest in his mailbox.
Harris lived a quiet life mainly at home, writing not just Uncle Remus tales, but novels and other works. In 1908, he died in his bedroom at age 60 of nephritis and cirrhosis of the liver; he had long struggled with alcoholism. His bedroom at the Wren’s Nest, which became a museum in 1913, has been untouched since that day.
The racism debate
Harris’ work has been loved ever since, but for decades was quite controversial. That controversy is “somewhat dated” in 2016, says William Ferris, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the Center for the Study of the American South. Mr. Ferris is a widely recognized leader in Southern Studies, African-American music and folklore; he is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities as well.
Mr. Ferris deals with Harris some in one of his courses, but that is the exception, he says.
Nevertheless, even today, few figures, or bodies of work, represent a better example of America’s eternal, conflicted conversation about race. Harris’ critics and defenders make good points. The back-and-forth could fill volumes. A more succinct version goes like this:
Question: Was Harris a racist, or not?
Answer: No, yes, kind of, not really.
Throughout his newspaper career, Harris supported education for former slaves, suffrage, and equality and was horrified by lynching. He cited W.E.B. Du Bois in his work; Booker T. Washington praised him and quoted one of his editorials in a speech.
When Harris and his son Julian established Uncle Remus’s Home Magazine in 1905, Harris said the magazine’s mission was “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.”
More recently, Julius Lester, an award-winning, African-American children’s book author and former professor, stated that Harris preserved important black folklore and that “there are no inaccuracies in Harris’ characterization of Uncle Remus. Even the most cursory reading of slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s reveals that there were many slaves who fit the Uncle Remus mold.”
In 1878, Harris wrote in an editorial quoted by Mr. Bickley, Mr. Shakespeare and others, that there “never was a time when an editor with a purpose could accomplish more for his state and his country than just at present. What a legacy for one’s conscience to know that one has been instrumental in mowing down the old prejudices that rattle in the wind like weeds.”
Mr. Bickley added that Harris always worked to tear down the three “‘old prejudices’: social and political sectionalism, literary sectionalism, and racial intolerance… ” But he had some of his own prejudices. “…Even though Harris hoped that educating the Negro would solve many of his problems, he often wondered about the ultimate educability of a primitive race. Perhaps the black man was best suited for physical labor ….” Paternalism is offensive in any era.
However, Mr. Bickely suggests that “In evaluating … Harris’ vision as a New South editor, we must always remember that he was writing from a late nineteenth-century perspective, not a late twentieth-century one, and that his opinions were progressive for his day even if they fall short of the liberal thinking of our own time.”
Question: Did Harris “steal” the African American tales, as Ms. Walker suggests, or not?
Answer: Arguably, no. He helped preserve them.
Technically, says Wren’s Nest Executive Director Sue Gilman, “it is absolutely true. He did appropriate those stories and made money from them. That’s a fact. But people don’t realize that he never said he wrote these stories, he always gave credit” to the African heritage and to the slaves/sharecroppers who shared the stories. Also, others were free to do what Harris did. For the most part, they did not.
Says Mr. Ferris, “Some people take issue with Harris and what he did, but the bottom line is without him, these stories would not exist in the way we have them … I don’t know that anyone can know his motives. What we do know is that he recorded these tales and we are grateful that we can look at them and read them; that’s a better option than not having them at all.”
It bears noting, too, that Harris’ life-long refusal to essentially cash in on his uber-popular stories by touring and lecturing worldwide suggests less than voracious thievery here.
Question: Are the Uncle Remus tales racist and, therefore, offensive?
Answer: No, and yes, for some.
Mr. Shakespeare describes the work of Robert Cochran’s “Black Father: the Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris.” Mr. Cochran, writing in 2004 for the African American Review, contends Harris’ work has been misread by everyone.
Uncle Remus tells the white boy “what his white, southern parents wouldn’t want him to hear,” Mr. Shakespeare wrote. These ideas include the “origin” of life story in which Uncle Remus says all people once were black, and reassures the white boy who thinks he is joking that he is telling the truth.
And Uncle Remus continually “contrasts his own wisdom with the father’s stupidity. … Remus asserts himself as a central parent.” Remus even hints at a romantic affair between himself and the little boy’s mother.
Through such then-subversive means, Mr. Shakespeare, among others, conclude that “Remus has something to teach the little boy, and Harris, by extension, has something to teach his white, southern, 19th century readers.”
“The Uncle Remus tales are part of that body of 19th century literature which represent the beginning of Southern fiction (and) the first attempts to render what we call vernacular language into literature,” Mr. Ferris says. “In this case, it’s the black voice, and is rendered with a heavy use of dialect being recreated without changing the words. Figures like Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison all knew this work, and they draw on it in different ways.”
Harris himself understood the mission of these original folktales. He wrote in 1880, that “it needs no scientific investigation to show why (the slave) selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in the contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. ... It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness.”
These tales are essentially allegories, Mr. Ferris says, “but in folklore, you have what are called ‘tale types’.” The Uncle Remus stories are such types, and they are universal in nature.
Similar weak-animal-outwits-smart animal tales are found in China, India, Africa and beyond. The Uncle Remus stories “bring those allegorical narratives into a specific place, which is the American South, in the context of slavery. But the tale itself is universal. What Harris does is record them …”
However, it’s easy to understand the offensiveness of a character who, author’s motivations notwithstanding, is a painful reminder of a painful era for African-Americans, and the nation that practiced slavery. To those who missed Harris’ subtle messages, Uncle Remus came off as the contented slave who loved his kindly master. This figure, then and certainly now, cannot be tolerated.
Scholar John Goldthwaite, an admirer of Harris’ work Mr. Shakespeare quoted, said in 1996, “We can regret that the best of all American books ever handed down to children is a book we cannot in good conscience read them.”
What bears remembering, final verdict notwithstanding, are the unforgettable characters and messages of these special stories and their truly immense popularity among people of all races, nationalities and ages. Ms. Gilman and other compare it to today’s Harry Potter frenzy.
“Harris’ ability to universalize his Southern heritage is what gives the Remus stories … an enduring place in world literature,” Mr. Bickley wrote. Add to that Harris’ work was groundbreaking in use of dialect, the creation of animal characters and serialized story telling.
Whether that releases Harris and his work from banishment has yet to be determined. Certainly, it is reasonable to suggest Harris was a complex man who lived in a complex time in American history. And one irony stands out as the debate continues.
During his lifetime and after, Harris himself became synonymous with, and routinely referred to, as “Uncle Remus.”
But of course, Harris at Turnwold never was Uncle Remus. He was the little white boy.
Sheryl James is a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and freelance journalist from Brighton, Mich. She has written for the Detroit Free Press, St. Petersburg Times and the Greensboro News & Record.
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