Gary Lehmann - Author

Author's Publications and Upcoming Appearances

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Story Behind Uncle Remus

Joel Chandler Harris [1845-1908], author of the Uncle Remus stories, has been forgotten for a while during the recent period when we were too racially aware to permit Negro dialect stories to be told to children. I’m glad to say he has returned.

For many years in the 1990s, the original Uncle Remus stories were not available in bookstores and even libraries shied away from keeping their old copies in circulation lest they might have to explain to inquiring young minds the thorny issues of slavery and racial stereotyping.

Yet, the lasting value of the Uncle Remus stories belies these concerns for in them Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the weak and the innocent, manage to overcome the strong and the vicious with their purity and innocence. How the helpless triumph over the malicious is a story worth telling. Yet, Uncle Remus has always been a political football.

Even as a youth, Joel Chandler Harris heard dialect tales growing up in Georgia, but he only started writing them down later on. In these stories the slave or his animal counterpart always outwits the master or predator. This theme can be politically touchy.

Although his stories have been associated with the Old South, Harris was not actually part of the aristocratic traditions of the South at all. Just before Harris was born in Billy Barne’s Tavern in 1845, his day-laborer father deserted his unwed mother. Harris was acutely aware of his illegitimacy, and he developed a shyness which was partially a reaction to an abiding sense of unworthiness.

He grew up red-headed and freckled, and endowed with a good sense of humor which he put to work as a newspaper reporter beginning in 1862 when he was just 17 years old. A plantation owner named Joseph Addison Turner published a little newspaper called The Countryman. Harris’ specialty came to be retelling humorous folk stories which were copied down from two ex-slaves named George Terrell and Old Harbert at Turnwold, Turner’s plantation. The stories were so popular they were reprinted by the Atlanta Constitution starting 1879 and several other well-known Southern papers.

Why Harris became a reporter instead of a Confederate soldier in 1862 is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that many Southern boys saw the war for what it was, a grab for political power by some rich folks in Richmond, which left poor Southern boys dead in the ditches of a dozen states. After the war, Jefferson Davis escaped the South and became a highly successful corporate attorney in New York. The rest of South, including people like Harris, couldn’t escape that easily.

As a newspaperman, Harris had many obstacles to overcome. Aside from his shyness, he had a terrible stammer which made interviews downright painful. To differentiate between his editorial opinions and his dialect tales, he soon took to signing his folktales “Uncle Remus.” They were first collected and published in book form in 1881 and every few years thereafter a new book came out. They were widely translated into 27 different languages, because the story of the weak and the oppressed overcoming the mean and the devious by wit is a universal theme that every human being can read with enjoyment. Many others tried to imitate him, but no one had his fine ear for the subtleties of Negro dialect.

The popularity of these tales in the South was driven in large measure by a political agenda which did not evade the attention of his initial readers. The Uncle Remus stories portrayed an ideal world where race relations were harmonious. Many people, especially in Georgia after the Civil War needed to believe that there once was a genteel South where everyone got along. Harris’ stories provided this much needed political cover for those seeking a vision of the South which did not include the evils of slavery.

A decade later, up North, the Uncle Remus stories became popular as well, but for entirely different reasons. The terrible cost of the Civil War was still being felt and whites, both from the North and South, wanted someone to blame for their suffering. This is the era of the Ku Klux Klan and other racial hate groups. The Uncle Remus stories supported the backlash that was taking place against blacks, because the story’s simple characters reinforced the stereotype of the uneducated Negro slave. Ironically, Harris’ simple stories of harmonious rural life became the focus of further racial hatred and mistrust.

Of course, Harris can’t be blamed for the ebb and flow of racial sentiments in the country at large. But somehow, like Huck Finn, his books have polarized American thought on racial issues and have appeared at the heart of a number of controversies over the years. Far from qualifying it as a book that should be taken off the shelves of bookstores and libraries every few decades, I would argue that these are reasons why it should be left on.

By the end of Harris’ life, the publication of the Uncle Remus stories made him quite wealthy. He was editor of The Atlanta Constitution, close friends with Mark Twain, and, like him, Harris built a big house with a name, Wren’s Nest, where he died in 1908.

881 words

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Some Recent Poems

Getting it wrong most of the time
Gary Lehmann

Aristotle’s Fifth Element went beyond earth, air, water and fire to define something perfect.
He called it the aether, whatever exists beyond air, above it, outside --or maybe inside-- it.
He never defined it exactly. Newton created a mathematical theory to explain the entire cosmos,

but Newton got it wrong. He assumed that time and space exist in some absolute relationship.
Even right ideas can be wrong-headed. Ideas that work in some instances don’t work in all.
Einstein proved time and space exist in a flow, all moving in relative motion to one another,

but Einstein got it wrong. To make his universe predictable, he added a “cosmological constant.”
Edwin Hubble proved we live in an expanding universe which gave Einstein his “worst blunder.”
Now, Stephen Hawking has searched his whole life for a unifying Theory of Everything,

but he seems to have gotten something wrong, because his theory doesn’t compute.
We evidently need theories, even if we don’t understand them, even if they don’t work,
to make us feel better about the capricious forces within a coldly indifferent universe.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

A Certain Age
Gary Lehmann

I’ve inherited a drop-front desk from grandpa with all its old stuff still in it.
In the bottom drawer, wrapped in tattered silk is a water jug with a strange nested cup.
These days, I find I tend to wake up in the middle of the night, thirsty and dry mouthed.
I’ve filled the jug and set it by my bedside so in the dead of night I can follow my ancestor’s lead.

In the desk drawer, a pair of spectacles come to hand tightly folded inside their ancient case.
They exactly suit my prescription, though they have traveled through time for 180 years,
serving eyes like mine in long succession to see that jug and nested cup when we wake
after midnight and need to come to the aid of our other faulty genes with a cool sip of water.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

Philosophically Unconvincing
Gary Lehmann

The French Philosopher, called Voltaire,
was walking down a Parisian street in 1725 when
a gang of hired thugs attacked and beat him with cudgels
while the nobleman who paid them watched on.
Apparently, Voltaire wrote something he did not like.

Surprisingly, Voltaire did not think any better of the nobility
after cleaning dirty scuff marks out of his jacket!
Yet every day in every country in the world
someone tries beating the truth in or out of someone
…with equal success.

Poor Man! laments Candide.
Is this the best of all possible worlds?
Soon after this incident, Voltaire wrote,
People who believe in absurdities
will eventually commit atrocities.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

Gary Lehmann

“When we first started the company,”
he told me over wedding champagne,
“we called it the Toy Warehouse,
but then we realized that toys are sold to children
who drag their parents to the cash register,
not to adults who can read words like warehouse.
“That’s really smart,” I thought.

Toyz-R-Us was a name within the comprehension of the smallest child,”
he said, “…and the simplest parent.
It was a natural really.
Once we got the name right,
the rest was just a matter of making sure no toy we sold
ever hurt even one child…ever.”
“That’s really naive, ” I thought.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

Fish Story
Gary Lehmann

Last night, at a fancy restaurant in New York,
I paid $39. for a fish pan fried in butter
and pureed plantain.

It reminded me of a time in Jamaica
when I saw an old black lady in a bright skirt
astride a concrete break wall.

She had assembled a small fire of driftwood
and was pan-frying a fish.
I inquired after her recipe.

“Ain’t got no recipe.
I cooks the fish in lard and plantain
from this tree here.”

I’m sure it tasted
every bit as good, maybe better,
and she had the sea view.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

The Fire Within
Gary Lehmann

At age 7, Moss Hart regularly stayed home from school
to attend Broadway theater with his kindly Aunt Kate.
Though she lived in a tenement house, the theater
gave her the illusion of living the grand lifestyle.
Attending theater lifted her above the squalor,
venting her desperate longing for opulence,

but things aren’t always what they seem.

Darling Aunt Kate liked to attend the theater
to exercise her mania for starting fires in them.
Meanwhile, Moss Hart, lit by another kind of fire,
went on to become known as the Prince of Broadway,
one of America’s finest playwrights. We never really know
when a few hot embers will blow up into a firestorm downwind.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

The Implacable Anger of Karl Marx

Gary Lehmann

Anger dominates Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, a rage over the distribution of wealth,
a tireless demand, for the right of workers to resist the corrosive effects of money.
We think of Karl Marx writing his famous philosophical treatise in his black frock coat
under the domed light of the great Reading Room in the British Museum, and he did.
What we tend not to ask is why he wrote it in such a public place? The answer
is also das kapital. Marx was desperately poor and had a large family at home.

Even those who have their fingers on the pulse of history do not live outside it.

At night he played on the floor with his kids, scrimped on food and clothing, even
pawned his frock coat, just so he could go on explaining why class warfare can
only end in bloodshed. Poverty pinches most acutely when your children suffer.
Born the son of a lawyer, Marx did not grow up as part of the working class himself.
He was well-educated, managed and owned things before throwing it all over for philosophy.
History is messy when you get down to the details. Real history always trembles with irony.

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695

A Murder of Crows
After Winslow Homer’s painting The Fox Hunt
“the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public”

by Gary Lehmann

From the late 1870s on, Winslow Homer changed. He moved to the coast of Maine, became more reclusive, only went to town occasionally to get his mail. There were rumors of a failed romance. His art career was assured by then, but something had changed profoundly for him.

After a cold walk, he returned to his Prout’s Neck studio. Moodily, he took up his brushes.
A long red patch appeared on the white canvas, perhaps a fox. The fox pranced lively toward berry-laden winter bushes. He darkened the fur, defined the ears, and buried the feet in snow.

Water appeared crashing on a hostile ocean beach at the horizon, like the winter of his soul.
As he touched up the legs and ear tips of the fox in black, he saw at once that the right side
of the canvas needed some menacing presence. In bold strokes, he scrubbed in two crows.

Suddenly, by revealing the drama in the work, he transformed a picture into a painting,
revealing both the brooding loneliness of the landscape of his mind and the haunting realization
that even the predator fox is sometimes hunted by a murder of crows in nature’s cruel symphony.

Up close and hovering for an attack, their beaks are hungry for a mid-winter meal. Suddenly,
six more appear coming over the hill in hot pursuit. Their feathers are jagged and ill-kempt.
After twelve hours, the artist sat back in his chair exhausted. Would he ever paint summer again?

1802 Jackson Road
Penfield, New York 14526
(585) 388-8695