Gary Lehmann - Author

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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


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5:43 AM  
Blogger mgranger said...

Beautifully written. I am reseraching facts for a pointed question for the Walt Disney Company. I recently inherited and have been reading to my children the "Uncle Remus Stories" as published by Walt Disney c. 1947, authored by Joel Chandler Harris, and I remember as a child seeing the film adaptation of some of the stories in the Disney film "Song of the South." I recently went ot my local public library to get a copy of the film on VHS or DVD and was told it was never relesed to the public. Needless to say I was very disappointed, as I believe Walt would be. Walt Disney wrote the introduction to the stories in the book and clearly had a passion for the tales as well as the dialect. I remember taking my children on the Splash Mountain ride at the Magic Kingdom and preparing them for the narator, Uncle Remus, only to find that he had been replaced by Brer Frog! I had no good answers for my children at the time, but enjoy the questions that come up when reading the stories, which are a rich example of AMERICAN heritage that should never be put away as if we should be ashamed, but held up as a brilliant example of our diverse heritage. Thank you!

6:15 AM  

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