New Castle, Kentucky. We can’t talk about the economy all the time, or anyway I can’t.  Today instead I want to sing a song of the literature of place–and my refrain is, “Bred and born in a briar-patch.”

For someone who believes in autonomous families, local self-governance and a diversity of creatures, I admit I spend a lot of time mentally listing the books I would pester, exhort and even force everyone else to read if I only had the bully pulpit to do so.  (I’m the eldest of several, and one never really recovers from that.)  I’m interested in the canon of what we read and memorize because a good book can give us not only better understanding of our world and ourselves, but a lens through which to focus our understanding.  We all need a cultural shorthand, and I for one would like to use it and be understood.  Without it, so much of what we say is either bogged down in explanations or incomprehensible.

You say everybody knows about Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, and of course you, culturally well-rounded as you are, know The Wonderful Story of the Tar Baby.  But do you know it well enough to tell it?  Can you tell me the tale of Mr. Terrapin Shows His Strength, or Mr. Man Has Some Meat, or The Moon in the Mill-Pond (my favorite)?  Do your students, or your grandchildren, or that nice young couple next-door know even the Tar Baby story?  Ask them, and you may find they don’t.

I think for many of us Uncle Remus has become like the wallpaper; always in the background but never examined. For others some controversial aspects of these stories have meant their erasure, in a painfully misguided attempt to protect black children from a trove of their own African-American culture.  But I treasure these stories, and I am awfully tired of drawing illustrative examples from television.  Sitcoms and reality shows make for a very weak cultural glue, and the idiot box has only created a nation of idiots.  So please, let me bully you today about Brer Rabbit.

Of all the folk and fairy tales I know, the Uncle Remus stories are rivaled only by the Brothers Grimm as a powerful and memorable expression of a people’s mind and spirit.  For localists, they make an unblinking case for living in real community, assuming as they do that in hard times we need our neighbors in order to survive, and must make the best of even those who are regularly plotting to eat us.  These are not what you’d call Sunday School tales, though they have the starkness of much of the Old Testament.  They acknowledge the endemic violence of this world in a way that should cure any listener of sentimentality.  They assume poverty is our common lot—which as a historical norm it is, though we’ve forgotten—and they are full of humor (frequently cruel humor) in the face of want and trouble.  They are not always predictable, and often fantastic and amoral, yet they all resolve in ways that seem right because they feel culturally and humanly true.  There is something both stirring and instructive about them

These stories are so powerful, I believe, because they express the collective experience of many authors and editors under the stress of slavery, and so capture the essence of human nature and the human condition with the heightened understanding that comes to people in difficulty.  And like the Grimm stories, these tales are not only for children and originally weren’t even principally intended for children.  They are the stories adults loved to tell each other, back when many of us were illiterate, and had much more of a culture.

Most of what we know as the Uncle Remus tales began as trickster stories in west Africa.  They were then transformed through retellings in the American South during its slave period, influenced by American Indian and European stories, and collected by a white man during Reconstruction.  The versions Joel Chandler Harris started publishing in 1879 were stories he had heard as a young man in central Georgia, but they were known all over the South.  A version of the Tar Baby story which appeared in the magazine Lippincott’s in 1877 showed Harris that material he himself valued might have a wider white audience.  So it was that these black African tales became black American stories, and then Southern stories for both races, and then nationally and internationally popular.

The character of Uncle Remus (whom Mark Twain preferred to the tales themselves) is not himself part of the stories, except in the vital role of teller and commentator.  He is a creation of Harris’s frame story; an old family servant and former slave who tells the Brer Rabbit tales to the little son of the family.  The child’s mother is a Southerner, the father a former Union soldier, and Uncle Remus, though a strong and even imperious character, is loyal to his white family and has a strong tie to this child.  It is a frame Harris expressly constructed to help his white audience heal the wounds of war and Reconstruction.  As such it now angers some readers, and most modern versions leave it out and let Brer Rabbit take center stage alone.  Also, because the dialect is thick, it has been softened in the more recent retellings (such as Julius Lester’s and the Jump! series), and Uncle Remus’s occasional use of the word “nigger” has been left out as offensive.  For children these changes make sense.

But adults should read Harris’s original, to hear the stories as he heard them.  He took his work as transmitter as seriously as any ethnographer.  It is especially sad that the dialect he worked so hard to reproduce accurately is now blasted as demeaning, when to Harris’s mind it was integral to the stories themselves.  He felt the tales would be diminished by being translated out of their vernacular—and so with no training but a good ear, he recreated several black dialects of the mid-century in a way scholars today judge to be accurate.  This dialect is presented without irony or mockery.  The stories are told as a black man might have spoken them, not in blackface.  And though modern scholars wonder how much of the telling is Harris’s work and how much belongs to his black sources, Harris himself always maintained that he gave the tales to his readers “uncooked,” as he put it, and in the early books at least he included only stories he had heard an African-American tell.

Alice Walker has accused Harris of “stealing” her literature from the black culture that created it.  It is true that he profited from it, when no black man or woman could, but it is hard to see her point, given the respect with which he treated his material.  Certainly Harris carefully preserved the Brer Rabbit stories (and others) in a form that would have been otherwise lost.  By 1900 or 1920, flexible as these tales had already proved themselves to be in changing conditions, they would have become something else again, and perhaps less than what they are, and certainly fewer than they are.

There isn’t much in the way of “world literature,” a term that generally makes as little sense as “global village.”  But if there is a world lit. the best folk tales are it, because while they express the historical circumstances of a specific people, they are so fundamental in their concerns that they resonate profoundly with anyone still human.  They have been around so long, and been so often retold, that they are worn perfect and smooth.  I think even if I were a Laplander I would love the Uncle Remus stories.  But believing as I do that Harris was right, and that these tales cannot be uprooted from their original language without losing some salt, I love them as part of the essential literature of this place I belong to, a place that in spite of Eisenhower’s interstates and the Department of Education and television, is still the South.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this article! I can claim no southern roots at all (my family has been in south-central Pennsylvania/north-eastern Ohio since my ancestors came over on the boat in the early 1700s), but the Uncle Remus stories were part of the literary canon in my home while I was growing up. They still are. My parents had a big Disney book with some of the stories (the 1947 Golden Book hard-cover), and it still gets pulled out and read aloud to general acclaim many times when we are together as a family. The book itself is falling apart—the binding is broken, the pages are loose—but it is considered a family treasure. I do not know how closely this edition adheres to the source material; I do know that my siblings and I are each hoping we end up with the book if and when my parents downsize.

  2. Don’t mention Disney in connection with the wonderful, crazy, old Uncle Remus stories, Weasly Pilgrim! As a serious fan of Old School Disney, I’m still mad about the refusel of the Politically Correct New Money Disney to release the film on DVD here in the U.S.

    A fine post, Katherine; thank you for it. I’ve never read the original Harris stories–only know about them through various reprints and excerpts. It’s time I exposed myself to them in full! A goal for the summer, perhaps.

  3. You have me here blubbering into my elicit banana bread Ms. Dalton. Two things stand out from my childhood…besides the crazed antics of two older brothers and a much younger sister. My mother Babs was a fantastic bedtime reader. She played the parts to the hilt and gave as good a hat tip to the crucial narrative aspect of dialog as anybody. She read Winnie the Pooh and Uncle Remus, giving all the characters unique voices that made these complex stories come fully alive. I can hear it all now, years after she departed. It is little wonder that I have such a fondness for curmudgeons after she gave Ehor such a fine baritone dejected languor. It suited me because she always told me I was “born old”.

    What we refer to as my “unfortunate gnenetic proclivity as a result of being born in Utah:Republicanism….or as we now call it, Recovering Republican”…… must surely be from the early readings of Remus along with orders at around age ten or eleven to go off with the Salt Lake Tribune and a dictionary, read William F. Buckley and report back to her what was said.

    These are the roots of the creation of a monster. Throw me in the briar patch indeed.

  4. These were probably my favorite stories when I was a wee lad. In fact I just recently did my best to retell the briar patch story to my older son, to give him a strategy for dealing with a younger brother who doggedly exploits any opening to do whatever will aggravate him the most. (I think as a result of this post there may be a run on the used booksellers.)

    A few years ago when I taught Ellison’s Invisible Man, I realized how helpful it would have been if my students knew these stories. Ellison’s protagonist, in trying to wrench his self-image out of its tidy spot in the progressive narrative of the liberal white northeastern establishment, finds one of his best psychic resources in Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear, which belong to his black and southern heritage. Like the authentic blues, which presents a whole tragicomic vision of life, these stories encapsulate for Ellison a view that regards human nature with a combination of sly realism and boundless good humor.

  5. And regarding charges of racism in the use of local dialect: Poppycock..in extremis…anybody who asserts that is either tone-deaf or so politically correct that they think their arse is as important as their head….perhaps, in their case, because of proximity.

    Local dialect is the picture window of great literature. Expressing it well demonstrates a love for the speaker. As an example of it’s fundamental equal rights, I offer the following:

    My mother in law Marion and her second husband Seymour (“Seeeemwwwwoooor”) were on a trip in Alabama in a rented RV with their friends Bernie and Rose and after they had yakety yakked for a while and ordered their food in their proud Brooklyn and Bronx accents , the Black waitress delivered their dinners and said :

    “I jess looooove yur cute lil ole aiiccents”

    Shut my mouth.

  6. Very nice, Kate. Coincidentally, I just came across this line in Robert J. Norrell’s new biography Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington: “Washington liked the symbolic message of wisdom and kindness about blacks in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories in the Constitution.”

  7. Yes, these stories have pull. I don’t know that old Disney version, Mr. Pilgrim, but it sounds to me like all you need is a good bookbinder.

    Florida State University has a very good article online from 1998 which, among other things, includes an interview with an African American storyteller who has had all kinds of trouble trying to tell Remus tales to black audiences. (I can’t remember how to add a hyperlink tonight. But google Harris and FSU.) She persists, though.

    I thought I was right about college students, Mark; I’ve heard similar stories here. Next time you teach Ellison I think you should, in charity, assign some Remus tales, and if the college’s endowment is still way down I’ll pay for the xeroxing. But you’d better be careful about teaching one son to look to Brer Rabbit for ideas on how to deal with another. When he asks you if he can boil some water, watch out.

  8. the loss of uncle remus is one of the great tragedies of political correctness. my nana (a first generation irish-american born in 1900) used to read us these stories from what was a dog-eared volume even back then in the ’50s and ’60s; like d.w.’s mom, she brought these stories to life with her spirited readings, and they made an indelible mark on me. it always saddens me when i run into yet another younger person who looks blankly at my references to tar babies; it’s such a brilliant shorthand for such a common pitfall of human relations, it really should be mandatory reading. instead, our children get “susie has 2 mommies.” 🙁

  9. Nice article. A few years ago I was in my local library talking to one of the clerks when he mentioned that he was in the process of re-writing Uncle Remus to “remove the racist elements” such as Uncle Remus’ dialect, etc. I couldn’t believe he was serious. My response was to ask him if he so lacked creativity that he couldn’t write his own stories? And also why he was determined to change a character as respected (yes, respected) as Uncle Remus? His reply was to call me a racist! But he was the one eliminating a very great work of black culture (which it is, despite it being transmitted by a white man) through his political correctness. It was not possible for him to perceive how wrong it was to do that. It didn’t fit the agenda. To him, and all his kind, the end justifies the means, no matter how destructive.

  10. Not long ago John McCain was called racist for using the term “tar baby” in a sentence. He meant a situation from which one cannot extract oneself, but he was taken by some to be using a derogatory term for a black person. It’s nuts and unfair, but it’s one of the things that will happen when the origin of the term has been forgotten, because the stories are forgotten, and a secondary meaning is all that’s left.

    I do think, though, that with Julius Lester’s versions (and he is black), and the Jump! series which has terrific illustrations, that the books are selling and being read privately. How often a librarian reads them at school is another matter; here and there, but not everywhere. That shouldn’t matter–we shouldn’t be dependent on school for our childhood reading–but of course so many kids only get the electronic babysitter at home.

  11. Actually, I think the disquiet over the use of the term “tarbaby” stemmed from the fact that it provides an easily comprehensible description of our dealings in the Levant and points eastward, thus jeopardizing the continuing prosecution of the national shamfest: WhackaWogapallooza. This would not be good for business…best to keep it murky and confusing. It even had a secondary allusion to our narcotic of choice: the Middle-Eastern Oil Field…another strike against it. Why offer the public a simple concept that is easily understood when you can maintain sneaking suspicions and so keep up the general campaign of paranoid loathing at a simmering ?

    After all, racial linguistics have more directly useful terms to run up the pole of righteous stupidity like the time a few years ago when some really idiotic and racially-enflamed morons rendered objection to the use of the word “niggardly” as though it meant “to be as though niggar”. I do not make these things up, they occur with a regularity that, unfortunately… is the opposite of niggardly.

Comments are closed.