Thursday, December 9, 2010

Uncle Remus, Br'er Rabbit and history

Title page from first edition.
Joel Chandler Harris was in his 30s* when the first Uncle Remus stories were published in the Atlanta Constitution in the summer of 1879. He was an associate editor and took over a humor column for the paper.

Joel Chandler Harris
The response to the adventures of wily Br’er Rabbit and his nemesis, Br’er Fox, was enthusiastic. It wasn’t long before Harris’ columns were reprinted in newspapers around the country. He recieved more than a thousand letters requesting a collection of the stories in book form.

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His sayings. The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, was published by D. Appleton and Company in 1881. A first edition of the volume is in our collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Harris was acclaimed for his ability the capture the dialect of the plantation Negro and his preservation of the folk tales he had heard as a youth living and working on a plantation learning the printers’ trade and journalism.

He gained the following and friendship of President Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Ralph Ellison was an admirer, too. Harris is thought to have influenced the work of Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Thornton Burgess and Kipling.

Twain used to read from Harris’ work during his lectures. He said the Tar Baby story was particularly popular. Twain must have really appreciated Harris. Literary critic David Carkeet pointed out that Twain liberally lifted conversation and turns of phrase from Harris in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Mysterious Stranger and other works.

To be sure, Harris had his critics, too. H.L. Mencken thought of him as more of a stenographer for the plantation slaves from whom he learned the stories than a writer. Alice Walker accused him of “stealing a good part of my heritage.” Some scholars doubt a white man could have gained the trust of plantation blacks to collect their folklore. In the 1960s, Harris was critcized for being racist and promoting sterotypes. Even today, academia has largely ignored Harris’ literary contributions.

Still, Joel Chandler Harris has gained a steadily growing following in recent years. An Uncle Remus Museum has opened in Eatonton, Georgia, Harris’ birthplace, and has spawned an Uncle Remus Web site.

Wren’s Nest, his home in the West End section of Atlanta has been preserved and restored as a museum dedicated to Harris and his work. In 1882, Harris bought the farmhouse the family had been renting and had it transformed into a Queen Anne Victorian. One suspects Harris would have loved telecommuting. He is said to have taken the mule-drawn trolley to town from home to pick up his assignments then returned home to write on his porch.

The home acquired the name Wren’s Nest after Harris’ children discovered a wren had built a nest in the mail box and persuaded their father to build a new mail box so as not to disturb the wren. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962.

To many, Uncle Remus remains a beloved character of the Old South and Harris’ collection of African American folktales and his preservation of the trickster tale genre is considered a significant contribution to American literature.

*Scholars still debate whether Harris was born in 1845 or 1848. In any case, today is his birthday.

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