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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908)

[1207] George Harper Houghton, Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house (1861), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4575].

Most famous for his creation of the black folk figure Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris was also a journalist, humorist, and novelist. Born in rural Georgia to a single mother, Harris suffered poverty and social ostracism in his childhood. Many of his biographers suggest that his early insecurities led to lifelong shyness, which he compensated for by writing humorous stories and playing practical jokes. At thirteen, Harris was taken on as an apprentice typesetter at The Countryman, a weekly newspaper run by Joseph Addison Turner on his large plantation, called Turnwold. There, Harris received training in printing as well as what he later termed “a liberal education,” enjoying the benefits of the extensive Turnwold library and receiving informal instruction from Turner. He also spent a great deal of time learning from the slaves on the Turnwold plantation, absorbing their stories, songs, and myths. Later, Harris drew on these experiences to compose his sketches and stories of African American life.

In 1864, Turnwold was attacked and destroyed by the advancing Union army, and by 1866, with his finances in ruins, Joseph Turner was forced to dismiss his young typesetter and close The Countryman. Harris found employment in Georgia cities, working as a typesetter, journalist, humorist, and editor for a variety of newspapers. In the late 1870s Harris began publishing a series of sketches written in African American dialect for the Atlanta Constitution, eventually using this forum to develop the character of Uncle Remus. A black slave who tells African American legends and folktales to a young white listener, Uncle Remus quickly achieved popularity with readers in the South as well as the North, where Harris’s columns were syndicated in urban newspapers. Admirers praised the “accuracy” and “authenticity” of Harris’s rendering of African American dialect and recounting of traditional African animal fables about trickster characters such as Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Building on the popularity of his newspaper columns, Harris published a book-length collection of Uncle Remus stories in 1880, titled Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. The book sold out three printings in its initial months of publication, and, as late as 1904, Harris reported that it continued to sell four thousand copies yearly. Capitalizing on his success, Harris followed Songs and Sayings with several additional collections of Uncle Remus’s animal fables. He also wrote local-color stories and novels focusing mainly on life among southern blacks and impoverished whites, but these works never attained the success and popularity of the Remus stories.

Harris also continued to work as a journalist until 1902, becoming a self-styled champion of reconciliation between the North and the South and between blacks and whites. In some respects, his ideas about race were enlightened for his time: Harris was a proponent of black education and argued that individuals should be judged according to their personal qualities rather than their race. At the same time, however, he perpetuated racial stereotypes in his writings. Literary critics have frequently pointed out the latent racism of the Uncle Remus tales, especially Harris’s stereotyped portrait of Remus himself as a “contented darky” with nothing but happy memories of his life as a plantation slave. On the other hand, the trickster tales that Uncle Remus narrates–with their subversive focus on the triumph of seemingly weak characters over their aggressors–are characterized by poetic irony and a subtle critique of oppression and prejudice (a critique that Harris may never have fully appreciated). Whatever his intentions, Harris’s work is undeniably important as a record of traditional African American folktales that might otherwise have been lost to history.

Teaching Tips

  • Students will probably have difficulty with Harris’s rendering of Uncle Remus’s dialect at first, but you should make it clear that such problems are to be expected and that the tales demand thorough and careful reading. It might be worthwhile to provide a gloss on a few of the more frequently used terms, such as “de” for “the,” “gwyne” for “going,” and “sezee” for “he says.” You might ask them to compare a page of Harris’s dialect to a page of Mark Twain’s. When Twain writes in dialect, portraying the speech of Jim, what are the differences in strategy? Which works better for a modern reader? After students have become more comfortable reading Harris’s and Twain’s representation of African American speech, ask them to think about why these renditions of southern black dialect might have been so popular with white northern audiences in the late nineteenth century.
  • Harris always insisted that he did not invent the Uncle Remus tales but instead simply recorded the legends and stories he collected from African Americans. Although he obviously filtered and edited the tales, he would not publish any story that he could not authenticate as part of traditional black folklore. He even claimed that the central character of Uncle Remus “was not an invention of my own, but a human syndicate, three or four old darkies I had known. I just walloped them together into one person and called him Uncle Remus.” After providing students with this background information, ask them to consider the implications of Harris’s claims. How does his status as a recorder of folklore change our understanding of him as a writer? Should we read the Remus tales as faithful transcriptions of the stories as their black authors orally constructed them? To what extent might Harris have changed the stories in the act of recording them? Should we understand Uncle Remus as an “authentic” portrait of the African Americans Harris knew? Why might Harris have been invested in claiming this kind of accuracy and authenticity for his work?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Which animals are weak and which are strong in the Uncle Remus stories? How does Brer Rabbit succeed in reversing traditional power relations in his encounters with supposedly stronger animals? What qualities enable Brer Rabbit’s success?
  2. Comprehension: Examine the frame narratives surrounding the animal fables (in a story that describes the conditions of its own telling, the portion that sets up the “story within the story” is called the frame narrative). How is Uncle Remus portrayed? What is his relationship to the boy and the boy’s family? How does Uncle Remus assert control over the stories and authority over the boy on occasion?
  3. Context: Compare Harris’s representation of Uncle Remus and his trickster stories to Charles Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius in “The Goophered Grapevine.” How are these portraits of African American storytellers different from one another? How do the trickster tales narrated by each of the “Uncles” compare? How do Chesnutt’s accounts of Uncle Julius’s history and motives complicate our understanding of “The Goophered Grapevine”?
  4. Exploration: Stories about Brer Rabbit and his fellow animals have continued to entertain American readers–adults and children alike–through the twentieth century. Books featuring Uncle Remus have continued to sell well, and in 1946 Disney produced Song of the South, an animated feature film about the characters that populate the Uncle Remus stories (despite criticisms of the film’s racial insensitivity, Disney re-released Song of the South as recently as 1986). Why do you think these stories and images have remained so popular? How might their significance to white and black audiences have changed over time?

Selected Archive Items

[1207] George Harper Houghton, Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house (1861),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4575].
Plans like the Design for $600 Cottage, featured in the archive [3609], reveal that a parlor was perceived as necessary in even the most humble home; yet for many slaves merely having a large-enough home on the plantation on which they worked proved problematic.

[2621] Robertson, Seibert & Shearman, Oh Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny (c. 1859),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2356].
The image on this tobacco package label is based on a detail from Eastman Johnson’s painting Negro Life at the South (also called Old Kentucky Home). Images of happy slaves belied the true working and living conditions faced by slaves in the antebellum South.

[5360] Frances Benjamin Johnston, Joel Chandler Harris (c. 1890-1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-103981].
After writing Uncle Remus and His Friends, Joel Chandler Harris continued to work as a journalist until 1902, becoming a self-styled champion of reconciliation between the North and the South and between blacks and whites. In some respects, his ideas about race were enlightened for his time: Harris was a proponent of black education and the fair judgment of people regardless of skin color.

[5735] A. B. Frost, Brer B’ar Tied Hard en Fas (1892),
courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.
Illustration of Brer Rabbit tying Brer B’ar to a tree, taken from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads with Sketches of Negro Characters. As trickster tales, the African American fables published by Harris contain a subtle critique of oppression.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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