Joel Chandler Harris turns 170
My mother used to read to us, but she never read us Uncle Remus. We weren’t from the South and also she hated dialect. I can understand. With dialect, a reader doesn’t just listen to the writer’s words but enact them in weird voices. Not everyone is up for that.
In anticipation of the anniversary of the 170th birthday of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta this December 9, I sat down with his Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase, 1983 , 808 pages!) and went through the first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, from Chapter 1 “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy” to Chapter 32 “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” Trying to read the regular silent way, the dialect was torturous. I sounded out phrases I couldn’t understand and figured some of them out – e.g., that “bimeby” means “by and by.” Eventually I gave up on silent reading. I started hearing an oral tale spoken by me.
So, for example, a passage in Chapter 25 “How Mr. Rabbit Lost His Fine Bushy Tail” starts with, “One day Brer Rabbit wuz gwine down de road shakin’ his long, bushy tail, w’en who should he strike up wid but ole Brer Fox gwine amblin’ long wid a big string er fish!” Following the exact instructions on the page (i.e., the dialect) while embracing what I know of dramatic form yielded the following [sound clip]:
But we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to make these sounds?
Joel Chandler Harris was an illegitimate boy who worked as a typesetter on the Turnwold Plantation printing press in Eatonton, Georgia (77 miles southeast of Atlanta) during the Civil War and later wrote down tales that he recalled hearing while visiting the slave cabins in the evenings. Along with the plantation owner, Joseph Addison Turner, one of the slaves, George Terrell, reportedly became like a father figure to him. When the Civil War ended, the plantation newspaper folded and Harris lost his job. He was eventually discovered by Atlanta newspaper editor Henry Grady and hired to work for the Atlanta Constitution where he published the stories in a regular column. At that time he moved to the home in Atlanta’s West End that he called the Wren’s Nest. As chronicled by academic journalist Julie Hedgepeth Williams at the Harris event, these tales became wildly popular especially among northerners curious about what the slave times were like in the South. Eventually Harris’s fame spread worldwide and, according to Williams, “He put Southern writers on the map, and you can make the argument that’s that’s still where American literature is centered.” She says that Mark Twain based Jim in Huckleberry Finn in part on Harris’s slave voice, and Theodore Roosevelt felt that Harris helped reconcile Northern and Southern divisions after the war. Roosevelt also help fund the creation of the Wren’s Nest house museum in 1913 after Harris’s death.
Harris’s dialect is an 18th century white man’s interpretation of slave men’s voices. Harris also invented the story frame of a 70-something male slave (Uncle Remus) talking to a young naughty white boy. Harris further added commentary in the form of descriptive metaphors, some of which are quite provocative by today’s standards. Harris preserved these folk tales in cultural memory. However, like any such chronicler of the oral tradition, in fixing them on paper he preserved only one version (his).
Do we know if the voice Harris wrote down is how slaves really talked? Julie Williams says that his language is being studied for a greater historical insight. She pointed out her own insight into why Harris wrote “cotched” for the word “caught”: the plantation owner Turner encouraged his slaves to learn to read and so this pronunciation must have been a learner’s interpretation of the letters that spell “caught.”
Or are these words instead a caricature that we reenact when reading them and by reading them are we reproducing slave stereotypes in contemporary times?
It appears to me that it is the stories, not the dialect, that people still value. They are animal stories traced to African folk tales. A small crowd, about half black and half white, showed up on a wintry wet day to the Wren’s Next event. Among them were six 8-9 year old African-American children and their parents turned out for the storytelling session with Gwendolyn Napier (AKA “Miss LuvDrop”).
Gwen established the fan base in the room for Brer Rabbit vs. all the other animals in the stories and punctuated her storytelling with the refrain, “that low-down, good-for-nothing, likeable rabbit!” Gwen’s dramatic telling of the most famous tale, Tar-Baby, had her crouching, jaunting, calling, lifting, flinging, stretching, and of course sticking, inviting the audience to join along with her. The crowd laughed when the rabbit, stuck on the tar baby trap set by the fox, tricked the fox in unsticking him and flinging him into his native briar patch. “That low-down, good-for-nothing, likeable rabbit!”
Full oral versions of the tales that are not tied to the page and that are told by professional contemporary storytellers can be found at the Wren’s Nest storyteller page.
I’ve heard people describe the Uncle Remus tales as cute little animal stories; they have obviously never read them. Some, like the rabbit’s tail story, seem to be creation myths. A number, like “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” are stories of weaker animals outwitting stronger ones. Others, like “The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow” are morality tales (better not tattle-tale or else) and others, like “Mr. Rabbit Nibbles up the Butter,” show heartbreaking injustice (Possum takes the hit for rabbit). Some, like “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox” which is probably best left undescribed, are among the most gruesome stories I’ve read and which I will mull them over until someone explains them to me.
This Wren’ Nest event has been held every year since 1913. This year it was billed as a holiday party, with holiday décor in all the rooms of the house, Mr. and Ms. Santa present for photos, and a preview of “A Christmas Carol Experience” show that will play at the house over the holidays. Carla Ramcharam led tours of the house. There was music. And Julie Williams talked about her new book, Three Not-so-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature. Items were for sale, but I found it interesting that there were almost no books by Joel Chandler Harris on display. Certainly no copy of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase) that I had seen there on my first visit months ago.
Wren’s Nest Executive Director Melissa Swindell is working to salvage what speaks to people today about the Wren’s Nest and is struggling. “With all the other education and entertainment venues today, house museums are falling off the map,” she said. “It’s important to have programming that brings in the contemporary arts while also acknowledging the classic.”
According to Melissa and others, “In the metaphors of the narrative, the rabbit is the image of the slave. And Brer Fox is the image of the white majority.” What is her favorite story? “Tar baby is the classic that everybody remembers,” she said. “I’ll go with that. But I have a sarcastic, dark sense of humor. All of the stories are so original and different from what would hear today or even expect to hear.” I agree.
Melissa described a troubled path for Harris’s legacy and a need for rehabilitation. The Harris family sold all the Uncle Remus rights to The Walt Disney Company in the 1930s. The 1946 Disney film Song of the South portrayed “the post-Civil War era as a happy-go-lucky time with characters singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah through the old plantation.” Like Gone with the Wind seven years before, the film premiered in Atlanta, but Swindell says, “Atlanta was so segregated that the black actors couldn’t see the movie, stay at Georgian Terrace, or be at the Wren’s Nest party. James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus, won an honorary Academy Award because he couldn’t get the real award. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] boycotted the movie.”
To make matters worse, the Wren’s Nest was segregated until 1984. Although a law suit successfully challenged the “whites only” admission in the 1960s, museum membership was closed to blacks and blacks effectively weren’t allowed in until the mid-1980s. The house exists now in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Today it’s falling into some disrepair and is clearly in need of funds. “In the last half century the stories have lost their popularity,” Swindell said. “People don’t know about us.”
Some literary classics will die, when they outlive their time and place. They will live on as historic documents only. That time may have come for Joel Chandler Harris’s work. Asking the reader to sound out words on a page only to mimic poor black slaves just seems in remarkably poor taste today.
What of the Wren’s Nest? I could envision a major center for storytelling there, such as exists in Jonesborough, TN, and elsewhere in the south, with an emphasis on indigenous tales brought to life. They could include not just the short form but long-form storytelling…. where people actually get to hear in detail and free from the burden of everything that the Civil War represented, how a character called rabbit has a character called fox’s head served to fox’s family for dinner.