Today is the birthday (1848) of Joel Chandler Harris, a US journalist and author best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories. Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where he served as an apprentice on a plantation during his teenage years. He spent most of his adult life in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution. The Uncle Remus collection has had a mixed reception over the years. Some see it as racist, and an unwarranted appropriation of African-American folktales, while others see it as a groundbreaking and highly influential body of literature. There’s room for both views.
Harris’ mother, Mary Ann Harris, was an Irish immigrant, and his father, whose identity remains unknown, abandoned Mary Ann and the infant shortly after his birth. The boy was named Joel after his mother’s attending physician, Dr. Joel Branham, and Chandler was the name of his mother’s uncle. Harris remained self-conscious of his illegitimate birth throughout his life. A prominent physician, Dr. Andrew Reid, gave the Harris family a small cottage to use behind his mansion. Mary Harris worked as a seamstress and helped neighbors with their gardening to support herself and her son. She was an avid reader and instilled in her son a love of language. He wrote later in life, “My desire to write—to give expression to my thoughts—grew out of hearing my mother read The Vicar of Wakefield.” Dr. Reid also paid for Harris’ school tuition for several years. In 1856, Harris briefly attended Kate Davidson’s School for Boys and Girls, but transferred to Eatonton School for Boys later that year. He had an undistinguished academic record and a habit of truancy. Harris excelled in reading and writing, but was mostly known for his pranks, mischief, and sense of humor. Practical jokes helped Harris cloak his shyness and insecurities about his red hair, Irish ancestry, and illegitimacy, leading to both trouble and a reputation as a leader among the older boys.
Harris quit school at age 16 to work. In March 1862, Joseph Addison Turner, owner of Turnwold Plantation nine miles east of Eatonton, hired Harris to work as a printer’s devil for his newspaper The Countryman. Harris learned to set type for the paper, and Turner allowed him to publish his own poems, book reviews, and humorous paragraphs. Harris lived on Turnwold Plantation, Joe Harris and had access to Turner’s library where he read Chaucer, Dickens, Sir Thomas Browne, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Thackeray, and Edgar Allan Poe. While at Turnwold Plantation, Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during time off. He was less self-conscious there and felt his humble background as an illegitimate, red-headed son of an Irish immigrant helped foster an intimate connection with the slaves. He absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of people like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy. The African-American animal tales they shared later became the foundation and inspiration for the Uncle Remus tales. George Terrell and Old Harbert in particular became models for Uncle Remus, as well as role models for Harris. Turner shut down The Countryman in May 1866 and Harris left the plantation with useless Confederate money and very few possessions.
Harris bounced around newspapers in the South until in 1876 he was hired by Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution, where he would remain for the next 24 years. In addition, he published local-color stories in magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Century. Not long after taking the newspaper job, Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to “preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future.” The tales were reprinted across the United States, and Harris was approached by publisher D. Appleton and Company to compile them for a book. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings was published near the end of 1880.
Here’s his arguably most famous retelling of a slave tale: “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby”
“Didn’t the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?” asked the little boy the next evening.
“He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho’s you born–Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn’t hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin’ down de road–lippity-clippity, clippity -lippity–dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin’ ‘long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz ‘stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“`Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – `nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.
“`How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’.
“‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en I’m gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.
“Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothin’.
“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’ ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck ‘er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis’ stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De tar hilt ‘im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“`Ef you don’t lemme loose, I’ll knock you agin,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch ‘er a wipe wid de udder han’, en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain’y sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“`Tu’n me loose, fo’ I kick de natal stuffin’ outen you,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don’t tu’n ‘im loose he butt ‘er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa’ntered fort’, lookin’ dez ez innercent ez wunner yo’ mammy’s mockin’-birds.
“`Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. `You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo’. `I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain’t gwineter take no skuse,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee.”
Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.
“Did the fox eat the rabbit?” asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.
“Dat’s all de fur de tale goes,” replied the old man. “He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ‘long en loosed ‘im – some say he didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ‘long.”
I’m not going to venture too far into the deep, dark, murky waters of Uncle Remus criticism. Disney’s Song of the South makes Uncle Remus and slavery in general into a playful, happy-go-lucky romp that is a travesty of the truth, but Harris is not responsible for that image; that’s on Disney’s scorecard. Harris seems to me to be genuinely caring for the tales and making an honest effort to present them in authentic voice. My professor at UNC when I was taking an MA in folklore had nothing good to say about Harris because the Uncle Remus tales were not verbatim transcriptions of narratives from slaves. This critique is just rank anachronism. In Harris’ day there were no professional folklorists with tape recorders faithfully notating tales and songs. The Grimms documented peasant tales and then edited them for publication, even though they were scholars of language and could have given verbatim versions. Andrew Lang was a professional folklorist, and he too dressed up folktales for publication. The only reason folklore as a discipline got started in the first place – as a branch of anthropology – was that early folklorists believed that uneducated peasants were the unwitting bearers of the riches of ancient cultures, and even though the modern tales and songs repeated by poor rural laborers were debased in comparison with the original high art that spawned them (because the peasants were careless with the treasures they had), the glories of old could be glimpsed in them. I hope I have contributed to showing that this point of view is complete nonsense. In comparison with the scholars, I would say that Harris’ retellings of the slave tales are probably truer to the original than those of the scholars.
I could also get into whether Harris was appropriating African-American culture because he was a privileged white man, whether he was patronizing to African-American voices, etc. etc., but I won’t. Figure it out for yourself. There is no doubt in my mind that he preserved something that would have been lost otherwise. Among other things he helped the cause of anthropologists who wanted to counter the popular falsehood that African slaves arrived in the U.S. with nothing, and their subsequent acculturation was entirely Euro-centric. NO !!! Africans brought African culture (of various types) with them and it had a profound influence on the development of music, art, and literature in the United States. Many of the Uncle Remus tales have clear antecedents in West, Central, and South African animal trickster tales, the animal in question being either a hare or a spider. Some tales, virtually identical in basic form with Brer Rabbit tales, still exist in traditional African settings, the tar baby story being very common in numerous African cultures.
Uncle Remus makes reference to hoe cakes, or Johnny cakes, now and again, so here’s your recipe. Hoe cakes are griddle cakes similar to American breakfast pancakes, but with cornmeal mixed into the flour, and rather smaller. They have been popular in the South since plantation days. Nowadays some cooks add flavorings such as vanilla or nutmeg, but old-fashioned hoe cakes have none. They are usually eaten with butter and syrup. I suppose Aunt Jemima syrup is cutting a little close to the bone.
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
2½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
¾ cup milk
½ cup water
⅓ cup melted butter
butter for frying
Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, water, egg, and melted butter. Mix the ingredients thoroughly to form a smooth batter.
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add a knob of butter and let it melt. Using a ladle that holds about 2 tablespoons, drop the pancake batter into the hot pan to make the hoe cakes one at a time. Do not overcrowd. I can usually make 4 in one batch.
Let each hoe cake fry until brown and crisp on one side. The top will bubble a little and start to set. Turn with a spatula and brown the other side.
Serve immediately with butter and syrup.