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Harris Joel Chandler
Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings

Harris Joel Chandler (18481908)Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings

Joel Chandler Harris was an American journalist, fiction writer, and folklorist 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 the majority of his adult life in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution.

Harris led two significant professional lives. As editor and journalist Joe Harris, he ushered in the New South alongside Henry W. Grady, stressing regional and racial reconciliation during and after the Reconstruction era. As Joel Chandler Harris, fiction writer and folklorist, he recorded many Brer Rabbit stories from the African-American oral tradition and helped to revolutionize children's literature in the process.

Harris created the first iteration of the Uncle Remus character for the Atlanta Constitution in 1876 after inheriting a column written by Samuel W. Small, a colleague who had taken leave from the paper. In these character sketches Remus would visit the newspaper office to discuss the social and racial issues of the day. By 1877 Small had returned to the Constitution and resumed his column.

Harris had no intention to continue the Remus character. But when Small once again left the paper, Harris reprised Remus and this time realized the literary value of the stories of his youth from the slaves of Turnwold Plantation. Harris set out to record the stories and insisted that they be verified by two independent sources before he would set them into print. The pursuit proved more and more difficult given his professional duties, urban location, race and, eventually, fame.

On July 20, 1879, Harris published "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus" in the Atlanta Constitution. It was the first of 34 plantation fables that would comprise Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings in 1880. The stories, mostly collected directly from the African-American oral storytelling tradition, were revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personage, and serialized landscape.

Remus' stories featured a trickster hero called Br'er Rabbit ("Brother" Rabbit), who used his wits against adversity, though his efforts did not always succeed. Br'er Rabbit is a direct interpretation of Yoruba tales of Hare, though some others posit Native American influences as well. Scholar Stella Brewer Brookes asserts, "Never has the trickster been better exemplified than in the Br'er Rabbit of Harris." Br'er Rabbit was accompanied by friends and enemies alike, such as Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear, Br'er Terrapin, and Br'er Wolf. The stories represented a significant break from the romantic fairy tales of the Western tradition: instead of a singular event in a singular story, the critters on the plantation existed in an ongoing community saga, time immemorial.

Harris described Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, as a major influence on the characters of Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. Harris read Stowe's novel in 1862, and he said that it "made a more vivid impression upon my mind than anything I have ever read since." Interpreting Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "wonderful defense of slavery," Harris argued that Stowe's "genius took possession of her and compelled her, in spite of her avowed purpose, to give a very fair picture of the institution she had intended to condemn." In Harris's view, the "real moral that Mrs. Stowe's book teaches is that the. . . realities [of slavery], under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and tenderness all their own."

The Uncle Remus stories garnered critical acclaim and achieved popular success well into the 20th century. Harris published at least twenty-nine books, of which nine books were compiled of Uncle Remus stories, including Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904), Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905), Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907). The last three books written by Joel Chandler Harris were published after his death which included Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910), Uncle Remus Returns (1918), and Seven Tales of Uncle Remus (1948). The tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few outside of the South had ever heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and no one had ever seen the dialect legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To the North and those abroad, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown." Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school.... [We] found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life." The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.

James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced."

Dominica, 1984, Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear

Gambia, 1987, Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear

Guyana, 1991, Disney's characters

Sierra Leone, 1987, Country Bear Jamboree

Sierra Leone, 1987, Cartoon characters at Cinderella palace

Tanzania, 1988, Brother Rabbit and Cheap and Dale

Tanzania, 1991, Letter F

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Rabbit closing the house

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Bear

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Fox sharpening the axe

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Rabbit

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Rabbit

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Bear and Brother Fox dancing

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Rabbit dazing

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Bear about to eat

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Brother Bear, Brother Fox and Brother Rabbit

Turks & Caicos, 1981, Uncle Rimus and characters

USA, 1948, Joel Harris

USA, 2001, Br'er Rabbit


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