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Joel Harris Transcript
“Imagine a 19th century version of ‘The Simpsons,’ directed by Quentin Tarantino, in which Bart, Nelson and Mr. Burns are constantly getting medieval on each other.”1 That is how Hal Jacobs, an Atlanta writer, describes the folktales in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, written in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris, whose birthday we are celebrating today.
Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, and in his teens was hired to be a printer’s apprentice on a plantation. During the evenings the young Harris often slipped down to the slave quarters and listened to the stories and legends told by the slaves. Later, Harris moved to Atlanta and worked as an editor and writer for the Atlanta Constitution. But it is not for his editorials and articles that he is remembered; it is for his folktales and legends of the Southern plantation, and for his creation of the black story teller, Uncle Remus.
The character first appeared in brief vignettes he wrote in dialect in the Atlanta Constitution The enthusiastic response to them led Harris to pull together in a book, the stories he had heard fifteen years earlier as a young boy on the plantation. He constructed the book with a slave narrator, Uncle Remus, telling the stories in dialect to a young white boy. The book, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, was an immediate success.
Although the first book has never gone out of print, the popularity of the Remus tales waned. Then, in 1946, Disney produced an animated movie based on the tales entitled Song of the South. Technically, the movie was a success, but artistically and, as it turned out, politically it was not. Critics complained that Disney watered down the tales, making them sweet and lovable, and that this undermined their message, as Jacobs note above in his reference to “The Simpsons,” about how difficult, even cruel, life could be. A Harris scholar, Dr. R. Bruce Bickley writes “Harris knew the trickster stories were much more than entertainment. He knew they carried serious messages about life, the human spirit, about violence, and human survival.”2 Frank Stephenson , another Harris scholar, points out that the major criticism of Harris and of the Disney movie, is the portrayal of Uncle Remus as the ideal, subservient slave who, as Harris describes him in his preface, “has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.”3
With the criticism of the movie and the advent of the civil rights movement, the Remus tales disappeared from libraries, but they are making something of a come back and they are being published again as children’s books. Julius Lester has written and published several popular books reclaiming the tales, but eliminating the character of Uncle Remus.
So although the survival of Uncle Remus as a character appears to be in jeopardy, the tales themselves have survived, and that may be Harris’ primary contribution to American folklore: that he saved the tales from oblivion by writing them down in the style and dialect in which they were originally spoken.
1 Jacobs, Hal. “Brer Harris and the Briar Patch.” On the internet: web.cln.com/archives/atlanta/newsstand/110798/anews.htm
2 Bickley, R. Bruce, quoted by Frank Stephenson in “The Malevolent Rabbit,” on the internet at www.accessatlanta.com <http://www.accessatlanta.com>; reprinted from Research in Review, published by Florida State University, Spring/Summer 1998.
3 Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and his Sayings; the Folk-lore of the Old Plantation. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881, p. 12