(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Without the efforts of Joel Chandler Harris, it is doubtful that many of the African American folktales he preserved would have survived, or that anyone other than folklorists would have any idea of who Brer Rabbit or any of his associates are. Bugs Bunny might not even exist.

Between 1880 and his death in August, 1908, Harris produced many Uncle Remus books, containing a total of 168 African American folktales: Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880) contains thirty-four tales; Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation (1883), sixty-nine; Daddy Jake the Runaway: And Short Stories Told After Dark (1889), thirteen; Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads with Sketches of Negro Character (1892), twenty-four; Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905), sixteen; Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907), six; and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910), six.

After his death, two more volumes were published: Uncle Remus Returns (1918), with six tales, edited by his biographer daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris; and Seven Tales of Uncle Remus (1948), edited by Thomas H. English.

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, edited by Richard Chase, contains all 181 of these folktales, together with the narrative frames in which they were originally presented, unbowdlerized and absent any attempt to modernize the mid-Georgia black dialect of the stories’ primary raconteur, Uncle Remus, or the Gullah dialect of his friend Daddy Jack, who tells ten tales in Nights with Uncle Remus.

The most famous of the Uncle Remus stories is the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar-baby, told in two chapters from Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. In “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” Brer Fox fashions a small tar figure and leaves it by the side of the big road down which Brer Rabbit soon comes pacing, “lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity—dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird.” When Brer Rabbit smacks the tar baby for not responding to his greeting, his paw sticks to it. Demanding to be let loose, the rabbit hits the figure three more times, getting another paw stuck each time. Then he butts it with his head, and now he is stuck in five places. Brer Fox emerges and, when he can finally stop laughing, captures the helpless Brer Rabbit.

When the story resumes, in “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox,” Brer Fox first threatens to “bobbycue” Brer Rabbit, then to hang him, then to drown him. Each time, Brer Rabbit says fine, do anything you want, but please do not throw me in the briar patch. After Brer Rabbit says he would even prefer having his eye gouged out, his ears torn, and his legs cut off than to be thrown into the briar patch, the stupid fox, who “wanter hurt Brer Rabbit ez bad ez he kin,” flings Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. A few minutes later, Brer Fox hears someone calling him. Looking up to the top of a hill, he sees Brer Rabbit seated on a log and combing the tar out of his fur. Brer Fox realizes he has been had, and Brer Rabbit cannot help but taunt him, hollering out, “’Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch!’ en wid dat he skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers.”

This story is not only the most famous of the Uncle Remus stories, it is also one of the most typical. First, it is what could be termed an animal tale: The characters are sentient animals who act like human beings. There are only sixteen Uncle Remus tales in which this is not the case: from Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Stories, “A Plantation Witch,” “Jacky-My-Lantern,” and “Why the Negro Is Black”; from Nights with Uncle Remus, “Spirits, Seen and Unseen” and “A Ghost Story”; from Daddy Jake, the Runaway, “How a Witch Was Caught,” “The Little Boy and His Dogs,” “The Foolish Woman,” and “The Adventures of Simon and Susanna”; from Uncle Remus and His Friends, “Death and the...

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Tales of Uncle Remus Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Baer, Florence E. Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1980. Essential for cross-cultural comparison of an Uncle Remus tale with other folktales of the same type. Finds close African analogs for almost 70 percent of the Uncle Remus tales.

Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Chapters 3, 4, and 7 focus on the major critical approaches to these tales. Includes useful notes, index, and selected bibliography.

_______. “John, Brer Rabbit, and Babo: The Trickster and Cultural Power in Melville and Joel Chandler Harris.” In Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. Analyzes the character of the black trickster, comparing Brer Rabbit to characters created by Herman Melville.

_______, ed. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. A casebook for all of Harris’s work. Eight of its eighteen scholarly articles address the Uncle Remus stories.

Brasch, Walter M. Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the “Cornfield Journalist”: The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000. A balanced examination of Harris and his stories—part biography, part analysis—aimed at an audience from whom, as children, the Uncle Remus tales had been withheld in deference to the sensitive racial issues encumbering the stories.

Brookes, Stella Brewer. Joel Chandler Harris—Folklorist. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950. Chapters 3 through 7 and the appendix are especially valuable in a study of Uncle Remus tales.

Cartwright, Keith. “Creole Self-Fashioning: Joel Chandler Harris’s Other Fellow.’” In Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Cartwright defines Harris as a “self-fashioned Afro-Creole fabulist” and demonstrates the elements of African folklore in Harris’s work.

Mixon, Wayne. “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Time.” Journal of Southern History 56, no. 3 (August, 1990): 457-480. By far the most reasoned discussion of the question of whether these stories are racist.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. “Trickster Motif and Disillusion: Uncle Remus and Mark Twain.” In Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. This comparison of the two authors is part of Wyatt-Brown’s examination of the role of melancholy and alienation in nineteenth century southern literature.