Black father: the subversive achievement of Joel Chandler Harris.
A century ago Joel Chandler Harris was famous. His first and best known book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, sold more than 7,000 copies in its first month in 1880. It's been in print ever since. Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, the stars of his stories, took their place in the nation's cultural lexicon, and Harris himself was much celebrated. Teddy Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House and Mark Twain tried to interest him in a joint lecture tour. Children clamored for Uncle Remus and were shocked to find that Harris was white. Harris was much too shy to lecture--he couldn't even bring himself to read for children--but he was a prolific writer, churning out seven additional Uncle Remus collections, a fictionalized memoir called On the Plantation, and various shorter and longer fictional works. But Joel Chandler Harris claimed his fame as the creator of gentle Uncle Remus, the teller of Brer Rabbit's triumphant underdog tale. They were the ones who made him, in Twain's admiring phrase, the "oracle of the nation's nurseries."
But then, no surprise, the long honeymoon ended. Harris's stock began to fall. Critics took his world apart, separated storyteller Uncle Remus from story hero Brer Rabbit to the disadvantage of the former. Brer Rabbit was in fact elevated in this revision, recognized as "a revolutionary black figure" from African American traditional lore, the black core of an otherwise white work (Songs and Sayings 29). He is, and this is one of the deep roots of his power, a Signifying Rabbit, in the fullest sense of that term as carefully described by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and situated in African American literature by Henry Louis Gates. His situation is understood as echoing that of his anonymous black creators, and his antics are not at their root comic at all, but deadly serious maneuvers allowing his survival and even triumph in a world ruled by enemies bent upon his destruction. When Brer Rabbit outwits and eventually destroys Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox, his victories are interpreted as supplying at least vicarious pleasure and at most pragmatic advice to black audiences whose position in the world is appreciated as deeply analogous.
Uncle Remus, however, the teller of Brer Rabbit's subversive tale, went down with his author. He was a cartoon, an offensive stereotype, an Uncle Tom, the literary creation of a white author with an obvious regional agenda. "Uncle Remus, the creation of Joel Chandler Harris, is one of many masks employed by the Plantation School to justify the restoration of white supremacy," according to Robert Bone's 1975 analysis (Bickley, Critical 139). The old man, it was noticed, was so much a creature of his author's nostalgias that he was presented in the first collection's introduction as possessing, preposterously, "nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery" (Songs and Sayings 47).
Meanwhile Harris himself fell from grace even more precipitously, and much more completely, than Remus. Harris's editorials, and more especially his popular magazine articles, were bursting at the seams with paternalist nonsense and irritating defenses of Southern racial mores. Darwin Turner, in a lengthy, meticulous, scrupulously fair, and influential 1968 study, was especially dismayed by the attitudes put forward in Harris's three-part "Observations From New England," published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1883. If slavery is muted to a benign "discipline" in the introduction of Remus, Harris in his own voice describes slavery as "an institution which, under Providence, grew into a university in which millions of savages served an apprenticeship to religion and civilization" (Editor and Essayist 166). Turner's response to this outrageous misuse of both logic and language is rightly contemptuous: "It is ironic to use the term 'university' to describe the practices of a system which legally prohibited the formal education of slaves. It is presumptuous to praise slavery for giving religion to the Africans, who observed a religious faith long before they became American slaves" (Bickley, Critical 126). It's impossible to withhold assent from Turner's critique, and tempting to add that the inclusion of Providence sneaks in the appalling idea that the human institution of slavery enjoyed divine support, that apprenticeship is by definition a temporally limited contract, and that the savage in any slavemaster relationship is surely the master. Shoddy logic, tendentious prose--this is indeed sorry stuff.
The famous Uncle Remus tales, then, combining such disparate elements, were necessarily, said the new critique, formal hashes, the black traditional tales at their center obscured by the crude racial stereotypes on their surface. Harris's work was at best a ridiculous idealization of a slave-based plantation society and at worst a bald exploitation of African American culture. By 1981 fellow Georgian (and fellow Eatontonian) Alice Walker was working him over for cultural theft: "As far as I'm concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage" (32).
The attack was thus two-pronged at its heart: Harris the man was judged politically incorrect at a deep level, a paternalist and genteel racist; and Harris the author was clumsy and amateurish, yoking servile Uncle Remus to unbowed Brer Rabbit in awkward union. Biography was enlisted in explanation: In 1862, Harris, an illegitimate child who never knew his father, went to work as a boy of fifteen in the printshop of Joseph Addison Turner's Turnwold plantation, near his home town of Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia. While there he heard from slave storytellers the Brer Rabbit tales that would make him famous. Years later, in the 1870s, working as a prominent newspaperman and editorialist for the Atlanta Constitution, he developed the character of Uncle Remus for "humorous" newspaper sketches aimed at white Southern readers. Finally, in 1880, he made his name by tying the traditional black folktales to the local color "character," adding an adoring little white boy as listener. The result, despite huge popular success, was judged a failure a century later because the constituent elements were recognized as incompatible. Harris, wrote Robert Hemenway in 1982, was "an author retreating from an adult, public world of difficult decisions," attempting to project his paternalist nostalgia for a lost world "through a medium that he could mimic but never fully comprehend" (30-31). A white man, in short, was peddling a black culture he didn't understand, and he was turning it to purposes it could not serve.
Recent scholarship has swung back somewhat from this nadir. Defenders of Harris the man, insisting upon appreciation of the pressures of his position as a Southern journalist, have insisted upon his persistent liberalism, within these constraints, on racial matters. His stinging rebuke of Jefferson Davis in an 1882 Constitution editorial is cited, as are his fulsome praises of Abraham Lincoln (in the novel Gabriel Tolliver) and Booker T. Washington (in a 1904 piece for the Saturday Evening Post). Wayne Mixon describes Harris's piece on Davis as "perhaps the most withering attack of his journalistic career" (460) and notes that it "took courage for a white southerner to praise Washington publicly after 1901, as Harris did, for when news of the black leader's dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family reached the South 'the cry from Dixie resembled the howl of a mob'" (479).
Scholars have also insisted on the intimacy of Harris's personal acquaintance with the Brer Rabbit stories. Bruce Bickley's 1978 Twayne study suggests that Uncle George Terrell and Old Harbert, the slave men at Turnwold who were Harris's models for Uncle Remus, "helped fill the place of the absent father in Harris's life" (24). In 1981, Joseph Griska called Remus "one of the most intriguing father-figures in American letters" (Bickley, Critical 212). Mixon, in 1990, pushed such observations to what may be a surprising conclusion: "As a man, his nostalgia was more for a black world than a white one" (459).
Defenses of Harris the author have been even more interesting, stressing Uncle Remus's control of the storytelling context and his persistent, if oblique, critique of plantation values. Sometimes even the most innocuous-looking alterations bear a greater weight than is immediately apparent. The opening story of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, for example, was called "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox" when it was first published in the Atlanta Constitution, but retitled "Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy" for the book-length collection. Initiates--it may seem a small change, but it looms larger in light of Remus's systematic undermining of Mars John's world view and the substitution of his own in its place. As Raymond Hedin noted in a 1982 study, Harris's relocation of the story (in the Constitution version the boy listened in his home, not in Remus's) is no less significant: In his own cabin "Remus becomes a shaman, and the tales become instruments of initiation into a world the boy can learn from only to the extent that he leaves his own world behind" (Hedin 85).
An equally unobtrusive phrasal device subverts racial stereotypes by their immediate extension. In Gabriel Tolliver it is deployed to describe the old clergyman Jeremiah Tomlin: "In common with the great majority of his race--in common, perhaps with the men of all races--he was eaten up with a desire to become prominent" (162-63). In The Bishop and the Boogerman, Randall Holden, another clergyman, is described by the same device as "a pattern, a model for the men of his race, and indeed, for the men of any race" (139). Finally, in his 1904 Saturday Evening Post article "The Negro of Today," Harris's praise of Booker T. Washington exploits it as a rhetorical query: "But is it not true that a man like Booker Washington is an exception in any race?" (Editor and Essayist 143). His race, any race, all races--by such phrasings racial distinctions are themselves consistently undermined. Taken together these syntactic ploys, too recurrent to be inadvertent, reveal themselves as quite obviously deliberate, and unveil a Harris quietly but insistently pursuing an anti-racist agenda.
Remus, it thus turns out, contrary to a century of earlier readings, is a remarkably complex character, and his author was less clumsy than has been realized in his integration of Brer Rabbit's traditional tales and their literary frames. His smiling surfaces and apparent orthodoxy may have misled nineteenth-century readers, leading to their complacency, just as the author intended. The same smiles then misled twentieth-century readers, leading to their displeasure, though Harris of course could not have anticipated this.
All these recent close examinations of Harris's work as a fiction writer and as an editorialist were long overdue. Generations of crudely racist illustrations, culminating in a staggeringly obnoxious movie, Disney's 1946 Song of the South, perpetuated and popularized approaches that understood Harris's stories as simple-minded tales aimed at entertaining children. (Mixon, for one, notes that Harris "was poorly served"  by most of his illustrators, and a closer look at Alice Walker's critique of Harris reveals that Harris himself is never cited--the real targets of censure are Song of the South and the remarkably saccharine Julia Collier Harris, Harris's daughter-in-law, who edited the 1918 Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris.) In sum, critics of the 1960s/1970s and defenders of the 1980s/1990s shared a determination to bring a sharper analytic attention to Harris's writing, and their conclusions are right on the money.
But they don't go far enough. Time after time, careful readers tiptoe up to the idea that Harris after all knew exactly what he was doing, only to step quickly back, insist again that "irony seems lost on Harris" (McDonald xxiv) or that "Harris probably did not understand this part of the story" (Hemenway 28). It's high time, then, to at least consider the possibility that Harris constructed his tales and their framing narratives with consummate skill and deliberate cunning, that multiple ironies were not only not lost upon him but were in fact something of his stock-in-trade, and that he was, in short, something of a Brer Rabbit among authors. Uncle Remus, by such an approach, is revealed as a secret hero of Harris's work, a figure wholly worthy of comparison with Brer Rabbit himself. In creating him, Harris put forward, covertly, by extraordinarily oblique means, a vision that would have shocked and horrified the great majority of his readers, had they understood him.
Harris was careful to see that contemporary readers didn't understand him, disguising the core of his vision with a rich battery of rhetorical misdirections and false leads. Fundamentally, Harris's strategy as a writer is of a piece with that of Remus the storyteller and Brer Rabbit the character. Each presents himself as a benign figure in full compliance with expected mannerisms and behaviors. I am what you think I am, they say to readers--gentle plantation romancer, "venerable old darkey" (Songs and Sayings 90), mischievous rabbit. Meanwhile, behind the smiles, the same threesome busies itself, each on his own level, with the exposure and demolition of such stereotypes.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate the strategy. In "Why Mr. Possum Has No Hair On His Tail," Remus rebukes the little boy for excessive familiarity with the "no 'count" Favers children. Such behavior, he says, would "'fetch Ole Miss right up out'n dat berryin'-groun' fum down dar in Putmon County, en w'at yo' gran'ma wouldn't er stood me and yo' ma ain't gwineter stan' nudder'" (Songs and Sayings 130). This whole passage has attracted comment for the comedy of Remus's class consciousness, the retainer's vicarious pride in his employers' superior station. But under the condescending laughs it may not be noticed that "yo' pa" is unmentioned and that Remus himself ("me and yo' ma") occupies his place in parental authority.
The similarly titled "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," offers a more extended passage. Here the little boy appears at Remus's cabin at dinnertime, apparently sent away without supper for "a-cuttin' up" at the table. No sooner does he arrive than the voice of his father summons his return. The boy rises to go, but Remus intervenes. "'Des set right whar you is, honey,'" he says. He then goes to the door and addresses the father in a voice "that could be heard half over the plantation": "'Mars John, I wish you en Miss Sally be so good ez ter let dat chile 'lone.'" Here Remus allies himself not with Miss Sally but with Ole Miss, who is cited again in support of correct practice. "'I ain't been use ter no sich gwines on in Ole Miss time, en I ain't gwine git use ter it now'" (Nights With Uncle Remus 113-14). Once more, and a bit more openly in this instance, Remus asserts his control, his assumption of the paternal role.
Finally, there is "A Story of the War," which brings Yankee soldiers to the Abercrombie plantation, where they are greeted in the "settin'-room" by a strikingly constituted "family" of unwilling hosts. Ole Miss is there, and Miss Sally, and Uncle Remus, sharpened axe in hand. Daughter, mother, and ...? In all the story, there is no mention, however oblique, of a husband for Ole Miss, a father for Miss Sally and Mars Jeems. The erasure of the father, so inconspicuous in "Why Mr. Possum Has No Hair On His Tail," and only a shade more insistent in "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," is here more glaring. There is plenty, however, of the language of paternity. When Mars Jeems, a Confederate soldier, asks Remus to take care of his mother and sister in his absence, he calls him "Daddy." He does this three times, not including Remus's own explanation that"'all Old Miss's chilluns call me daddy'" (Songs and Sayings 181-82).
Exactly this same omission of the father also occurs in the deeply autobiographical On the Plantation, published in 1892. When young Joe Maxwell leaves home for his new job as a printer's apprentice, he "kisse[s] his mother and his grandmother good-by," and during his journey remembers "his mother, whom he ha[s] last seen standing at the little gate smiling at him through her tears" (On the Plantation, 14, 16). But here too, as in "A Story of the War," there is no mention of a father. This, too, as with the syntactical ploy discussed earlier, is too recurrent for coincidence. It is obviously deliberate, a clear matter of authorial purpose, despite its careful masking.
A secret center thus stands revealed. Again and again Harris, the child whose father omitted himself, revenges himself by undermining and omitting the fathers--Mars John, the unnamed husband of Ole Miss, the father of Joe Maxwell. And with the dismissal, the patriarch's authority and hierarchy are likewise undone. Again and again Remus (or Harbert, in On the Plantation) acts not as a marginal servant, but as a central parent. Even on the rare occasions when Mars John is present, as in "Why Brother Bear Has No Tail," his authority is systematically undermined. When the boy interrupts a story about a Putnam County witch to report that "'Papa says there ain't any witches,'" Remus dismisses "Papa" with contempt: "'Mars John ain't live long ez I is'" (Songs and Sayings 144). These deprecations of paternal opinion reach their peak in the 1892 Uncle Remus and His Friends, perhaps most assertively in "Why Brother Bull Growls and Grumbles." Hearing the bellow of a passing bull, Remus opens the story by first assuring the boy that "'he got a mighty good reason fer gwine on that way,'" and then immediately asking who is available to tell him what that reason is: "'You may spit on yo' thumb en turn over de leaves in Marse John's liberry, yit you won't fin' out in um. You may ax Marse John, you may ax Miss Sally, you may ax a preacher, yit; but none un um'll ever tell you. '"Where then can he turn?"' Den who kin tell you? Me!'" (Uncle Remus and His Friends 81)
Most instances are much less confrontational, but Remus's contrast of his own wisdom to that of the boy's father is recurrent, and invariably works to the father's disadvantage. Again and again, his stories are loaded with asides and anecdotes critical of "Marse John's" actions and vision of the world. When his unorthodox account of a great flood provokes a query as to the whereabouts of Noah's ark, Remus brushes it aside with a marvelously succinct mix of agnosticism and cultural relativism: "'Dey mout er bin two deloojes, en den agin dey moutent'" (Songs and Sayings 66). In "Why the Negro Is Black" he blithely asserts both an original black creation-" 'time wuz we'n we 'uz all niggers tergedder'"--and the great numerical predominance of "merlatters" while ostensibly addressing the child's notice of his own white palms. Mixed race people, he reports, "'wuz sech a crowd ... dat dey mighty nigh use de water up'" (Songs and Sayings 151).
Two things should be noted here. First, what Remus says is strikingly at odds with regional (and national) norms (and laws). Second, what he says is disguised by how he says it. He is, in short, and here we reach the heart of this essay's purposes, Signifying, (1) in the sense that his discourse includes an "implicit content ... which is potentially obscured by the surface content" (Mitchell-Kernan 314). Remus, it emerges, is much more than an "Uncle," and he has more than mere stories to present. He's a father, and he takes his paternal responsibilities seriously. He knows a larger world than Mars John's, and has a deeper wisdom to pass on. At one point, reacting to an account of Brer Rabbit's success in obtaining chickens from Brer Fox, the little boy plugs in lessons clearly learned from Mars John: "When Brother Rabbit got the chickens from Brother Fox, he was really stealing them." Remus immediately affirms that theft is the accurate description, but his subsequent dismissal of the Big House bromide (and Christian commandment) is a sweeping one: "'Dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat. But what wuz Brer Fox doin' when he got um? ... No, honey! Dey's a heap er idees dat you got ter shake off.'" Remus goes on to conclude that "'dey's a heap er folks lots wuss dan Brer Rabbit when it comes ter takin' what ain't der'n'" (Uncle Remus Returns 105-06). In other instances where Remus encourages the boy to "snatch up" (Songs and Sayings 131) and bring to him everything from tea-cakes (71) to candles (130), it is clear that such ideas have indeed been shaken off. Remus here serves his own ends, of course, but he also perseveres in his reeducation of the boy.
The little boy needs it, too. He'll soon enough be grown, soon be out on perilous ground beyond Remus's protection. That dangerous world is inadequately understood by Mars John, who has been sheltered by birth and upbringing from too many harsh realities. Nobody told him Brer Rabbit tales, and he's much the stupider for it. He is, in fact, a Brer Bear figure transposed to the human sphere, overly confident in his own power and position, and insufficiently alert to the world's hazards. His complacent opinions about witches, like his self-serving bromides about stealing, are childishly shallow. He's living a lullaby, and he's finally a dangerously inadequate father--go out armed only with his lessons and you'll soon be lunch. All this, and no less, is carried by Harris's use of the word initiates in the opening story. Throughout the animal tales, the perspective of Brer Rabbit is privileged, and that of Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox is undermined, just as in the human frame Remus's perspective continually wins out over that of Mars John. Eventually, just as in "A Story of the War" and On the Plantation, a complete erasure/replacement is accomplished in the Brer Rabbit cycle as well. Near the end of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, after Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and finally Brer Fox have been done in, Remus allows that "'some say dat Brer Rabbit's ole 'oman died fum eatin' some pizen-weed, en dat Brer Rabbit married ole Miss Fox'" (155).
"Me an yo' ma"? White children call a black man Daddy? Brer Rabbit marries Miss Fox after he kills her husband? In earliest, Edenic times, "we 'uz all niggers tergedder"? Put such instances together (and there are countless others) and they surely emerge as beyond coincidence, as deliberate, though covert, subversion of the "Plantation School" values Harris's work ostensibly supported. The familiar plantation romance is turned upside down, its foundational ethnic hierarchy undone. The Old Plantation's traditional patriarch, the Mr. Man who in the animal stories is even more feared than Mr. Lion, is not just away at war or on business, with his loyal vassals confirming his power by acting as his agents even in his absence. He's entirely absent, completely unmentioned. Massa's in the cold cold ground, dead or disappeared. Uncle Remus is Daddy. The slave is the master.
How did Harris ever get away with this? It is a shame that no evidence exists to suggest that the Uncle Remus tales came to the attention of Herman Melville, then living in obscurity in New York, or that Harris himself appreciated Melville's dark tales, because a Melvillian subtlety and subversiveness may offer a useful key to a fuller understanding of Harris's achievement. It was Melville, after all, who noted that even Solomon "a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism" (Letters 130), and who found it characteristic of genius to "delight in hoodwinking the world" (Complete Shorter Fiction 246), to communicate "the little lower layer" (Moby Dick, 164) by means of "cunning glimpses ... covertly, and by snatches" (Complete Shorter Fiction 239). It was Melville, too, who noted that Shakespeare employed "the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago" to articulate indirectly "the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them" (Complete Shorter Fiction 239).
Working in exactly this way, proceeding by "cunning glimpses" and covert insinuations, Harris not only violates the ultimate taboo of Old South racial codes, but presents the violation in positive terms, as a tranquil domestic scene. The ostensibly separate races are mixed at every level, from the allegory of Brer Rabbit marrying Miz Fox, to the figurative language of Mars Jeems and his sister calling Remus "Daddy," to the vast crowd of "merlatters" who generalize this state of affairs in "Why the Negro Is Black," to the mythic origin story where all humanity are "niggers tergedder." Meanwhile, speaking in his own voice, Harris is blithely reassuring Northern and Southern readers that to worry about "The Bugaboo of Social Equality" is "to make a problem out of something that never had an existence" (Editor and Essayist 155-56).
Harris's writings, then, display a persistent and conscious manipulation of his culture's social and literary conventions, a deliberate tension between a surface in comfortable accord with the dominant sentimental pieties (and related ideological projects) of the day and a subversive subtext profoundly critical of those same pieties. Recent criticism has not been much interested in authorial control, especially since the much celebrated "death of the author" announced most famously by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. But despite such influential obituaries and the no less obvious constraints upon writers exercised by everything from linguistic history and convention to various "authorities of delimitation," authors clearly attempt to direct the responses of readers by the deliberate cultivation of their expectations. They also, in at least some instances, manage a purposeful misleading of at least some audiences. Any "discursive formation" or system of meaning, even the most totalizing, despite its aspiration to spatial and/or temporal universality, is riddled with holes and fissures, lacunae which are at one and the same time weaknesses and opportunities (Foucault, Archaeology 42, 74). Terrae incognitae honeycomb all maps. Despite (and because of) its formidable network of interlocking institutionalized powers, the ruling episteme (Foucault's term, from The Order of Things) is a slow-moving beast. Its claims to "panoptic" range notwithstanding, it has its blind spots. It can be fooled; it is vulnerable to Signifying. And authors, experts in verbal mischief, are just the folks for the job. If Melville's terminology offers a detailed formal description of these strategies as Harris employs them, the African American aesthetic of Signifying reveals its deeper cultural sources, points to the skilled black storytellers who taught him the tricks of his trade.
Perhaps such subterfuges are clearest in situations where subversive narratives must pass the scrutiny of a vigilant and obviously hostile censoring authority. In November, 1941, in a Norway occupied by German troops since the spring of 1940, a children's book by Frithjof Saelen entitled Snorri sel (Snorri the Seal) appeared in stores. Billed as "a fable in color for children and adults," the book was not only approved for publication by Nazi censors but praised by the German-controlled press. Its narrative was a simple one: Snorri is a little seal, vain about his coat, who escapes his enemies (a polar bear named Brummelab and a killer whale named Glefs) primarily through the aid of a walrus named Bart. Norwegian readers noted instantly what Nazi censors missed, a covert allegorical subtext in which Snorri represented Norway, Brummelab the Soviet Union, Glefs Germany, and Uncle Bart England. The book was loaded with giveaway details for those who were looking--an ice floe shaped like Norway, Bart's British mustache. It was less than a month before the occupation authorities caught on, but by then the whole press run (12,500 copies) had been snapped up by skilled Norwegian readers (Stokker 89-93).
Harris, of course, was writing in much less perilous circumstances. But a censorship no less thoroughgoing for all its unofficial character than that which faced Saelen was in place in his own society, and he knew perfectly well that a straightforward expression of skepticism toward prevailing segregationist orthodoxy or open acknowledgment of substantial mixed-race populations in an era of anti-miscegenation legislation would be greeted with hostility (if published at all), just as Saelen knew he would be promptly arrested (and not published at all) had he attempted a straightforward political essay. Both men thus made their initial feints generic ones, disguising their subversive messages in ostensibly harmless tales intended for children, and both men succeeded in their purposes not as "autonomous" authors (that's a straw house built for the author as First Little Pig, easily demolished by Big Bad Critic's first huff and puff) but very much as devious ones, accomplishing their public and private ends via the simultaneous exploitation and undermining of reigning discursive rules and audience expectations.
As early as 1879, in "As to Southern Literature," Harris made clear his understanding of the need for indirection. Describing Thackeray as a writer who "satirized the society in which he moved and held up to ridicule the hollow hypocrisy of his neighbors," he immediately noted the hostility such works would encounter in Harris's homeland: "The Southern Thackeray of the future will doubtless be surprised to learn that if he had put in an appearance half a century earlier he would probably have been escorted beyond the limits of our Southern clime astraddle of a rail." What Thackeray did in England, Harris emphasizes, could not be done in the late-nineteenth-century American South: "He took liberties with the people of his own blood and time that would have led him hurriedly in the direction of bodily discomfort if he had lived in the South" (Editor and Essayist 44). Harris, then, absorbing these lessons, would do it differently. He would, like Melville and Shakespeare, employ "dark characters" to communicate his "little lower layer" indirectly, "covertly, and by snatches."
As it happened, of course, Harris had no need for Melville (or Shakespeare), since he had immediately at hand, in Brer Rabbit's Signifying tales, a no less sophisticated model of encoded discourse. George Terrell and Harbert, telling Brer Rabbit's wonderful tales to the listening boy, taught him not only the covert critique of their matter, but also the even more subversive lessons of their Signifying method.
On their surface, then, the Brer Rabbit tales, "A Story of the War," and On the Plantation serve the healing, future-oriented ends Harris shared with Atlanta Constitution editor and prominent New South advocate Henry W. Grady. Uncle Remus is entirely benevolent, a saccharine figure comforting to descendants of the folks who owned him; "A Story of the War" marries the Yankee soldier to the Southern belle in a sentimental romance of intersectional harmony; On the Plantation is dedicated to "philanthropist" plantation owner Joseph Addison Turner. This is the level of Harris the editorialist, whose voice predominates (but never wholly submerges its subversive other) in "Observations From New England" and the other pieces that have dismayed contemporary readers. And there can be no question that this is the voice heard, even in his better known work, by the overwhelming majority of Harris's early readers. The "cultural work" of the famous Uncle Remus/Brer Rabbit collections, then, like that of Harris's newspaper editorials and essays, is accurately described as ideological in this sense. In the name of a future-oriented vision of regional reconciliation they offered a wholly sanitized historical fantasy in place of the brutal realities of the slave-based plantation economy of the antebellum South. The sins of the past were occluded in the service of a hoped-for harmonious future.
But under these surfaces, such anodyne lullabies are persistently undermined, revealed as illusory, childlike evasions of an immeasurably larger, darker, more complex, and finally more lively world. Turner, as the powerful and articulate spokesman for antebellum Southern ideology who gave Harris his start as a writer, is an obvious surrogate father figure. It seems inevitable that he gets the dedication, a page of his own at the volume's front. But George Terrell and Harbert, the slave men who told him of Brer Rabbit's triumphs, emerge as the boy's true mentors, the teachers of his deepest lessons. They get the book itself, its center and heart.
Such obliquities were of course absolutely necessary. Harris lived in Georgia and earned his pay as a Southern newspaperman. He was, like Remus, like Brer Rabbit, operating within constraints. But, like them again, he was far from helpless. With his artful words he put forward his world, as he knew it and as he wished it, right under the noses of a society he knew it would appall. The boy who listened to Brer Rabbit tales on pro-slavery zealot Joseph Addison Turner's plantation had learned their lessons well. Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart's desire. He was, like Remus with his alternative "deloojes" and crowds of "merlatters," Signifying. Harris's dedication of On the Plantation to Turner serves, along with a host of other subsequent misdirections, to distract readers from his repudiation of the world Turner held dear. In that less well known but equally subversive work, the "Georgia boy" who is a thinly disguised portrait of Harris aids and abets runaway slaves and Confederate army deserters.
Back down in Putnam County, in "A Story of the War," the Yankee soldier confronted by the interracial domestic tableau on the Abercrombie plantation fails, of course, prefiguring generations of readers both Northern and Southern, to understand the scene before his eyes. He stresses Remus's age, calling him "ole man," dismisses his own vision of blood on Remus's axe with a laugh, and soon leaves after failing to locate the livestock and food Remus has carefully hidden. Remus, once again, is triumphant, this time as master of the plantation. The Yankee soldier, Remus says, "'wouldn't never laft dat day ef he'd know'd de wukkins er Remus's mine'" (Songs and Sayings 183). Indeed he wouldn't. And thousands of readers wouldn't have laughed either, had they recognized the no less subtle workings of Harris's mind. He was every bit as skilled at disguising his meanings as Brer Rabbit was at duping wolves and foxes, as Remus was at hiding corn and hogs, and the "wukkins" of his mind and pen have long remained unplumbed.
The closing paragraph of "A Story of the War," for its part, contains Uncle Remus's oblique but unmistakable claim that it was he, after all, who arranged the alliance of Miss Sally with her Yankee suitor. He is, again, despite the superficial obsequies that misled and comforted generations of readers, the master of the house, here busying himself with managing the happy marriage of a "daughter" who seems to have no other father but he. Chastized by this husband's sister--"'But you cost him an arm'"--for the wartime shot that saved Mars Jeems and wounded her brother, Remus answers that if he took one arm he gave four in return: "'I gin 'im dem,'" says Uncle Remus, pointing to Mrs. Huntingdon, "'en I gin 'im deze'"--holding up his own brawny arms (Songs and Sayings 185).
But who except Harris himself could appreciate such subtleties, would read through the bland surfaces of Remus's "half-confident, half-apologetic" manner (Songs and Sayings 178) to the wily, undermining messages of his matter? Who would be for him what captive Norwegians were for Saelen? The record is admittedly thin, since most reviewers, those who praised Harris together with those who damned him, took the surface for the whole and understood him as a nostalgic plantation romancer. But countering voices are not wholly absent. The young North Carolina journalist Walter Hines Page, for example, noted in an 1881 letter that Harris "hardly conceals his scorn for the old aristocracy," adding that "you can find here and there in 'Uncle Remus's' sayings a sly thrust at the pompous life of the Old South" (qtd. in Hendrick 152).
There is also the even more interesting 1904 letter to Harris from Mrs. Mary C. Turner of New Orleans. Writing for an African American women's group, the Phillis Wheatley Woman's Club, she offers "heart felt thanks" to Harris for his "encouraging words," informs him that his name has been added to the group's "book of friendship," and adds that the club members have resolved to pass on his stories to their children (Mixon 478). Here the central image of Harris's collections, a revered elder speaking intimately to a loved child, is carried by print across time and space to other elders and other children. Thanks to Harris's labors of remembering and recreating, thanks that is to his Signifying mastery of the oral register he heard and his skill with the textual medium he worked in, the wit and wisdom he heard at the knee of George Terrell and Harbert are passed on to a new generation by mothers reading to their children. What more could a writer ask?
In an often-quoted 1898 letter to his daughters, Harris, who was famously self-deprecating in his public assessments of his accomplishment, calling himself a mere "cornfield journalist" (Life and Letters 345), permitted himself a somewhat more complex analysis. His "editorials for the paper" were all his own, he allowed, but this proper self was not in fact "a real, sure enough author" because the famous stories were the work of an internal "other fellow" who "takes charge" whenever "I take my pen in my hand." This "other fellow," most significantly, holds highly critical views of the editorials and magazine articles of the "cornfield journalist": "He regards them with scorn and contempt" (Life and Letters 384-85). In fact, and by now it should come as no surprise, the "other fellow" views the "cornfield journalist" with an attitude remarkably similar to that of Uncle Remus toward the opinions of Mars John, or that of Brer Rabbit for the attitudes of Brer Fox or Brer Bear. Darwin Turner's criticisms of Harris's magazine articles were on the mark, but at least a part of Harris's own consciousness had arrived at the same conclusions seventy years earlier, and had penned his own critique.
It is difficult to articulate precisely, but the central point is not that Harris consciously urges a subversive political message (though he surely does this). There is every reason to suppose that the gradualist and paternalist views put forward in his prefaces, magazine articles, and Constitution editorials had Harris's honest if highly qualified support. There is, similarly, no reason to suppose that the dedication of On The Plantation to Turner is a deliberate mockery, even though the book itself demolishes the basic tenets of Turner's world view. The surface of Snorri sel, by contrast, seems entirely diversionary--although one might imagine (as Nazi censors necessarily did imagine) reading it to a child as a cautionary tale centered not on opposition to German occupation but on the pitfalls of vanity and the importance of good friends.
With Harris, however, things are more complex. Both levels of the story reflect some aspect of his purpose. First, the surface narrative produced by Harris the prominent editorialist was pleasing to a great many contemporary readers, who rewarded him with a comfortable living and a respected niche in the world. Only later, when a new politics and poetics came to power, did this narrative fall from grace and its author come in for opprobrium. His second voice, however, his hidden narrative, had anticipated such critiques by half a century. It found few sympathetic readers at first, and was produced in response to deeply personal and private needs by "the other fellow," the Harris who held the pieties of his surface narrative in contempt. The fundamental point is psychological and formal at its core. If Harris could not entirely escape the dominant views espoused by the most influential men of his place and time, his mind and heart were nevertheless held, and even more deeply, to a very different order. And he had the skill to manage the articulation of both. He made it by the censors (in part because a part of him subscribed to the censorship's values) and he got his heart's truth told. Careful attention to his famous collections shows heart and head working together to produce analogously tensioned Brer Rabbit tales and Uncle Remus frames that manage at one and the same time to satisfy (even as they also criticize) Southern readers, reassure (even as they sometimes rebuke) Northern ones, and celebrate the deeply personal sense of interracial "family" that is Harris's own best purchase on childhood's prelapsarian security.
This sort of divided self is not so very unusual, after all, as any number of recent and not so recent studies demonstrate. Consider for instance the story of Amanda America Dickson, as told in Kent Anderson Leslie's Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege. Her father is David Dickson, an ambitious, innovative, and wealthy Georgia farmer, who in 1848 rapes her mother, a twelve-year-old slave girl named Julia. When he dies thirty-seven years later, in 1885, his carefully written will leaves the great bulk of his estate (some $400,000) to Amanda America, his only child, making her perhaps the richest woman in Georgia. Unsurprisingly, vigorous legal challenges were mounted by a host of (white) claimants, with the Georgia Supreme Court eventually upholding the will. (The Atlanta Constitution of course gave these legal proceedings extensive coverage, and it's even possible Joel Chandler Harris may have written one or another of the generally positive reports and editorial comments on Amanda America Dickson's legal triumphs.)
In the years before his death Dickson had cherished his two grandsons from Amanda America's marriage to a white Civil War veteran, shocking more than one visitor by his practice of dining with his daughter and her boys, who reportedly clambered into his lap and called him "Pappy" (Leslie 65). David Dickson, then, begins as a rapist and ends as the doting grandfather of his "merlatter" descendants, living most of his adult life with his sense of family ties completely at odds with the mores of a society in which he occupied a prominent and public place. Family won out; blood was thicker than ideology.
A nearly identical situation occurs in Pauli Murray's classic memoir Proud Shoes, first published in 1956. Murray's paternal grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, a child born of the rape of a North Carolina slave woman by her master's son, is raised (along with three other daughters of another son by the same mother) by her Aunt Mary Ruffin Smith. This rapist father, like David Dickson, also dotes upon his daughter, and this daughter's granddaughter, writing a century later, notes her own two-mindedness: "I couldn't hate Sidney Smith when Grandmother talked about him" (Murray 52). Murray, narrating her own family's tangled history, subtitles her book The Story of an American Family and reaches the same conclusions as David Dickson: "As Grandmother said, blood was thicker than water" (Murray 46).
For Joel Chandler Harris, it wasn't a matter of blood. For him, it was the ignominious experience of illegitimacy, the sorrow of the fatherless child. In each of these instances children are born into conditions of outrage--Joel Chandler Harris into abandonment, Amanda America Dickson and Cornelia Smith out of the greater horror of rape--and grow into an encompassing sense of family at least in part self-created. Pressured by racist, sexist, and classist ideologies that, whatever their differences, share their abstract urge to binary, determined, black-and-white simplifications, people resist being pigeonholed, insist on working out their own richly textured, finely cross-grained destinies. Personal identities reveal themselves as maddeningly complex matters, tangled mixes of the inherited, the enacted, and the imagined. Pauli Murray's grandmother, after all, grew up to marry a black Union Civil War veteran, but she also insisted fiercely upon her own heritage: "'My daddy was a Rebel, and I'm a Rebel, too,'" she said. When her schoolteacher daughter complained of disrespectful treatment by white supervisors she called "dirty Rebs," her mother brought her up short: "'There's not one of those white folks in the school system that's any whiter or haughtier than you. You look and act just like a Rebbish Smith, and you can't help yourself. You're one of them'" (Murray 157).
If Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, then, insisted that her daughter was at least in part a white woman passing for black, Joel Chandler Harris, as a man whose "nostalgia was more for a black world than for a white one," was in some sense only passing for white when he billed himself as a "cornfield journalist" and spouted nonsense about the hand of God guiding the "discipline" of slavery. The "other fellow" knew better; he held such views in "scorn and contempt." The best name for this "other fellow" should by now be clear. It is Remus, after all, who tells the tale, just as it is the "other fellow" who takes over when "I take my pen in my hand." It was as black Uncle Remus (or, more precisely, as Remus's "son") that white Joel Chandler Harris found at once his freedom and his voice. (2)
Harris was still in his teens when he sat at the feet of the black men who became his models for Uncle Remus. He went on to sign letters as Remus. He had a grandson named Remus. His evenings listening to George Terrell and Harbert were absolutely critical formative experiences; such scenes were what he knew of childhood. These wise men were in the deepest sense (emotionally, spiritually, culturally) his fathers, men who taught him a way to live adroitly (and more especially to speak adroitly; that is, covertly) in a dangerous world. Can we doubt, given what he made of them, his profound apprehension of the tales he was told? Can his sure mastery of their Signifying method remain in question? Joel Chandler Harris didn't "steal" Alice Walker's inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own, and in his work he accomplished, in addition to the skillful textualization of a rich African American oral tradition which made him famous, the intimate personal testimony that Nietzsche found at the heart of all great achievements of mind--"a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir" (13).
In the setting of the Uncle Remus stories, as in the abandoned cabin of On the Plantation, where a boy, two runaway slaves, and two Confederate deserters shelter together and tell stories to one another, as in the account in Nights With Uncle Remus of a wonderful night in 1882 when Harris, normally so reticent, swapped stories with a group of black laborers at a train station in Norcross, Georgia--in all of these Harris recreates his most treasured moments in idealized form. Harris, it turns out, was both nourished as a child and trained as an artist by black storytellers who were in turn both mentors and fathers to a boy whose acquisition of their gifts to him was more profound than even the man he became could appreciate fully.
Joel Chandler Harris was a painfully shy, deeply private man. In a famous letter written on his twenty-second birthday, December 9, 1870, he offered his friend and confidant Mrs. Georgia Starke a bleak summary of his life: "My history is a peculiarly sad and unfortunate one" (qtd. in Cousins 83). His indirections and obliquities no doubt served psychological as well as pragmatic ends. But with all his wiles and evasions he leaves no doubt as to the shape of his ideal order, his sense of life's best gifts. Harris's dream, it turns out, was not so very different from another famous Georgian's. Though he lacked Dr. King's courageous martyr's heart, he possessed in full measure a very similar appreciation of the powers of the word. Harris's carefully disguised critique reaches to the very center of his region's society, but he issues it from wholly utopian marginal havens. This Georgia, its racist hierarchies momentarily undone in moments of unconstrained egalitarian communication, with boys and old men and runaways of every stripe taking shelter and comfort together, with black workers and a white traveler passing a night exchanging stories at a railroad depot, was for Harris the desired country; these humble gatherings were for him the beloved community. At its heart is his cherished family, insistently if covertly affirmed. The little boy's mother is a young white woman who loves him. His chosen father, strong and knowing and generous with his wisdom, is an old black man.
(1.) In capitalizing "Signifying," I follow Mitchell-Kernan and Gates, who use both italics and capitalization (among other devices) to indicate meanings specific to African American speech.
(2.) My thinking on the whole matter of Harris'ss "passing" as Remus and/or a "son" of black slaves owes much to conversations with Susan Marten and Janet Wondra.
Bickley, Bruce, ed. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Hall, 1981.
--. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Cousins, Paul M. Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1968.
Davis, Merrell R., and William H. Gilman. The Letters of Herman Melville. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Harper, 1976.
--. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988,
Harris, Joel Chandler. The Bishop and the Boogerman. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1909.
--. The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
--. Gabriel Tolliver. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1902.
--. Nights With Uncle Remus. 1881. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.
--. On the Plantation. 1892, Fredericksburg, VA: Sergeant Kirkland's, 1997.
--. Uncle Remus and His Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.
--. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. 1880. New York: Penguin, 1982.
--. Uncle Remus Returns. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Harris, Julia Collier, ed. Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1931.
--. The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Hedin, Raymond, "Uncle Remus: Puttin' On Ole Massa's Son." Southern Literary Journal 15 (1982): 83-90.
Hemenway, Robert. "Introduction." Harris, Songs and Sayings 7-31.
Hendrick, Burton J., ed. The Training of An American: The Earlier Life and Letters of Walter H. Page, 1855-1913. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
Leslie, Kent Anderson. Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995.
McDonald, William C. "Introduction." Harris, On the Plantation vii-xxxv.
Melville, Herman. Complete Shorter Fiction. New York: Knopf, 1997.
--. Moby Dick. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988.
Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia. "Signifying." Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel." Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973. 310-28.
Mixon, Wayne, "The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus In Their Time." Journal of Southern History 56 (1990): 457-80.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of An American Family. New York: Harper, 1978.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966.
Stokker, Kathleen. Folklore Fights the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway, 1940-1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.
Walker, Alice. Living By the Word. San Diego: Harcourt, 1988.
Robert Cochran is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies at the University of Arkansas. His recent books include two music studies, Our Own Sweet Sounds (1996) and Singing in Zion (1999), and a study of photographer Geleve Grice, A Photographer of Note (2003). Cochran notes that, in preparing this essay, he read nearly everything written about Harris and his work. Most helpful were the studies by Darwin Turner and Wayne Mixon, which helped him credit his own observations.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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