Printer Friendly

Plutarch's 'Life of Alexander' and Joel Chandler Harris's story of "Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Two Fat Pullets" (1918).

Scholarship concerning Joel Chandler Harris's stories of Uncle Remus has focused upon three general areas: their use of folklore, their use of dialect, and their role in the creation or perversion of the "happy darky" myth.(1) Several studies have explored the influence Harris has had upon other writers or in turn the influence that other writers have had upon him.(2) Nevertheless, there remains much work to be done in this area, especially since Harris was both a hugely popular writer and a keen student of language and literature as well.(3) Here is an example of what may be found from "Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Two Fat Pullets," a tale published during 1918 in the collection entitled Uncle Remus Returns.

In the later years of Uncle Remus's fictive life, after some unhappy time spent in the city, he returns to the familiar rural existence of the plantation. There he serves various members of his master's family, whose lives encompass three generations. Included in this group is Miss Sally, the mother of the first little boy featured in so many of the earlier tales, and Miss Sally's grandson, the son of the first little boy who had by that time grown up and married.

In the frame of the story, the little boy tells Uncle Remus:(4)

after I was ready to go to bed last night, I didn't feel very sleepy, and

grandmother told me a story. She said it was one you used to tell to papa.

But that wasn't all: She said that all the animals were once meat-eaters. I

don't see how that could be. (p. 815)

After Uncle Remus assures the boy that his grandmother was a reliable source, the lad declares that "Grandmother was telling how Brother Rabbit got some meat from Mr. Man" (p. 815). He then quotes his grandmother as saying that Uncle Remus "was not the only person that said that animals ate meat or something else besides vegetables. She told how Plutarch said something about the sheep eating fish" (p. 816).

In response, Uncle Remus inquires, "Did she say dat?" And after some moments of reflection, he exclaims "Plutarch! Is Miss Sally say what plantation he live on?" When the boy shakes his head in denial, Uncle Remus "with a sigh of relief" says, "he ain't never is live in deze parts, kaze ef he had I'd `a' know'd 'im. I `speck Miss Sally hear talk un him de time she went ter Ferginny, kaze ef dey'd `a' been any Plutarch... I'd `a' know'd him" (p. 816).

Paul M. Cousins employs the episode as evidence supporting his idea that Uncle Remus was a "born storyteller."(5) But neither Cousins nor any other scholar has a word to say about the curious story itself, or its curious source, Plutarch. For names from Graeco-Roman antiquity are in truth not at all common elements in the stories of Uncle Remus. Besides this reference to Plutarch, the only other "classical" name Harris used--besides Remus's own name, doubtless derived from the Romulus and Remus legend--is that of Uncle Plato, a mule driver. Uncle Plato sounds his presence with "a long tin bugle" at the start of the tale of "Brother Fox's Fish-Trap," published during 1883 in the collection entitled Nights With Uncle Remus.

Furthermore, the idea of "sheep eating fish" seems on the surface to be so laughably absurd as to need no analysis, and it therefore stands ostensibly as evidence of Harris's vivid imagination. But such is not the case. For the icthyophagous sheep are not the product of Harris's fertile mind; instead they make up a small portion of one of the Parallel Lives of Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 50-c. 120 A.D.), the life of Alexander the Great. In passage 66.6, concerning Alexander's grueling return in 325 B.C. to Persia from India, Plutarch describes Alexander's experiences in the territory of the Oreitae. He recounts the miserable existence


[that is, "of men who owned only a few sheep, and those of a wretched sort,

since the fish from the sea which they regularly ate make their flesh

unpalatable and foul."](6)

Thus in a brilliant twist of wit and erudition, Joel Chandler Harris has had the last laugh. The outlandish story and its storyteller, who is seen by Uncle Remus as a threat to his authority as the region's fabulist, provide a comic moment. But the episode also supplies Harris with a chance to make a learned and literary reference to Plutarch, an author whose work has long been part of the Western canon, and whose Parallel Lives enjoyed an especial popularity in the minds of nineteenth-century Americans.(7)

(1) On these points see Peggy Russo, "Uncle Walt's Uncle Remus: Disney's Distortion of Harris's Hero," Southern Literary Journal, 25 (1992), 19-32; Eric L. Montenyohl, "The Origins of Uncle Remus," Folklore Forum, 18 (1986), 136-167; Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed (New York: Knopf, 1970), pp. 180-185; John Stafford "Patterns of Meaning in `Nights with Uncle Remus,'" American Literature, 18 (1946), 94-108.

(2) For an extensive annotated secondary bibliography, through 1976, of studies of Harris's sources and influence, see R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978). Also see the Harris entry in Facts on File Bibliography of American Fiction: 1866-1918, ed. James Nagel and Gwen Nagel (New York: Facts on File, 1993), pp. 209-121.

(3) See, for example, R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., "Two Allusions to Joel Chandler Harris in Ulysses," English Language Notes, 17 (1979), 42-45, and Jefferson Humphries, "Remus Redux or French Classicism on the Old Plantation: La Fontaine and Joel Chandler Hams," Southern Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Jefferson Humphries (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), pp. 170-185.

(4) The quotations from Harris's work have been taken from The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, comp. Richard Chase (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955). For a discussion of "framing" as a device in Harris's narrative style, see Montenyohl, pp. 136-137, 158, 162.

(5) Paul M. Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), pp. 196-197.

(6) The Greek text here quoted was established by Bernadotte Perrin, Plutarch's Lives (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1911), VII, 410. The translation is my own. Classical scholars themselves do not have much to say about this strange story. See J. R. Hamilton, Plutarch: Alexander: A Commentary (Oxford: Claredon, 1969), p. 184.

(7) For information on Plutarch's Lives, a work that Meyer Reinhold has identified as "the most popular work of ancient literature (always excepting the Bible) in America for about 250 years," see Meyer Reinhold, "Plutarch's Influence in America from Colonial times to 1890," in his Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), pp. 250-264.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ronnick, Michele Valerie
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Previous Article:Interview with Ellen Douglas: February 25, 1997.
Next Article:Charlotte Capers, Tennessee Williams, and the Mississippi premiere of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' (critic, playwright)

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters