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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
“ONE evening recently the lady whom Uncle Remus calls ‘Miss Sally’ missed her little seven-year-old. Making search for him through the house and through the yard, she heard the sound of voices in the old man’s cabin; and looking through the window she saw the child sitting by Uncle Remus. His head rested against the old man’s arm, and he was gazing with an expression of the most intense interest into the rough weather-beaten face that beamed so kindly on him.”  1
  With this charming picture Mr. Joel Chandler Harris opens the historic adventures of that Ulysses of the fields, Brer Rabbit. Uncle Remus, the raconteur of the adventures, has a prototype on every Southern plantation, and his stories are familiar to all Southerners. The art of Mr. Harris lies in the way he could transfer their impalpable charm to canvas.  2
  Before the appearance of ‘Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings’ (New York, 1880), the negro had figured in literature; but he had figured for a purpose, either to illustrate a principle as in Mrs. Stowe’s great novels ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Dred,’ or he was the stage negro of the minstrel show—an intolerable misrepresentation. Perhaps he was too familiar a feature in the landscape of the Southern author for him to appreciate his artistic value; and as for the foreigner’s conception of him, what Dr. Johnson said of the descriptive poems of the blind poet Blacklock may very well be applied to these efforts. “If,” said Johnson, “you found that a paralytic had left his room, you would conclude he had been carried,” meaning that the blind man had described what he had read, not what he had seen.  3
  No such charge was ever brought to the author of these inimitable sketches. Like his own hero Brer Rabbit “he was born and bred in a brier patch,” in middle Georgia, in the town of Eatonton, December 8th, 1848, and his happy and adventurous youth, pleasantly commemorated in his ‘On the Plantation,’ was passed in the society he has made famous the world over. Uncle Remus, Mink, Sis Tempy, Daddy Jake, were not more real personages to him than “de creeters” they taught him to know and admire. In true American fashion, he passed from the printer’s case to the bar, but forsook law for literature,—his first love,—became a member of the staff and later an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and the author of many books, of which ‘Uncle Remus’ is the initial. ‘Nights with Uncle Remus,’ ‘Rainy Days with Uncle Remus,’ ‘Mingo and Other Sketches,’ ‘Daddy Jake the Runaway,’ and ‘On the Plantation,’ belong to the same series. Mr. Harris wrote several books of plantation romance and actualities, that betray the charm of which he was a master, but to the volumes we have named he owed his high and permanent place in American literature.  4
  Those who are familiar with the subject know that when Mr. Harris chose the plantation negro, he had a character of some subtlety to deal with. Like the Celt, he is a creature of extremes, carelessly happy one day and despairing the next; but saved from revolt by a pathetic philosophy born of his helplessness, and also by a sense of humor that restores his equilibrium. These peculiarities are not so evident from his actions—for he has been suppressed by his surroundings—as in his songs and stories, which display his poetical temperament and his picturesque imagination. With the self-confidence of the artist, Mr. Harris in portraying his character chose the most difficult, that is, the dramatic form. Uncle Remus, the seer of the plantation, sits before his lightwood fire making “shuck” horse-collars, with the “little boy” for audience, varied by occasional visits from his satellite “Sis Tempy,” or his enemy the incomparable, the irrepressible “Tildy”; and as he works at his self-imposed task, levies on the whole community for illustrations of weakness and folly. Or like a child watching his elders, he imitates their manners and customs, makes his shrewd comments, gives his hard thrusts, and dispenses his deep philosophy. Only when Mr. Harris dropped the dramatic form, as in ‘On the Plantation,’ ‘Mingo and Other Sketches,’ and ‘Daddy Jake the Runaway,’ did he permit himself the luxury of pathos, so obvious in the negro’s life. When Uncle Remus or any of his confrères is speaking in propria persona, he shows the same reserve in displaying his deepest emotions as the wounded animal who seeks his lair.  5
  Nor is it strange that the life of the plantation negro should have developed his mystical side. Much of it is spent alone, with only the “creeters,” between whom and the white man he occupies a middle distance, for companions. Nor strange that like St. Francis of Assisi, each living thing becomes a brother and sister to him, endowed with personality and a sentient nature. St. Francis preached to the birds and the “four-footed felons,” the “ferocissimo lupo d’Agobis”; and Uncle Remus, though he considers them far too wise to learn from so poor a creature as man, endows them with all our vices and virtues. Did not the mystics Æsop and La Fontaine the same? But the old darky in a dim fashion does more: through them he expresses a revolt from his own condition, and the not unnatural desire to circumvent the master who has so long controlled him. Not to the swift in these stories is the race, nor to the strong the battle. The weakest, the most helpless of all the animals, the rabbit, is the hero and the champion, and in every contest is victorious over the wolf, the fox, the bear. Not virtue but weakness triumphs when Brer Rabbit milks the cow, fools the fox, and scalds the wolf; not passion but mischievousness.  6
  With a view to edification which cannot be too sternly deprecated, etymologists have claimed ‘Uncle Remus and his Songs’ as a contribution to the Folk-Lore Society. Better can we spare him to the natural-history societies, to which he may contribute the chapters on ‘How Mr. Rabbit Lost his Fine Bushy Tail,’ ‘Why Mr. Rabbit Whipped his Young Ones,’ ‘Why the Negro is Black,’ and ‘The Use Miss Goose Put her Hands to.’ But Mr. Harris had a higher motive in letters than utility, we believe. His province was to charm and to amuse. The widely beloved author of ‘Uncle Remus’ died July 3, 1908.  7
 
 
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