Introduction to Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892)

Introduction to Uncle Remus and His Friends

A genial literary critic, of Boston, looking over the field of letters in this republic not many months ago, felt compelled to give utterance to a note of depression. What he saw was pleasing, perhaps, but not inspiring. The landscape appeared to be full of the impotent commotion that is seen in the neighborhood of ant-hills just before a shower. Small men were trying to play instruments much too large for them, while others were fiddling away with futile earnestness on one string. To crown all, Provinciality, with an amplitude at once omothrly and American, spread her homespun frock over the scene. There was nothing new, nothing hopeful, and even those who had given signs of promise were returning to barren imitations of their early successes. It is even so; and hard upon the heels of this critic's complaint follows this new collection of "Plantation Fables."

The stories here gathered together have been caught for me in the kitchen. Some of them are discoveries, many are verifications of stories that have been sent me by friends, and others are the odds and ends and fragments from my note-books which I have been able to verify and complete. This work of verification and putting together has been going or since 1884, but not in any definite or systematic way. There has been a general understanding in my household for a dozen years or more that preference was to be given in the kitchen to a cook of the plantation type,--the type that we have come to call here the "old-timey" negro. Naturally, it has sometimes happened that digestion was sacrificed to sentiment, but the special result is to be found in the pages that foolow. There has been an understanding, too, that the youngsters of the household, posessing the knack that nature gives youth, were to employ all their arts in discovering a new story, or in verifying one already in hand. A plan was finally hit upon to give children a cue word or phrase from as story that needed verification, or from an interesting fragment that lacked completion.

In one instance this plan had a singularly fertile result. The cook in charge had a son-in-law named John Holder, who had shown a tendency to indulge in story-telling in his hours of ease. This was in 1886. Mr. Richard Adams Learned, of Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey, had sent me the story about the man who, with his two dogs, harassed the wild cattle. (See p. 91) One of the youngsters was told to ask about this tory, and his cue was "a man, two dogs, and the wild cattle." But the child's memory was short. He asked about a boy and two dogs, and the result was the story of "The Little Boy and his Dogs," to be found in the supplementary part of "Daddy Jake, the Runaway" (page 76). Some months afterwards the child remebered the wild cattle, and got th story from John Holder substantially as it had been sent me by Mr. Learned. The variations are not worth taking into account. I have referred to this matter because it has been made interesting by an article which Mr. David Dwight Wells contributes to the "Popular Science Monthly," for May, 1892. Mr. wells embodies the wild cattle story, which differs in no essential particular from the version sent me by Mr. Learned. Mr. Wells had the story froma gentleman who wa born about the beginning of this century in Essequibo, British Guiana, South America. The story was told to Mr. Learned by his grandfather (born 1802), who had it from his old "mammy" nurse in Demarara. In John Holder's story the names of the dogs are changed to Minny-minny-morack and Follamalinska; in Mr. Learned's story the names are Yarmearoo and Gengamaroto; In Mr. Wells's, Ya-me-o-ro and Cenga-mo- ro-to. The Georgia negro had the story pat, and out of it grew the tale of the "Bull that went a-courting" (see p. 81), which the wild cattle story seems to be the sequel of. Thus we have a series taht ought to be of some interest to students of folk-lore.

But the folk-lore branch of the subject I galdly leave to those who think they know something about it. My own utter ignorance I confess without a pang. To know that you are ignorant is a valuable form of knowledge, the enterprising incnsequence of the Introduction to "Nights with Uncle Remus" is worth noting on account of its unconcious anf harmless humor. I knew a good deal more about comparative folk-lore then than I know now; and the whole affair is carried off with remarkable gravity. Since that Introduction was written, I have gone far enough into the subject (by the aid of those who are Fellows of This and Professors of That, to say nothing of Doctors of the Other) to discover that at the end of investigation and discussion Speculation stands grinning.

The stories in this volume were written simply and solely becuase of my interest in the stories themselves, in the first place, and in the second place, because of the unadulterated human nature that might be found in them. As I wrote them with my own children around me, or with their voices sounding not far away, I seemed to see other children laughing as the homely stories were read to them; I seemed to see gray-haired children smiling, if they found here, close to the earth, a stroke of simplicity ringing true to life; and it seemed to me that these visions, vain though they might be, were more promising than a hopeless journey through the wilderness to discover at what place and at what hour the tribes of the mountains and the citzens of the plains shook their hairy fists at each other, and jabbering their several ways.

Naturally, these stories are written in what is called a negro dialect. It seemed to be unavoidable. I sympathize deeply and heartily with the protest that has been made against the abuse of dialect. It is painful, indeed, when the form of the lingo trails on the earth and the though flies in the air. I had intended to abologize for the plantation dialect, but a valued correspondent in "The Flatwoods" assure me that "old man Chaucer was one of the earliest dialect writers," and I have recently seen (in the New York "Independent") an essay by Professor MArch, in which there is a perfectly serious effort to rival the phonetics employed by Uncle Remus.

The student of English, if he be willing to search so near the ground, will find matter to interest him in the homely dialect of Uncle Remus, and if his intentions run towards philological investigation, he will pause before he has gone far and ask himself whether this negro dialect is what it purports to be, or whether it is not simply the language of the white people of three hundred years ago twisted and modified to fit the lingual peculiarities of the negro. Dozens of words, such as hit for it, ax for ask, whiles for while, and heap for a large numbe of people, will open before him the whole field of the philology of the English tongue. He will discover that, when Uncle Remus tells the little boy that he has "a monstus weakness fer cake what's got reezins in it," the pronunciation of reezins uncovers and rescues from oblivion Shakespeare's pun on raisins, where Falstaff tells the Prince, "If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason on compulsion, I."

After all, this is a tremendous apology to make for the humble speech of Uncle Remus, yet it delayed for a moment the announcement that the old amn will bother the public no more with his whimisical stories. I have hesitated a little over it. Uncle Remus has found out for me many friends in all parts of the world. Thousands of people whom I dhall never meet, thousands of little children who I shall never see, have sent me the most precious tokens of their appreciation. It is not an easy or pleasing ceremony to step from behind the curtain, pretending to smile and say a brief good-by for Uncle Remus to those who have been so free with their friendly applause. No doubt there is small excuse for such leave-taking in literature. But there is no pretense that the old darkey's poor little stories are in the nature of literature, or that their re-telling touches literary art at any point. All the accessories are lacking. There is nothing here but an old negro man, a little boy, and a dull reporter, the matter of discourse being fantasies as uncouth as the originl man ever conceived of. Therefeore, let Uncle Remus's goo-by be as simple as his stories; a swift gesture that might be mistaken for a salutation as he takes his place among the affable Ghosts that throng the ample corridors of the Temple of Dreams.

Joel Chandler Harris
Atlanta, Georgia


  • Directory of introductions
  • Preceding introduction (1881)
  • Next introduction (1897)
  • Table of Contents