Remus - review from 1955
Review - The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. By Joel Chandler Harris. Compiled by Richard Chase. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, I955. Pp. XXVii + 875, note on the text, introduction by the author, illustrations, glossary. $5.)

In spite of the fact that the "Uncle Remus Tales" as compiled by Joel Chandler Harris have been rightly considered both a classic of American literature and a landmark in American folklore since they were first published in I880 (Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings), there has hitherto been no complete edition of all the stories which ap peared in a total of eight books during the period 1880-I918. This lack has at last been filled with the publication of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, and children, parents and folklorists can all rejoice that the entire corpus of these matchless stories is now available in one handy volume.

It might be remarked here that in a number of ways the Uncle Remus material is a unique literary and folklore phenomenon. It was compiled, as Harris himself often said, "accidentally." Despite the fact that folklorists all over the world have been intensely interested in the Tales, the author professed to have no more knowledge of folklore than "the man in the moon." It is furthermore unique because the stories arc not just another collection of "folktales" but represent also a vast storehouse of information that deserves detailed comment in at least six different fields: (I) linguistic (specifically dialectal) (2) comparative literature (how the tales compare with and differ from other famous animal stories - Aesop's Fables, the Panchatantra, Les Fables of LaFontaine, etc., (3) artistic (the charm, wit, and satire, devastating but delicious, on the foibles of the human race), (4) psychological (presentation of Negro philosophy), (5) historical-sociological (a revealing portrait of a characteristic American social institution - the Southern Plant tion "befo' de war, endurin' er de war, en atterwards,") and of course (6) folkloristic.

As welcome as are The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, it must be stated that the editorial presentation of them in no way measures up to the important material involved Even from the point of view of the intelligent layman, Richard Chase's comments offer a modicum of desirable background information, while the scholar will find nothing whatsoever of interest. And here one must criticize the publisher for allowing one of the few American classics of world literature, so important in a half dozen fields, to appear under such a superficial "compilationship."

Specifically, that is principally, the volume contains a Foreword by the compiler and the following books: Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, with the author's original introduction (1880); Nights with Uncle Remus (1883); Daddy Jake the Runaway (1889); Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892); Told by Uncle Remus (1905); Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907); Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910); and Uncle Remus Returns (1918). There is also a ninth "book" - Seven Tales of Uncle Remus - "hitherto uncol lected tales," edited and with an introduction by Thomas H. English, Curator, Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Collection, the Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia (1948), and a glossary. In addition, "practically all of the illustrations which originally accompanied these tales have been included in this edition" (xiii), for which we can all be grateful, as the A. B. Frost illustrations are there to enliven the text - certainly among the most delightful animal drawings ever made.

The Foreword (xi-xiii) is inadequate, uninformative, and partially irrevelant while the Glossary (869-875) is arbitrary and incomplete - if "shucks," which is hardly dialectal at all, why not "bimeby"? If "dram," which is in ordinary everyday English usage, why not "cutus" ("curious"), etc.? Indeed, the linguistic aspects of the compiler's apparatus, or rather their almost complete absence, is one of the most glaring deficiencies of the vork. For it would be difficult for the reader to gather from any of Chase's scanty obser vations that Harris was one of the world's greatest writers of dialect in any language. His was an extraordinary accomplishment when one considers that he was completely untrained, and that the English language with its irrational and capricious orthography is inordinately difficult to record phonetically.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Uncle Remus material is the little known fact that its "Negro dialect" is not a linguistic creation of Southern colored people at all, as is commonly assumed. It is rather the transplanted forms of provincial dialects of Southwest England of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought to this country by the British colonists and adopted and retained by the Negroes. Apparently neither Chase nor Houghton Mifflin is aware of this elementary and fundamental fact, as there is no mention of it in the text or in the impressionistic publishers' blurb.

In connection with the dialect of the stories another inexcusable deficiency in this col- lection is at once evident. Although Harris was a phenomenally gifted "transriber" of this material, the fact remains that the dialect is exceedingly difficult for all but those who have either been "brought up" on it or who have studied it. Actually, however, the mor- phological and phonological aspects of this form of speech are very simple, and two pages of explanation by a competent linguist giving examples of the various forms of phonetic change (assimilation, dissimilation, metathesis, syncope, apocope, aphaeresis, epenthesis, paragoge, etc.) could have easily made the dialect of the Tales comprehensible to the intelligent reader.

To the folklorist, especially the purist, an even more inexcusable failing is the fact that Chase completely ignores a - perhaps the - crucial aspect of the Tales: how much of the material is "pure folklore" and how much of it derives from the inordinate literary skill of Joel Chandler Harris? This is indeed eine heikele Frage and one which, despite its supreme importance for both folklore and literature, Chase does utterly nothing to resolve.

As fluctuating as was the attitude of Harris toward folklore, equally ambivalent was his explanation of his role in interpreting the material which he had so completely and uniquely absorbed. On the one hand is the fact that he insisted that he was a "compiler merely" of the Tales, that he presented them "without embellishment and without exag- geration," that his original aim was to preserve them in their "original simplicity" and that "not one of them is cooked, and not one of them nor any part of one is an invention of mine."

On the other hand is the obvious fact that the Uncle Remus tales do not correspond to the traditional versions of Negro tales as recorded by folklorists. Just as Harris tended to disparage his obvious gifts as a "folklorist" (however amateurish he might seem by comparison with the scientifically trained specialists of today), so he also was inclined to deprecate his literary skill, extraordinary and unique as it was.

Harris maintained that his stories were "uncooked." Yet one need only compare such a so-called "uncooked" story, as given him by a Negro correspondent, with the finished version. The former is exactly - and starkly - ten lines long, while the latter is expanded into a full-length (four pages) Joel Chandler Harris "Uncle Remus Tale" complete with atmosphere, Gemutlichkeit, and charm that only he could have conjured up. Regarding this singular dichotomy between the avowed explanations of the "com piler" Harris and the final product, Thomas H. English, the aforementioned Curator of the Harris Collection, has an explicit interpretation of this problem: "For in the Uncle Remus Tales you have the perfect union of the Tale itself and the character of the narrator. This is the final achievement of literary genius. In the last analysis there is never a loss of truth but gain in the twice-told tale when its final redaction falls to a Shakespeare, a Milton, a Hawthorne, or a Harris."

To conclude, everyone who is at all interested in the folklore (and literary) heritage of the United States will be grateful to Houghton Mifflin for the publication of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. They will at the same time regret the superficial and unedifying editorial presentation which has been the fate of one of our few native master pieces of world literature.

Brevard. North Carolina


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