Uncle Remus Returns Review from "The Dial" (191)
Review-Uncle Remus Returns

Joel Chandler Harris and Negro Folklore

IN UNCLE REMUS RETURNS (Houghton Mifflin; Boston) we meet our old friend Remus and the same little boy who appears in Told by Uncle Remus - the son of the boy who listened to the earlier tales and of a mother most antipathetic to Uncle Remus, Miss Sally, and Mr. Harris. That the little boy should be shown to be so exclusively the product of his mother's theory of education is, by the way, a naive witness to the unfortunate in- significance of the father in the American family. Thc little boy is singularly lacking in the child's usual protective devices against education. But Mr. Harris has caught the folk-tale spirit, keeping to the expected theme or emotion or trait. Prig- gishness is the outcome of a quasi-scientific educa- tion, held Harris, and so his little boy--in this last picture of him at any rate--is consistently a prig. The stories the child listens to--there are six of them - consist of the familiar colloquies between the animals, superinzposed upon folk-tales or near- folk-tales. Impty-Umpty and the Blacksmith is a variant of the tale known to readers of Grimm as Grandfather Death. It has been collected in New England from Portuguese Negroes, but it has not been recorded before, so far as I know, in the South. Mr. Ridgeley Torrence tells me, however, that the tale is widely spread among American Negroes. The Most Beautiful Bird in the World appears to be a variant of The Birds Take Back Their Feathers, recorded in Jamaica, in New England from Portu- guese Negroes, and--further evidence of its Hispanic provenience--in the Southwest from the Pueblo Indians. Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox, and Two Fat Pullets consists of the European pattern of the false message or letter, the same pattern which ap- pears in the earlier Remus tales of Brother Rabbit and the Little Girl, and In Some Lady's Garden, and in a tale which was once told me in Newport, Rhode Island, by a white woman from the Azores. How Brother Rabbit Brought Family Trouble on Brother Fox is reminiscent likewise of Portuguese tales that I have listened to in New England. A variant of Taily-po I heard on Andros Island, Bahamas, and what is probably another variant Chatelain heard in Angola, West Africa. Brother Rabbit's Bear Hunt contains a less well defined pattern than the ot'her tales in the volume and, like some of the earlier Remus tales, it is, I suspect, one of those quasi-individualistic pieces of embroidery with familiar material which are not uncommonly forthcoming among Negro story-tellers and which may or may not develop into a true folk-tale.

To what extent does Mr. Harris himself em- broider? In more than one of those very pleasant letters which are printed in the recently published biography by Julia Collier Harris (The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Houghton Mif- flin; Boston) Mr. Harris refers to himself as merely a compiler of the Remus tales. In a letter in particular written to Gomme, president of the Folk Lore Society in England, but with character- istic diffidence not sent, Mr. Harris stated of the tales that "not one of them is cooked, and not one nor any part of one is an invention of mine. They are all genuine folk-tales." That they are indeed folk-tales, at least the earlier tales, any folk- lorist will agree, or in fact anyone who takes the trouble to compare them with another collection made in Georgia, the excellent collection of C. C. Jones, Jr., called Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast, or with Mrs. Christensen's collection from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, or with our meager collections from other parts of the South or from the West Indies. But in making this comparison it becomes quite evident that just as Mr. Harris preserved the pat- tern of the tale very faithfully, so the setting (I refer not only to the old man and the little boy, but to the animal colloquies and to the developed con- cept of the animal community) is a thing apart, not appearing in any of the other recorded tales. In the Harris biography there is likewise testimony of, in this respect, the literary character of the tales. Tn 1883 in requesting a friend at Darien, a Georgia coast town, to get him some characteristic coast tales, varying from the cotton plantation tales of the interior, tales for example about alligators, Mr. Harris particularizes: "All I want is a reason- ably intelligent outline of the stories as the Negroes tell them." That is, he might have said, he wanted the pattern; its setting he himself would supply. A definite illustration of the distribution of folk- lore and literature in the Remus tales is presented in the biography. A correspondent from Senoia, Georgia, wrote:

Mr. Harris I have one tale of Uncle Remus that I have not seen in print yet. Bro Rabbit at Mis Meadows and Bro Bare went to Bro Rabbit house and eat up his chil- drun and set his house on fire and make like the childrun all burnt up but Bro Rabbit saw his track he knowed Bro Bare was the man so one day Bro Rabbit saw Bro Bare in the woods with his ax hunting a bee tree after Bro Rabbit spon howdy he tell Bro Bare he know whare a bee tree was and he would go an show and help him cut it down they went and cut it an Bro Rabbit drove in the glut while Bro Bare push his head in the hole Bro Kabbit nock out the glut and cut him hickry. Mr. Harris you have the tale now give it wit I never had room to give you all you can finish it.

This tale, writes the biographer, was the source of The End of Mr. Bear, in the first of the Remus books. Reread this tale and you will agree with Mr. Harris that the tales were " not written as folklore stories."

As it may be urged however that the tale from Senoia was merety a written " outline," as the bio- grapher calls it, and not a reproduction of the tale as told by Negroes, I am tempted to give the tale of the Forgotten Pass-Word, of which this Senoia- Harris tale seems to be a variant, as the former was taken down this year from the lips of a Sea Islander.

Brer Wolf he fin' a honey tree. So he call Brer Rabbit "Le' go get some honey." So dey went to de tree. De honey commence to come down. Dey couldn't get it - so very free. But anyhow dey bu'st de tree wid de axe. So Brer Rabbit he went to de tree an' poke his head an' say, " Come down honey, go up bee." So de honey com- mence to pour down. Dey get so much, but Brer Rabbit it seem like he didn't sati'fy with what he get. So he went to de tree, an' he get his head into de holler of de tree When he get dere, he said, "Oh Brer Wolf, my head is too big. You try now." So Brer Wolf try. Poor feller, he didn't know anv better. He poke his head way up in de tree. After Brer Wolf get his head in, he say, "Come down bee, an' go up honey." So de honey go up, an' de bee stung Brer Wolf to deat'.

In connection with the respective literary and folklore elements in the Remus tales a happy valu- ation, it seems to me, is made by Mark Twain in a letter to Mr. Harris in I88I: 'You can argue yourself into the delusion that the principle of life is in the stories themselves and not in their setting, but you will save labor by stopping with that soli- tary convert, for he is the only intelligent one you will bag. In reality the stories are only alligator pears - one eats them merely for the sake of the dressing." To be sure, now and then one hears of somebody who fancies alligator pears without dressing.

With or without dressing, a diet of alligator pears may lead one to seek variety. The seeker, whether artist or folklorist, can find variety in Negro stories as told by Negroes. He can find ghost stories, stories of the narrators' English or Scotch neighbors or forbears; witch stories that may trace back either to medieval Europe or to Africa; preacher stories curiously reminiscent of Chaucer or Boccacio; "Ashman" stories in which swearing Pat is, like Rabbit or Jack or Pedro Ordi- nales or Petit Jean, the protagonist of the cycle; "fairy stories" whose European origin is some- times plain and sometimes obscure; and stories like the tale of the Farty Thieves or the tale of the Treasury of King Rhampsinitus, which in the course of wanderings in Africa since the days of Herodotus or before have been so transformed that they yield rhe secret of their origin only to devout study.

Such study is compounded not only of patience and industry, but of a gratified sense of romance. As there is romance in the wanderings of peoples over rhe globe, so is there romance in the wander- ings of tales. It is exciting to recognize in an Apache tale from the Southwest or in an Indian tale from Penobscot Bay a tale you have heard the day before from a Cape Verde Islander on Cape Cod, a coincidence which may resolve for you an uncertainty wherher the tale came from Europe or from Africa. Or, after comparing the forty-odd variants of a tale collected from American Negroes and American Indians from the southeast to the northwest of rhe continent, it is exciting to hear the one recorded European version of the tale, a Spanish version, fall from the lips of a Sea Islands Negro in South Carolina.

The pursuit of folk-tales not only takes one to islands and other places more or less romantic; it reveals the unlettered people of the world and it leads to intercourse which is unknown, as a rule, to other travelers or sojourners. Recently, on a visit to the Sea Islands, had I not been sitting by the fire one night in the house of old Mr. Jack, sometime sailor and, despite the loss of his left arm "skylarkin'," now boat builder, it is likely that one aspect of the charming little town which is the metropolis of the Islands had escaped me. We were in the middle of a tale about the Devil Bride- groom when a goodlooking young woman came in from the street and, looking over the screen between the hearth and the open door, said, "Mr. Jack, didsth yer hear dat cyar jus' now in dis street? Ef I could fin' out who dat chauffeur, I git after him. Six, sewen sojers pile out an' ax me ef I wan' mel: some money. I say, 'Not dat way.' Le' me fin' out who dat chauffeur, I git after him." We had heard a motor, but Mr. Jack was not to be inter- rupted. "I hear' nothin'," he answered. "I des tellin' riddles to dish yere ladee."

Later in the island of Defuskie it was as an out- come, I surmise, of the afternoon riddling on the top of an oyster-shell heap that in the evening one of the oyster openers told me of the week-long stay in his house of a " pa'tridge" hunter and his wife from the north, a visit which had caused the Whites of the island to charge the Negro with being pro- German. The social intercourse involved had bcen so contrary to Southern ethics that the violator was necessarily pro-German. "But dose white people treated us decent," said the host of the Northerners, " an' dat was all we cya'd."

Again, it was due to the friendliness that is a by-product of collecting tales that, after two days and parts of two nights spent in story-telling in the cabin of James and Pinkie Middleton of Hilton Head, I was informed by my host as he drove me to the shore which is called Spanishville that, had I stayed on in the house of the white man where Mr. Middleton and I had met, he would not have told me tales - " fo' no money, not fo' a week." Here Mr. Jack, who had come on with me to this island and was sitting on top of the dress-suit case in the back of the buggy, began to generalize on racial relations. "We hol' no communication wid dem," he con- cluded. And James Middleton added: "We pay dem fo' what we git, an' dey pay us. We don't boder wid dem an' dey don' boder wid us." Was there ever a more trenchant statement of racial sep- aration?

One hears quite often from the Whites of the South that the Negroes do not tell stories any more. And they don't - to their White neighbors, certainly not to adult Whites, and less and less to the children. Story-telling is a pastime which the superior may share with the inferior - elders tell stories to children; a king or judge may point his decision with a tale--but, lacking the institution of court jester or minstrel or player, inferiors or quasi- inferiors do not tell stories to their superiors or quasi-superiors, and on the whole the art of story-telling is wont to be practiced between equals. Arrogance or condescension stand in the way of story-telling. It would be strange indeed if Southern Negroes told stories to Southern Whites. It takes something of an artist to listen ta a folk-tale as well as to tell it, and between artists theories of social inequality do not obtrude.



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