Remus - 1995 Introduction

Editor's Note

OFTEN, it seems, great and enduring books happen almost by acci dent. It is strange that certain wry half-apologetic explanations had to be offered by Mr. Harris in his Introductions. Yet, for seventy- five years now, Uncle Remus has held us by his charm. Great books are "great" because they embody a serenity and a simplicity that keep us close to the Earth. These tales grew up in the soil of our nation. They came from the soul of a people. They endure, in spite of any difficulties of dialect, for new generations by simply being what they are: the recording of one man's joy in the spirited genuineness of "the old tales."

In these confusing times, it is good to renew an acquaintance with things that endure. It is important to ask what, in the field of art, creates these lasting qualities. Perhaps one answer is an inher ent understatement. This is what makes the Frost pictures as per fect as the tales. Yes, it might be a good thing nowadays to consider lasting elements in the cultural heritage of our nation. We have grown too self-conscious and our sense of values has gone astray. This is an age of cultural confusion. Identity of race and race tradition is a treasure that all Americans, white or black or red, can keep in spite of the bewildering cross currents of lore and learning in our modern age. This identity, this integrity is important. Not that we can ever shut ourselves in water-tight cultural compart ments. Traditions and separate cultures overlap always and every where in the ways of all races and nations.

My own feelings have sought out the Anglo-Saxon, the English- American elements of my own long past. Ever since I was a child my own gods have hovered over me: Woden, Vingthor, Baldur, Vidar, and the Earth-Mother. But I have known Israel and Hellas and sought my passage to India.

And I have been moved by the sundown voices of the Negroes in the country of my birth, singing their sacred songs into my child hood. This, too, has become a part of me, a strong sustenance that I have absorbed out of this "Land of lands."

When I was a child in Alabama my first love was for the music of the Negro. There were two old people in the circle of my family who made lasting impressions on me: "Aunt Julie" who cooked for us for thirty years, and "Aunt Lou" who nursed my younger brother. Their songs, their philosophy, their great human care for us children are treasures that, for me, have never diminished.

And Uncle Remus became part of my life when I was surrounded with these voices, this music. My debt to Joel Chandler Harris is untellable. I could not have written the tales of my own people without this background. The sound of the speaking voice of Uncle Remus is much the same as that of Mr. Ward or Tom Hunt. Mr. Harris got it down on the printed page. His example, his ac complishment, encouraged me and helped me learn how to write with the Southern mountain idiom in my ears.

The American Negro, in his spirituals, finally roused others to wonder and to a depth of religious feeling unmatched elsewhere in the history of our nation. And in these tales, when we know them in the genuineness of their original form, are unsullied treasures of quiet and inimitable laughter.

All fineness, all true art, all our highest genius can hone for, rise in the living word of children who are close to the sanity and sim plicity of the Earth.

Volumes might be written dealing with the origins of these tales. Did they come from Africa? Were they known by the American Indians? Folklorists tell us that many of these tales have parallels all over Europe, where Brer Rabbit's exploits are told on Renard the Fox, or the Bear.

In "old times" when our nation was being settled, Indians, Negroes, and Europeans must have enjoyed each other's company on all levels of life; and tales must have been swapped about freely.

Tracing the origin of these tales seems almost impossible. Some are known widely in the Old World. For example, the sham sick ness of Brer Rabbit when he pursuaded Brer Fox to carry him is known in the folktale traditions of Germany, Esthonia, Finland, Lapland, Denmark, Sweden, and Russian In Europe it was the fox, not the rabbit, who was the trickster hero. The Tar-Baby tale, however, seems to be of African origin: Kaffir, Rhodesia, Hotten- tot.

The tales in this edition lave been left as Mr. Harris wrote them. nur concern has been with the folktales only, and not with the songs, rhymed versions of the tales, proverbs, and character sketches like "Uncle Remus and the Telephone." Nothing has been added except a few notes on word meanings. These, along with Mr. tarries own word definitions, have been arranged alphabetically in a glossary at the back of the book. The tales are given in order of abdication, from the first edition in 1880 through the small collec tion of seven tales edited by Dr. Thomas H. English and published by Emory University in 1948. One good tale has been included which Mr. Harris did not give as told by Uncle Remus - "Mr. Coon and the Frogs," told by Crazy Sue in Daddy Jake, The Run away, And Short Stories Told After Dark.

The setting - the characters of the little boy, 'Tildy, Daddy Jack, Aunt Tempy - and all the matter leading to and from each tale have been left intact. These present the historical background of the tales: how they were told, how the "old-time" Negro felt about the old tales," what life was like there in Georgia, before, during, and after the War between the States.

Practically all of the illustrations which originally accompanied these tales have been included in this edition - the beloved draw ings by A. B. Frost, Frederick Church J. M. Conde, E. W. Kemble, and W. H. Beard.

Richard Chase


  • Directory of introductions
  • Preceding introduction (1948)
  • Table of Contents