Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches

Legacy

Harris's legacy has largely been ignored by academia, in part due to the Uncle Remus character, use of dialect, and plantation setting. Harris's books exerted a profound influence on storytellers at home and abroad, yet the Uncle Remus tales effectively have no critical standing.[35] His legacy is, at the same time, not without considerable controversy: Harris's critical reputation in the 20th and 21st centuries has been wildly mixed, as he was accused of appropriating African-American culture.

Criticism

Critic H. L. Mencken held a less than favorable view of Harris:

"Once upon a time a Georgian printed a couple of books that attracted notice, but immediately it turned out that he was little more than an amanuensis for the local blacks—that his works were really the products, not of white Georgia, but of black Georgia. Writing afterward as a white man, he swiftly subsided into the fifth rank."[36]

Keith Cartwright, however, asserts, "Harris might arguably be called the greatest single authorial force behind the literary development of African American folk matter and manner."[37]

In 1981 the writer Alice Walker accused Harris of "stealing a good part of my heritage" in a searing essay called "Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine".[38] Toni Morrison wrote a novel called Tar Baby. Such a character appears in a folktale recorded by Harris. In interviews, Morrison said she learned the story from her family and owed no debt to him.

Scholars have questioned his collection of stories, citing the difficulty that many white folklorists had in persuading African Americans to divulge their folklore.[39] But, others note the similarity of African folk stories in several sources that are similar to the Brer Rabbit tales as published, which represent a folk genre. Examples include the Ila language Sulwe mbwakatizha Muzovu (Hare makes the elephant afraid) in Smith & Dale The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia volume 2, page 309.[40] In the totally unrelated Kanuri or Bornuese culture in Northern Nigeria, such tales as a Fable of Jackal and a Hyena [41] display similar themes quite in the Brer Rabbit manner. The difficulties in obtaining printed sources on the African languages may have inhibited these aspects of critical treatment. Some critical scholars cite Uncle Remus as a problematic and contradictory figure: sometimes a mouthpiece for white paternalism, sometimes a stereotype of the black entertainer, and sometimes poetically subversive.[42]

Julius Lester, a black folklorist and university professor, sees the Uncle Remus stories as important records of black folklore. He has rewritten many of the Harris stories in an effort to elevate the subversive elements over the purportedly racist ones. Regarding the nature of the Uncle Remus character, Lester said,

"There are no inaccuracies in Harris's characterization of Uncle Remus. Even the most cursory reading of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer's Project of the 1930s reveals that there were many slaves who fit the Uncle Remus mold."[43]

The author Ralph Ellison was positive about Harris' work: "Aesop and Uncle Remus had taught us that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction; and especially when it allows us to glimpse the animal instincts lying beneath the surface of our civilized affectations."[44]

Some 21st-century scholars have argued that the Uncle Remus tales satirized the very "plantation school" that some readers believed his work supported. Critic Robert Cochran noted: "Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart’s desire."[45] Harris omitted the Southern plantation house, disparaged the white Southern gentleman, and presented miscegenation in positive terms. He violated social codes and presented an ethos that would have otherwise shocked his reading audience.[46] These recent acknowledgements echo early observations from Walter Hines Page, who wrote in 1884 that Harris "hardly conceals his scorn for the old aristocracy" and makes "a sly thrust at the pompous life of the Old South."[47]

Influence

Children's literature analyst John Goldthwaite argues that the Uncle Remus tales are "irrefutably the central event in the making of modern children's story."[35] Harris's influence on British children's writers such as Kipling, Milne, Potter, Burgess and Blyton is substantial. His influence on modernism is less overt, but also evident in the works of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner.

Beatrix Potter illustrated eight scenes from the Uncle Remus stories between 1893 and 1896, coinciding with her first drawings of Peter Rabbit. Potter's family had favored the Uncle Remus stories during her youth, and she was particularly impressed by the way Harris turned "the ordinary into the extraordinary." Potter borrowed some of the language from the Uncle Remus stories, adopting the words: "cottontail," "puddle-duck," and "lippity-(c)lippity" into her own work.[48]

Mark Twain incorporated several of the Uncle Remus stories into readings during his book tour. He wrote to William Dean Howells in the early 1880s, reporting that the "Tar Baby" had been received "best of all" at a reading in Hartford.[49] Twain admired Harris' use of dialect. He appropriated exchanges and turns of phrase in many of his works, most notably in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[50] and The Mysterious Stranger.[51]

A.A. Milne borrowed diction, plot, and narrative structure from several Brer Rabbit stories. "Pooh Goes Visiting" and "Heyo, House!" are particularly similar.[35] As a boy, Milne recalled listening to his father read one Uncle Remus story per night, and referred to it as "the sacred book."[52]

Charles Chesnutt's most famous work, The Conjure Woman, is strongly influenced by the Uncle Remus tales; he features Uncle Julius as the main character and storyteller. Chesnutt read the Uncle Remus stories to his own children.[53]

Many scholars cite Harris' influence on William Faulkner, most importantly in terms of dialect usage,[54] depictions of African Americans,[55] lower-class whites,[56] and fictionalized landscape.[57]

Poets Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot corresponded in Uncle Remus-inspired dialect, referring to themselves as "Brer Rabbit" and "Old Possum," respectively. Eventually the dialect and the personae became a sign of their collaboration against the London literary establishment. Eliot titled one of his books Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.[53]

Song of the South

In 1946, the Walt Disney Company produced a film based on the Uncle Remus tales called Song of the South. While commercially successful during its original release and re-releases, the film has never been released for home consumption in the United States as, since its release, the film was criticized for the way it portrays it's characters and the Southern U.S. in regard to slavery. Song of the South has been released on video in a number of overseas markets, and on laserdisk in Japan.[58]

The film earned mixed critical reviews and two Academy Awards. James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was presented with the award for Best Original Song. Walter White of the NAACP acknowledged "the remarkable artistic merit" of the film in his telegraphed press release on November 27, 1946, but decried the "impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship."[59]

Since its debut, the public perception of Harris and the Uncle Remus stories has largely been tied to the reception of Song of the South.

Legacy and honors

  • The Wren's Nest, Harris's home in the historic West End neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It has been operated as a museum home since 1913.
  • The Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, GA commemorates the life of Harris.
  • A state historic landmark plaque was erected in Savannah, GA on Bay Street across from the now demolished Savannah Morning News building where Harris worked in that city.

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