Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 4)

This is the fourth installment of a five-part essay

REMUS, THAT OTHER FELLOW

For a white southern newspaper editor in the 19th century, duping white folks into delighting in an African-American worldview sounds pretty unlikely. Yet considering Joel Chandler Harris’s personal history, it’s not so far-fetched.

Here’s how Disney told the story in 1956:

[Note: the actor portraying young Joe Harris went on to design the 1978 Toyota Celica.]

Harris was born out of wedlock and never knew the identity of his father. The shame and consciousness of illegitimacy followed him throughout his life.

As a teenager Harris helped support his mother for four years by working on Joseph Addison Turner’s Turnwold Plantation. Turner was an eccentric intellectual, a pro-slavery plantation owner, and a newspaper publisher. Under his tutelage, Harris served as a printer’s devil, learned the newspaper trade, and read the classics.

At the same time, Harris looked up to the slaves on Turnwold Plantation. Slaves like George Terrell exposed Harris to the Brer Rabbit stories and took him in under their wing.

These contradictory influences — plantation owner Turner and enslaved Terrell — served as dual father figures to the fatherless Harris. Their guidance shaped his work for the rest of his life, both at the Atlanta Constitution and within the Uncle Remus stories.

Cochran points out that when Harris talks about his inspiration, he refers to the “other fellow” who “takes charge” whenever “I hold my pen in my hand.” This other fellow sounds kind of like a literary imaginary friend who does all the work. (This isn’t exactly uncommon: Borges, for example, was also very aware of his other fellow.)

Strangely enough, Harris’s other fellow often regards Harris “with scorn and contempt.” Indeed, Harris’s internal twin undermines the “prevailing segregationist orthodoxy” of the time and place that Harris lived and succeeded in. It’s like the voice inside this successful white guy was that of a defiant black man.

Is it any wonder then that Harris named this other fellow “Remus”?

Birthed from myth and suckled by a She-wolf, Romulus and Remus are fitting complements to Harris’s contrary alter-egos. After all, Harris’s dual personalities arose from the influence of mythical animal stories.

That Remus is named after one of the most famous twins in mythology is significant — both because Harris considered Remus an equal, but also because Remus’s existence allowed the two to usher in a new literary era, one that challenged Southern social codes and Victorian literary standards. Remus’s dialect, composed with great accuracy and care by Harris, flew in the face of both the sloppy, demeaning minstrelsy of the day and Standard English. Half a century later, its audacity still resonated with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

A new Rome it ain’t. But what Harris and Remus did create was a remarkably new opportunity for storytellers around the world.

Scholar John Goldthwaite points out that before Uncle Remus, there weren’t really narrative serials for kids (think: television shows as opposed to movies), nor were there animals that walked, talked, and had sass like humans. Brer Rabbit is an original (Signifyin’) gangsta.

Brer Rabbit and the Lil Rabs

Consider the next generation of storytellers who worked within a serialized narrative of talking animals: Potter, Milne, Kipling, and Grahame. Now consider — was there anything like this before 1880?

Without his “other fellow,” Harris would have “swiftly subsided into the fifth rank,” as H.L. Mencken put it. The struggle between the white and black voices that echoed in Harris’s brain — the one half generally informed by plantation owner Turner, the other by enslaved Terrell — allowed Harris to incarnate these stories. These are the same stories, mind you, that had been shaped by the struggle between white and black on plantations for centuries prior.

Remus is no “racial stereotype.” And he’s not a “creature” created by Harris. Remus is Harris, or at least a significant part of him, by design and by virtue of his upbringing. Says Cochran:

“Joel Chandler Harris didn’t ‘steal’ Alice Walker’s inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own.”

Click here for Part 5

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Comments (3)

    • I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all, Len. Harris was very familiar with Aesop, and many even called him (or Remus, it’s confusing who they’re actually talking about) Georgia’s Aesop. Several of Remus’s tales are gussied up Aesop’s Fables, filtered through the African American experience and oral tradition.

      And yes, there were definitely talking animals before Remus, but the complexity and development of these personages were something very new. It’s as if everything pre-Uncle Remus was Turner and Hooch and everything after was more like The Wire. There are outliers like Aesop and Reynard the Fox, but with Remus there is a very definite paradigm shift in children’s storytelling in 1880.

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