“The Success of the Book Will Depend Upon These Illustrations”
(Want to try your own hand at a Brer Rabbit illustration? Check out our new drawing challenge here!)
When you think of Brer Rabbit, chances are the first image that pops into your head looks something like this:
Or possibly just this:
This is understandable given that this is the way animator Wilfred Jackson depicted Brer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South and Disney is pretty pervasive in every part of pop culture today. It’s the way he’s shown on the Splash Mountain ride, in the former comic strip, and on all types of merchandising.
But before Jackson/Disney’s interpretation of the character, depictions of the tricky rabbit were a little less cartoon-ish and a little more dapper.
All of the above illustrations were done by Arthur Burdett Frost (or A.B. Frost).
Frost was born in 1851 in Philadelphia, PA. He was a largely self-taught artist, working mostly with pen and ink but also dabbling in watercolors and engravings. Initially working as an engraver’s apprentice at the age of 15, he was told that he “had no talent for drawing.” Fortunately, he didn’t take this criticism to heart and in 1874, he illustrated Max Adler’s anthology, Out of the Hurly-Burly as a favor to a friend. The surprisingly popular book helped launch Frost’s career as an illustrator. He illustrated for numerous magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Punch as well as Lewis Caroll’s poetry book, Rhyme? and Reason? Frost is also credited with helping to create the American comic strip style of illustration that we are familiar with today. His talent was well-established when Harris enlisted him to illustrate his book.
But Frost was not the original illustrator.
In a letter to the editors of the Evening Post (who had been publishing Harris’s Uncle Remus columns), Harris asked them to advertise the first volume, declaring that it would be published by “Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.” and that Mr. Frederick S. Church would be doing the illustrations.
Church was also an established illustrator with Harper’s Weekly and Harris felt that Church could“[catch] and [express] the humor that lies between what is perfectly decorous in appearance and what is wildly extravagant in suggestion.”
Despite Harris’s claim in one of his letters to Church that he was “a compiler merely” of the illustrations for his book, he took them very seriously. In fact, he also told (and cautioned) Church, “The success of the book will depend upon these illustrations, and I trust, therefore, that you will not enter upon it as a task, merely, or allow yourself to be hurried.”
Church and another illustrator named James H. Moser created the images for Harris’s first book, Unlce Remus His Songs and His Sayings. Unfortunately, the drawings ultimately did not live up to what Harris had in mind. Harris “appreciated their fanciful charms,” but felt Church’s “animal delineations fell short” and “the spirit was good, but the art crude” for Moser’s depictions of Uncle Remus. So he moved on to a new illustrator. Enter Frost.
And Harris was definitely excited about Frost’s drawings of Brer Rabbit! After receiving Frost’s illustrations of the trickster and his nemesis Brer Fox, Harris wrote,
“You have breathed the breath of life into these amiable brethren of wood and field… The book was mine but you have made it yours, both sap and pith.”
Pretty high praise there!
We can’t help but wonder what Harris would have thought of Disney’s Brer Rabbit…
Sadly, he had passed away decades before the movie’s release, so we’ll never know. But perhaps we can help revive Frost’s contribution to making Brer Rabbit come to life for audiences!
The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris by Julia Collier Harris