THE Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. By Joel Chandler Harris. Compiled by
Richard Chase. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, I955. Pp. XXVii + 875,
note on the text, introduction by the author, illustrations, glossary. $5.)
In spite of the fact that the "Uncle Remus Tales" as compiled by Joel
Chandler Harris have been rightly considered both a classic of American
literature and a landmark in American folklore since they were first
published in I880 (Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings), there has
hitherto been no complete edition of all the stories which ap peared in a
total of eight books during the period 1880-I918. This lack has at last
been filled with the publication of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, and
children, parents and folklorists can all rejoice that the entire corpus of
these matchless stories is now available in one handy volume.
It might be remarked here that in a number of ways the Uncle Remus material
is a unique literary and folklore phenomenon. It was compiled, as Harris
himself often said, "accidentally." Despite the fact that folklorists all
over the world have been intensely interested in the Tales, the author
professed to have no more knowledge of folklore than "the man in the moon."
It is furthermore unique because the stories arc not just another
collection of "folktales" but represent also a vast storehouse of
information that deserves detailed comment in at least six different
fields: (I) linguistic (specifically dialectal) (2) comparative literature
(how the tales compare with and differ from other famous animal stories -
Aesop's Fables, the Panchatantra, Les Fables of LaFontaine, etc., (3)
artistic (the charm, wit, and satire, devastating but delicious, on the
foibles of the human race), (4) psychological (presentation of Negro
philosophy), (5) historical-sociological (a revealing portrait of a
characteristic American social institution - the Southern Plant tion "befo'
de war, endurin' er de war, en atterwards,") and of course (6)
As welcome as are The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, it must be stated that
the editorial presentation of them in no way measures up to the important
material involved Even from the point of view of the intelligent layman,
Richard Chase's comments offer a modicum of desirable background
information, while the scholar will find nothing whatsoever of interest.
And here one must criticize the publisher for allowing one of the few
American classics of world literature, so important in a half dozen fields,
to appear under such a superficial "compilationship."
Specifically, that is principally, the volume contains a Foreword by the
compiler and the following books: Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings,
with the author's original introduction (1880); Nights with Uncle Remus
(1883); Daddy Jake the Runaway (1889); Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892);
Told by Uncle Remus (1905); Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907); Uncle Remus
and the Little Boy (1910); and Uncle Remus Returns (1918). There is also a
ninth "book" - Seven Tales of Uncle Remus - "hitherto uncol lected tales,"
edited and with an introduction by Thomas H. English, Curator, Joel
Chandler Harris Memorial Collection, the Library, Emory University,
Atlanta, Georgia (1948), and a glossary. In addition, "practically all of
the illustrations which originally accompanied these tales have been
included in this edition" (xiii), for which we can all be grateful, as the
A. B. Frost illustrations are there to enliven the text - certainly among
the most delightful animal drawings ever made.
The Foreword (xi-xiii) is inadequate, uninformative, and partially
irrevelant while the Glossary (869-875) is arbitrary and incomplete - if
"shucks," which is hardly dialectal at all, why not "bimeby"? If "dram,"
which is in ordinary everyday English usage, why not "cutus" ("curious"),
etc.? Indeed, the linguistic aspects of the compiler's apparatus, or rather
their almost complete absence, is one of the most glaring deficiencies of
the vork. For it would be difficult for the reader to gather from any of
Chase's scanty obser vations that Harris was one of the world's greatest
writers of dialect in any language. His was an extraordinary accomplishment
when one considers that he was completely untrained, and that the English
language with its irrational and capricious orthography is inordinately
difficult to record phonetically.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Uncle Remus material is the
little known fact that its "Negro dialect" is not a linguistic creation of
Southern colored people at all, as is commonly assumed. It is rather the
transplanted forms of provincial dialects of Southwest England of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought to this country by the British
colonists and adopted and retained by the Negroes. Apparently neither Chase
nor Houghton Mifflin is aware of this elementary and fundamental fact, as
there is no mention of it in the text or in the impressionistic publishers'
In connection with the dialect of the stories another inexcusable
deficiency in this col- lection is at once evident. Although Harris was a
phenomenally gifted "transriber" of this material, the fact remains that
the dialect is exceedingly difficult for all but those who have either been
"brought up" on it or who have studied it. Actually, however, the mor-
phological and phonological aspects of this form of speech are very simple,
and two pages of explanation by a competent linguist giving examples of the
various forms of phonetic change (assimilation, dissimilation, metathesis,
syncope, apocope, aphaeresis, epenthesis, paragoge, etc.) could have easily
made the dialect of the Tales comprehensible to the intelligent reader.
To the folklorist, especially the purist, an even more inexcusable failing
is the fact that Chase completely ignores a - perhaps the - crucial aspect
of the Tales: how much of the material is "pure folklore" and how much of
it derives from the inordinate literary skill of Joel Chandler Harris? This
is indeed eine heikele Frage and one which, despite its supreme importance
for both folklore and literature, Chase does utterly nothing to resolve.
As fluctuating as was the attitude of Harris toward folklore, equally
ambivalent was his explanation of his role in interpreting the material
which he had so completely and uniquely absorbed. On the one hand is the
fact that he insisted that he was a "compiler merely" of the Tales, that he
presented them "without embellishment and without exag- geration," that his
original aim was to preserve them in their "original simplicity" and that
"not one of them is cooked, and not one of them nor any part of one is an
invention of mine."
On the other hand is the obvious fact that the Uncle Remus tales do not
correspond to the traditional versions of Negro tales as recorded by
folklorists. Just as Harris tended to disparage his obvious gifts as a
"folklorist" (however amateurish he might seem by comparison with the
scientifically trained specialists of today), so he also was inclined to
deprecate his literary skill, extraordinary and unique as it was.
Harris maintained that his stories were "uncooked." Yet one need only
compare such a so-called "uncooked" story, as given him by a Negro
correspondent, with the finished version. The former is exactly - and
starkly - ten lines long, while the latter is expanded into a full-length
(four pages) Joel Chandler Harris "Uncle Remus Tale" complete with
atmosphere, Gemutlichkeit, and charm that only he could have conjured up.
Regarding this singular dichotomy between the avowed explanations of the
"com piler" Harris and the final product, Thomas H. English, the
aforementioned Curator of the Harris Collection, has an explicit
interpretation of this problem: "For in the Uncle Remus Tales you have the
perfect union of the Tale itself and the character of the narrator. This is
the final achievement of literary genius. In the last analysis there is
never a loss of truth but gain in the twice-told tale when its final
redaction falls to a Shakespeare, a Milton, a Hawthorne, or a Harris."
To conclude, everyone who is at all interested in the folklore (and
literary) heritage of the United States will be grateful to Houghton
Mifflin for the publication of The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. They will
at the same time regret the superficial and unedifying editorial
presentation which has been the fate of one of our few native master pieces
of world literature.
Brevard. North Carolina