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within the scope of several words, this explana-
tion is sufficient a generous humanity and a
universal sympathy.

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

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There is something so personal, so intimate

about these stories of Uncle Remus and the wiles
of Billy Biscuit that at first glance the tales would
be judged bits of autobiography of the soul.
No man, we say, could write these apparently
vivid extracts of simplicity, imbue them with such
personality, with such magnetism, and leave us a
moral warning withal, and not then be guilty of
revealing a small division of rns inner-self. This
is just what Harris did do. There is no con-
juration and mighty magic; but only simplicity;
he is simplicity himself in a charming ingenuous-
ness of manner. The reader and the author be-
come at once intimate friends; and, in defining
this appealing quality of Joel Chandler Harris'
books, you sum into a small compass much of his
charm.

The philosophy of Mr. Harris as enunciated
by Uncle Remus and his compeers is his distinc-
tive feature. It is a genial philosophy, and it is a
very personal philosophy. The tenets inter-
spersed throughout the stories, however, have
nothing of the savor of a Beyle-Stendhal egotism.

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

They are composed of another spirit, rather,
founded upon a more Christian comprehensive-
ness.

There is enough of the ego to make it the
property of a single individual; there is sufficient,
indeed the major portion is of this type of inti-
mate communion with the problems of society to
make it of practical value to him who may choose
to listen. Many do listen. They absorb the
moral truths, the genial observations, the fund
of quaint satires without the least blush of a con-
scious assimilation. The stories contain it; it is
theirs. No matter what the age, the reader di-
gests his moral dose with a feeling of pleasure.
Harris' philosophy is agreeable medicine, appar-
ently, and we wonder why it is so. It is perhaps
because of its good nature. Again, it may be
that it contains a legion of things of interest to
us, if we be youthful, or things of retrospection,
if we have passed beyond the median line. When
young, it seems that this story declares some dic-
tum of the world. When in that state called
by courtesy " not young," it seems that this man

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

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Harris was a fellow of infinite sympathy; and
such attractive truths as his deserve the emula-
tion and commendation of experienced men. So
it is the current travels.

Now, when Brer Possum unjustly ends his
career in the fire as a penalty for stealing the
butter, which act he was not guilty of, Uncle
Remus explains with a sigh : " In dis worril lots
er folks is gotter suffer for udder folks' sins.
Tribbalashun seem like she's awaitin'
roun' de cornder fer ter kotch one en on'un us,
honey." You say that is a truism of experience;
it is. Many, nevertheless, need this very truism,
and many happily, may it be said, have learned
the lesson under the agreeable tutelage of the old
darky.

In the downfall and success of the various
members of the animal kingdom are read lessons
of their higher brethren. Appropriating the law
of reasoning peculiar to Uncle Remus, the ani-
mals have a society akin to that of humans, with
the gift of actual reason; they have many foibles,
the identical failings. As a result of this original

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

order of creation, the shrewd mind animating the
pertinent observations of Uncle Remus on the
maskings of his familiars sees to it that these
suggestions drift on to their legitimate destina-
tions among the kings of reason animal ethics
are lessons in human ethics. The animals " Dey
got pride; dey don't wanter be out 'n de fashion."
Yet once again OF Craney-Crow observes, " I
done fin' out in my time dat dey don't nothin'
pay like perliteness, speshually if she's genuine."
Again, upon a further analysis, there comes
the inquiry what, indeed, makes these tales so uni-
versally acceptable. Philosophy is there it is
true, but however interesting as an ethical in-
vestigation, interest would be bound to flag.
Characters and a plot are further shares in the
success of the productions. There is something
beyond all this valuable and useful series of at-
tributes that causes the multitudes of these in-
numerable characters, truisms, facts and fiction,
to cohere into one structure of universal attrac-
tiveness. The potent faculty that is thus inherent
is the humor throughout every sketch. A humor

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

kindly in its bearing, apt in its application, com-
mingling satire, gentle ridicule, and the legitimate
failings of the actors in a pleasing whole. It is
American humor; the basic, fundamental quali-
ties are the breath of the spirit of a Mark Twain.

It is humor based upon exaggeration, upon
ridiculous comparison. In the language of Brer
Rabbit, commenting upon the high prices of the
times: " I'm des about ez fat ez de mule mon
had, which he hatter tie a knot in his tail fer.
ter keep 'im fum slippin' thro de collar." Satire
comes in this manner: " He better be dead dan
outer de fashion," as Miss Fox sagely remarked,
upon the inadvertent killing of her husband, at
the shrewd advice of the universal wit, villain,
and leader, Brer Rabbit. The description by
Uncle Remus of the young lady who was experi-
encing her first proposal of marriage was unique :
" She got mad an' she got glad, a' den she had
de all-overs."

The hero of all these tales of the animal world
is, throughout, the engaging figure of Brer Rabbit.
This creature, diminutive, shy, and simple, by

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

some transmutation justified by negro character,
becomes in the beast tales of Uncle Remus a per-
sonage endowed with wit, cunning and a consum-
mate duplicity that make him preeminently the king
of his world. It is a bizarre species of worship.
That the negro should find in himself the ability
to appreciate those very qualities that he himself
is furthest removed from is singular indeed.
Brer Rabbit is first and foremost a creature of
brains; brawn and muscle have been denied him,
yet the happy sympathy of the black face feels
that there is something due him. In this appeal-
ing state of helplessness they make him a con-
queror through the agencies of his cunning art,
the result of a very mischievous nature. Their
purpose was not to exalt trickery or demean vir-
tues, but was to show a just and intuitive love of
triumph by the weak and good natured. We
might with all fairness read some of their own
history into the narrative of their familiar
brethren of the fields. It is perhaps the tragic
life of their race outcropping here in the work
of their imagination.

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

Uncle Remus is very careful on the points of
Brer Rabbit's morals. Behind this circumspec-
tion, the guiding hand of Mr. Harris is constantly
evident. Impressive as these narratives would be
to many, he would but defeat his purpose were
he to fail in a warning of the rascality in some
of Brer Rabbit's methods. It is a warning, how-
ever, conveyed by a subtle method. Sometimes
by a hint of the ancient narrator, again through
the sheer good natured daring of this small crea-
ture the point is made impressive by the triumph
of a negative quality of virtue.

Through these multitudes of shrewd schemes
an opportunity is being afforded constantly to dis-
play the humor of the situation. Uncle Remus
and his young auditor are immensely pleased
when Brer Rabbit turns a new trick on Brer Fox,
or when Brer Tarrapin claims the honors in an
encounter of strength with Brer Bar.

Nothing is quite so delightful to the youthful
in mind and the young in heart as the old uncle's
mimicry of the animal calls and signals. To one
whose life was spent on a plantation it will mean

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

that these sounds are echoes of a hallowed past;
yet even to him who has not had this unique ex-
perience, there is enough of the universal feelings
for the things of childhood and in childhood, to
appreciate keenly the subtle reproductions of
Uncle Remus' imitations.

The relations of the comedies and tragedies of
this animal world have many values. Aside from
the didactic purpose that is usually inherent in
each, the realm of several allied interests is in-
vaded. To the anthropologist, these folk tales
carry numerous messages of worth in regard to
the principles of that science; bits of interesting
history can be unearthed from this mass of de-
tail illuminating many historic incidents in the
domestic life of the American negro's progenitors.
In a similar relation, the psychologist finds a whole
storehouse of instructive material on the question
of social psychology or disputed points in genetic
psychology, and numerous miscellaneous lights
are shed upon its general doctrines. To the
linguist and the philologist, also, these beast tales
disclose fitting characters to be displayed amongst

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

exhibits of other nations and peoples evolved in
the early literary and mythical history of each.
From the crude predecessors now found among
the inhabitants of northern Africa to the more ac-
complished versions in the dialect of their progeny
in Georgia or the coast plantations, the connec-
tion is one fraught with varied topics of consum-
ing interest. There is something wistful, some-
thing half-tragic, in this evidence of negro char-
acter; simplicity and good-natured childliness
are here evinced constantly, and contain a mes-
sage akin to the " writing on the wall " to those
constructive statesmen in whose hands the future
of the race is plastic.

To return to the question of scientific relation-
ship, the tales have so many points in common
with the numerous tales of ancient peoples that
something more than coincidence seems to exist,
It is a startling proof of the universal similitude
of all mankind in the progressive march of their
mental life as it is evolved from the mysterious
regions of unrecorded history to the time of more
elaborate annals. Mythologies, fairy tales, beast

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

tales, fables, each have their respective positions
in the extensive category by the agency of which
the mental growth of all mankind seems to have
been linked into one comprehensive scheme of
evolution. South America sends her quota of
information, the several histories of the nations
theirs, the American Indians theirs; each group
possessing these tales for itself apparently created
from some inner consciousness. The early strug-
gles of each were similar, and in that lies much
of the explanation; yet much more remains that
is of interest to the scientist accustomed to deal-
ing in hypotheses.

As a nation grows toward middle age the long-
ing for the land of its youth has cast its charm.
Within the homely narratives of Mr. Harris, the
country of desire looms upon the vision in an at-
tractive garb of fact and imagination. This,
perhaps, in addition to those entertaining qualities
of generosity and humor, has compelled the elder
reader to pursue the stories with avidity. Enjoy-
ment of all nature's wonders is possible within

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

your doors. Nature study is rampant. The
spirit of the nation is lending itself to this whole-
some desire for a return to the soil, and in so
doing, demands that much of the literature should
treat of the countryside. Both Ernest Thomp-
son Seton and Joel Chandler Harris have ably
responded to the call. In the essence of each
is that profound love of the wilds and their in-
habitants which entitles them not only to the name
of author, but even of scientist in that true sense
of the word. They have taught a nation's youth
as well the art of appreciating natural beauties
as the proper perspective for their estimation.
Childhood is made a constant delight; middle age
a period of continued amazement at the ever new
revelations; the wisdom of old age is sweetened
by a satisfied comprehension of the powers of
the creator. In this same vein SEsop's Fables
and La Fontaine's similar stories have amused
and instructed. In Stop's Fables the Hare and
Tortoise have their counterparts in the repertoire
of Uncle Remus. Recruiting The King's Army



SOCIAL HISTORIANS

is a story with a flavor of the early Roman Le-
gions, and the army that slew each other upon
the Seven Hills.

^Esop found the proper mode of presenting his
story was by the means of a pithy and aphoristic
sketch. The fairy tales conveyed their morals
by rambling narratives of impossibility. Ernest
Thompson Seton placed his story before his
readers in the tales of boyhood or in the rela-
tions of a huntsman's adventures. The first
dealt tersely with animals imbued with human
characteristics, giving a strong emphasis to the
moral side of the situation; the second was con-
cerned with the artistry of the tale with a moral
point conveyed as an incident; the third was pure
nature study viewing animals as possessed of
many human characteristics. In some particular
each one failed in gaining a reality, however im-
possible the narrative itself, which would have
made the moral a thing of permanence. It re-
mained for Joel Chandler Harris to combine the
various features of his predecessors, from the
immortal JEsop to the present; to respond to a

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

nation's desire for stories intimate with the soil,
and to transmute the whole into the semblance
of reality by placing the scene on his plantation
birth-place and the language Jn the dialect of his
dusky tutors.

Joel Chandler Harris was a master, indeed, of
negro dialect. And in asserting such a broad
generality an exception must be noted in his com-
panion author, Thomas Nelson Page. Mr. Page
nevertheless handles a different phase of Southern
life with a diverse manner of treatment. Mr.
Harris selected the ideal mode of depicting the
beast tales with their humble philosophy and
pathetic scheme of ethics. The dialect of Uncle
Remus, with its origin in the negro cabins of the
plantation, from the lips of one of whom the
phenomena of nature had come to take the place
of the dogmas and tenets of religion, was the per-
fect instrument for the delineation of such appre-
ciation of the animal world and human philosophy
as he saw fit to present. In no annal, in no his-
tory, and in none of the various accounts of the
life of the South has a more faithful series of

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

dialect sketches been placed before the reader.
In the time of his boyhood Harris acquired with
his education the spirit of his character so thor-
oughly and with such remarkable feeling that he
has produced as a result the most sympathetic
interpretation of negro speech that Southern or
any literature possesses. He caught the subtle
intonations and cadences of negro speech with in-
finite precision; with no less skill he has made
it permanent by his translation of it to the printed
page.

The use of negro dialect has afforded Joel
Chandler Harris a means of treating negro char-
acter with a fullness and extension that no other
writer of the South has attained. In Uncle
Remus we see the whole realm of negro psy-
chology unfolded in the unconscious fashion of the
narrator. Uncle Remus was himself a type, but
of a stamp whose mold was broken several dec-
ades ago. There will be no more. Thus Har-
ris, in his function as a member of this group;
of social historians, if they may be termed thus,
has done an inestimable service in preserving for

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

the historian and antiquarian, for the social
philosopher and student of society, this now pass-
ing specimen of a departed life. As Matthew
Arnold said of Wordsworth's poetic efforts, so
in like measure it is true of Joel Chandler Harris'
dialect work, " It is expression of the highest
and most truly expressive kind."

But Uncle Remus does more than reveal his
own character, his personal observations and
criticisms. He is, moreover, the instrument of
casting into violent contrast the life of his race
in the new regime as against his own position of
being a " white folks nigger." In Uncle Remus,
His Songs and His Sayings the old man's dis-
course on " Race Improvement " carries a mes-
sage of political import. " You slap de law onter
a nigger a time er two, an' larn 'im dat he's got
fer to look atter his own rashuns, an' keep out 'n
udder foke's chick'n coops, an' sorter coax 'im in-
ter de idee dat he's got ter feed 'is own chilluns,
an' I be blessed ef you ain't got 'im on risin'
groun'."

Scattered throughout the whole series of stories
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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

in Uncle Remus and His Friends; Uncle Remus,
His Songs and His Sayings; On the Plantation;
Nights With Uncle Remus; Uncle Remus; New
Stories of The Old Plantation; there are many
side lights on negro character in the person of the
narrator and his interlocutors. How many in-
deed and the fullness of the spectacle it is hard
to realize.

When concerned in a question of fact and
veracity Uncle Remus evinces himself to be gifted
with the soul of a diplomat. It is the frequent
question of the Little Boy to whom these stories
are told whether such a state of affairs is in truth
the actual case. With a scornful lift of the eye
and a curling lip the old negro announces a dic-
tum of faith worthy of a larger religious belief
than that found in a myth; " En de tale I give
you like hi't wer' gun ter me." That was sup-
posed to settle the matter, and it generally did.
Uncle Remus has caught the spirit of America
sufficiently to appreciate the value of bluff.
Brother Billy Goat's Dinner illustrates how com-
pletely that attribute has charmed him.



JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

No truer tale was ever published under the
guise of fiction than the story of Uncle Remus'
unconscous heroism in his Story of the War, in
Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings. Full
of a devoted patriotism, and tragedy and pathos,
it stands as a specimen clear and distinct of those
numerous acts of fidelity that were wont to hal-
low the relation of master and servant. It is
here in a concrete example.

Uncle Remus defines his tales in excellent style;
he is determined not to be accused of writing
literature as literature. His definition of a story
with a plot is unique. " Well, 'tain't ez you may
say one er deze yer rag'lar up en down tales,
what runs cross ways. Dish yer tale goes
straight."

Uncle Remus conveys his moral lessons in the
role of mentor to the Little Boy. The tale hangs
usually upon some recent fault of the small audi-
tor. The crime is never so great, however, that
it cannot be wiped away by the sight of sweet
cakes or " tater pie " as a gift to the old man.

The theories of Darwin, the philosophy of



SOCIAL HISTORIANS

Huxley and Spencer are demolished by the sweep
of Uncle Remus' hand. Before such unquestion-
ing faith no theory of evolution could stand; it is
settled, absolutely settled. Why, if Brer Rabbit
once had his long and luxuriant bush frozen off
in a midnight escapade, thereafter, of necessity,
all of his descendants must have short or cotton
tails. Uncle Remus also has a concise way of
settling the vexed question of selection. He sees
to it that Brer Rabbit obtains Miss Molly Cotton
Tail y and not some other errant female of the
animal realm.

No truer expression of the negro workman's
policy could be found than in the story of the
old man's interview with a member of the younger
generation as regards the boss: "I bin up dar
waitin' fer der boss ter come, an' now he done
come, I'm a gwine down here when he'll hatter
sen' atter me when he want me."

Genuine joy may not be a very material thing
to strive for as an ideal, but when the object is to
furnish joy gratis to hosts of others, it is easily
excusable. This was the ideal of Mr. Harris.



JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

How well he fulfilled the role he set for himself
grateful legions of readers will testify. His
works continually afford some new pleasure be-
cause of their surpassing good nature the ever-
living interest of those several stories of which
each is endowed with a perpetual festiveness.
Chief of these factors in his success is the good
humored criticism of life, and the pertinent sug-
gestions as to the application of personal quali-
ties to the solution of a happy existence. Every-
where there is the philosopher and the interpreter
of the human heart. For instance, " Put a boy
smellin' distance uv a piece er tater custard, an 1
it seem like de custard will fly up an' hit him in
de mouf, no matter how much he try ter dodge."
It has been the fortune of no one of these
social historians so skillfully to explain the atti-
tude of the South towards the negro population
as Harris has done. It was a weighty work,
both politically and socially. Contrary to the
lurid and rabid accounts of Southern domestic
life, the stories of Mr. Harris arise as a fitting
rebuke to those melodramatic falsehoods with

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

which for the last fifty years the libraries and
stage have been wont to be regaled.

You may have been able to resist the spell of
the ancient narrator, but the charm of Mr. Har-
ris' plantation melodies will captivate your unwill-
ing spirit. The religious hymns, the campmeet-
ing songs, will be sure to arouse a lively appre-
ciation of what difficult tasks Harris has ac-
complished in preserving these melodious recitals.
Greatest of all are the cornshucking songs, the
melodies of the plow hands, and the Christmas
play songs ringing with a vigor and audacity
whose enthusiasm will literally sweep you away
in that ecstatic fashion of the dusky reciters them-
selves. The most scientific accomplishment of
Harris is his production in proper form of the
' Transcriptions," or songs adopted by the ne-
groes from the whites at some remote time. As
Harris says himself, " I regard them as in the
highest degree characteristic."

Many of the narratives have a poetic quality.
Even in their form there is something suggestive
of the ballads in the early history of England and

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

Scotland. In that volume entitled Uncle Remus,
His Songs and His Sayings, the story of " How
Mr. Rabbit was too sharp for Mr. Fox," there
are the conventional elements of refrain, ques-
tion, and response that are found in the early
ballads of the Scottish border, as for instance,
Lord Randall, and even in those later poems by
accredited authors in English literature.

Again, the proverbs of Uncle Remus are unique.
His aptitude at analyzing the situation is re-
markably fine. Epigrammatic and aphoristic to
a supreme degree as they should be, they embody
many truths of value. He says, " Hit's a mighty
deaf nigger dat don year de dinner-ho'n " ; or a
14 Nigger wid a pocket-han'kcher better be looked
atter." You are soon convinced that Uncle
Remus is something of a cynic, as well as a pes-
simist, on the subject of the second generation of
his race.

Joel Chandler Harris has written many fairy
tales of charm and value. His characters of
Billy Biscuit and Susan are familiar figures to all
childhood. Billy Wondercoon and His History

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SOCIAL HISTORIANS

Telling Machine is a novel excuse for a series of
interesting fairy tales. A moral here and a
imoral there with a piquant touch of humor, a
dash of graceful imagination, and you have an
absorbing combination.

An inquiry into the significance of Mr. Harris*
position would be logical. Like the four other
members of this school of social historians Har-
ris has held before himself a definite mission.
By mission a fruitless ideal is not designated, but
a purpose vibrant with meaning. However
closely analytical the literature of the Northern
states may be, the South does not suffer in any
particular by minute comparison. For these sev-
eral authors have presented life in their own sec-
tion with a masterful comprehension, grasping
alike the minutiae and the panorama. From the
elemental qualities of a primitive people to the
refined sentiments of a cultured community, there
is no failure to depict with ability each and every
phase of that particular mode of existence. In
Harris' books, as in the other works of this
school, there is a generous untrammeled imagina-

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JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS

tion, the confident handling of difficult situations,
that characterize the rise of a new literature of
a New South, well ordered and faithfully bal-
anced.

This group of writers had several interesting
forerunners. Simms, Longstreet, and Kennedy


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Online LibraryHarry Aubrey ToulminSocial historians → online text (page 7 of 8)