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"She say she meet er angel in de road, and he pinted straight ter
de mornin' star, and tell her fer ter prepar'. Hit look mighty cu'us,
Brer Remus." " Cum down ter dat, Brer Ab, " said Uncle Remus,
wiping his spectacles carefully, and readjusting them "cum down
ter dat, an' dey ain't nuffin' dat ain't cu'us. " x

Acting on this Aristotelian maxim, Uncle Remus explains
to the little boy the mysteries of animal life, especially as they
embody themselves in the character of the rabbit and the fox.
The humour is entirely unconscious. It is not that of the
Uebermensch, for the humour of the Uebermensch springs
from the consciousness of intellectual power, and is, moreover
direct, cynical, self-assertive, masterful. The humour of Uncls
Remus represents the world of the Underman; it has no rea-
soned philosophy but springs from the universal desire to
correlate the unknown with the known and to explain the most
mysterious things by reference to the most obvious. If th<:
rabbit ^ost his long tail on a certain historic occasion, then all
the rabbits since born will have short tails. In fact, Uncle
Remus's philosophy is perfectly consistent in one thing: all
physical characteristics, wnether native or acquired, find their
explanation not in past conditions but in past events. The
slow influence of environment yields place to a prompt and
obliging heredity.

After all, however, the language of Uncle Remus is more
interesting than his philosophy. In the picturesqueness of his
phrases, in the unexpectedness of his comparisons, in the
variety of his figures of speech, in the perfect harmony between
the thing said and the way of saying it, the reader finds not
only a keen aesthetic delight but even an intellectual satisfac-

1 Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, p. 212.

356 Dialect Writers

tion. It is probable that Uncle Remus's vocabulary would be
found, on investigation, to be narrowly limited. If so, he is a
striking evidence of the varied effects that can be produced
with but few words provided these words have been thoroughly
assimilated. He leaves the impression not of weakness but of
strength, not of contractedness but of freedom. What he says
has not only been thought through but seen through and felt

It is only after repeated readings that one realizes how
completely the character of Uncle Remus is revealed, or rather
how completely he is made to reveal himself. There are not
many subjects within his range, or beyond it, on which he has
not somewhere registered an interesting opinion. If animals
are his specialty, he is none the less willing to comment on
negroes before and after the war, his favourite dishes, revivals,
courtship, Christmas, witches, and religion. These are some of
the elemental things about which his thoughts play and through
which we come at last to know him and to revere him. No-
where in Americar* literature has an author succeeded better
in harmonizing a typical character with an individual character
than has been done in the character of Uncle Remus. What
James Fenimore Cooper did for the Indian, Harris has in fact
done for the negro. Just as Chingachgook is the last of the
Mohicans, so Uncle Remus is the last of the old-time negroes.
In literature he is also the first.

But Uncle Remus is interesting not merely in himself but
also for the folk-tales of which he is the mouthpiece. These
tales mark indeed the beginning of the scientific study of negro
folk-lore in America. The author had, however, no ethnologi-
cal purpose in publishing the Uncle Remus stories, and was
greatly surprised to learn afterwards that variants of some of
his tales had been found among the Indians of North and
South America, and in the native literature of India and Siam.
Variants of the Tar-Baby story, for example, have been found
among the Natchez, Creek, and Yuchi Indians 1 ; among the
West Indian islanders 2 ; in Brazil 3 ; in Cape Colony 4 ; among the

1 Journal of American Folk-Lore, July-Sept., 1913, p. 194.

2 Andrew Lang's At the Sign of the Ship (Longman's Magazine, Feb., 1889),
* Romero's Cantos do Brazil.

4 South African Folk-Lore Journal, vol. i.

Uncle Remus 357

Bushmen of South Africa 1 ; along the lower Congo 2 ; in West
Central Africa 3 ; among the Hottentots 4 ; and among the
Jatakas or "Birth-Stories" of Buddha. 5

As to the accuracy with which the Uncle Remus stories are
reproduced, the author speaks as follows: 6

With respect to the folk-lore series, my purpose has been to
preserve the legends themselves in their original simplicity, and to
wed them permanently to the quaint dialect if, indeed it can be
called a dialect through the medium of which they have become a
part of the domestic history of every Southern family; and I have
endeavored to give the whole a genuine flavor of the old planta-
tion. Each legend has its variants, but in every instance I have
retained that particular version which seemed to me to be the most
characteristic, and have given it without embellishment and without

The animals that figure in these stories are, in addition to
the fox and the rabbit, the opossum, the cow, the bull, the
terrapin, the turtle, the wolf, the frog, the bear, the lion, the
tiger, the pig, the billy goat, the deer, the alligator, the snake,
the wildcat, the ram, the mink, the weasel, and the dog;
among their feathered friends are the buzzard, the partridge,
the guinea-fowl, the hawk, the sparrow, the chicken, and the
goose. Why the rabbit should be the hero rather than the fox
has been differently explained. Harris's own view seems,
however, most in accord with the facts:

The story of the rabbit and the fox, as told by the Southern
negroes . . . seems to me to be to a certain extent allegorical,
albeit such an interpretation may be unreasonable. At least it is a
fable thoroughly characteristic of the negro ; and it needs no scienti-
fic investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and
most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in
contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that
triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice but mischievousness.

1 James A Honey's South African Folk-Tales (1910), p. 79.

2 The Sun, New York, 17 March, 1912.

3 The Times, New York, 24 Aug., 1913,

* Toni von Held's Marchen und Sagen der afrikanischen Neger (Jena, 1904).
p. 72.

s Indian Fairy Tales, selected and edited by Joseph Jacobs (1910), p. 251.
6 Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, Introduction, p. 3.

358 Dialect Writers

The origin of these tales is still in a measure unsettled, and
there is urgent need of more scientific investigation of them.
For a while it was thought that the negroes learned these
stories from the Indians. It is at least certain that many of
the Uncle Remus stories are current among the Indians of
North and South America. It is equally certain that more is
known of Indian folk-lore than of negro folk-lore. The present
status of the question is overwhelmingly in favour of an Afri-
can origin. The negro slaves, in other words, brought these
stories with them from Africa to Brazil and the United States.
The Indians in both countries learned them from the negroes.

Of the negro dialect in general as spoken in the United
States today, there are four varieties:

(1) The dialect of Virginia, especially of Eastern or Tide-
water Virginia. It is best represented in the works of Thomas
Nelson Page. Broad a is retained in this dialect and there is a
vanishing y sound (as in few} heard after c and g when broad a
follows : larst (last) , farst (fast), grahss (grass), pahsture (pasture),
chahmber (chamber}, pahf (path), cyarn' (can't}, kyars (cars),
gyardin (garden). Broad a is also heard in cyar (carry) and
dyah (there). Such forms as gyardin, seegyar, kyards, kyarvin'
knife are also used by Uncle Remus, but they are evidences of
Virginia influence. Uncle Remus himself says, though he had
dropped the broad a, that he "come from Ferginny."

(2) The dialect of the Sea Islands of the South Atlantic
States, known as the Gullah (or Gulla) dialect. The name is
probably derived from Angola, as many of the rice-field negroes
of South Carolina and Georgia are known to have come from
the west coast of Africa. This diminishing dialect is spoken
on the rice plantations of coastal South Carolina and Geor-
gia as the Uncle Remus dialect is spoken on the cotton and
tobacco plantations further inland. Gullah diverges widely
from English and in its most primitive state is, as Harris says,
"merely a confused and untranslatable mixture of English
and African words." Though it was used in a diluted form
here and there by Poe and Simms and though Harris employs
it for some of the stories in his Nights with Uncle Remus, it
can hardly be said to have found a place in literature. It has
given us, however, the only pure African word still current in

Negro Dialects 359

negro speech, the word buckra, meaning boss or overseer. Tote,
meaning to carry, which long claimed a place beside buckra,
has been found in American writings of so early a date as to
preclude the theory of African origin.

(3) The dialect spoken by the Creole negroes of Louisiana.
This dialect is of course not English but French, and is best
represented, though sparingly, in the works of George W. Cable.
Its musical quality and the extent to which elision and con-
traction have been carried may be seen in the following love
song of the Creole negro Bras-Coupe, one of the characters in
Cable's Grandissimes. An interlinear translation is added:

En haut la montagne, zami,

On the mountain chain, my friends,

Mo pe coup canne, zami,

I've been cutting cane, my friends,

Pou' f i'a' zen', zami,

Money for to gain, my friends,

Pou' mo bailie Palmyre.

For my fair Palmyre.

Ah ! Palmyre, Palmyre, mo c'ere,

Ah! Palmyre, Palmyre, my dear,

Mo ratine* 'ou mo l'aim 'ou.

/ love you / love you.

(4) The Uncle Remus dialect, or the dialect spoken by the
negroes in the great inland sections of the South and South-west.
Though there have been changes in vocabulary and a decline in
vigour and picturesqueness of expression, due to the influence
of negro schools and to the passing of the old plantation life,
this is the dialect still spoken by the majority of the older
negroes in the country districts of the South, especially of the
far South. The characteristics of this dialect consist wholly in
adaptation of existing English words and endings, not in the
introduction of new words or new endings. The plurals of all
nouns tend to become regular. Thus Uncle Remus says foots
(feet), toofies (teeth}, and gooses (geese}, though the old plural
year is retained. The relative pronoun who is not used, its
place being taken by which (or w'ich}, what (or w'at], dat, and
the more interesting which he and which dey, corresponding to
Chaucer's that he and that they. Thus: "She holler so loud dat

3 6 <> Dialect Writers

Brer Rabbit, which he wuz gwine by, got de idee dat she wuz
callin' him."

Another interesting characteristic of the Uncle Remus
speech is found in the present tense of verbs. Uncle Remus
does not say, for example, / make, you make, he makes, we make,
you make, they make, but / makes, you makes, he makes, we
makes, you makes, dey makes. Negro dialect, like the dialect
of all illiterate peoples, is an ear dialect. The eye has nothing
to do with it. The law of analogy, therefore, which is nothing
more than the rule of the majority, has unfettered operation.
The illiterate man, whether black or white, hearing the third
person singular with its invariable s-ending far more frequently
than he hears any other form of the present tense, makes it
his norm and uses it for all forms of both numbers. The same
is true of the verb to be, though is has not in the language of
Uncle Remus entirely succeeded in dispossessing am and are.


Why dialect should have been so sparingly used by Ameri-
can writers before the Civil War and why it should have become
so constituent a part of American fiction immediately after
the Civil War are questions not easily answered. A partial
explanation would seem to lie in the increasing sectionalism
from 1830 to 1860 which, culminating in 1865, gave place not
only to an increasing sense of national solidarity but to a
keener interest in how the other half lived. Sectionalism
meant indifference and ignorance; union means reciprocal
interest and understanding. There can at least be no doubt
that the American short story 1 has been the chief vehicle of
dialect since the Civil War, and the American short story, by
its fidelity to local usages, has done more during these years to
acquaint or re-acquaint the North with the South and the
East with the West than any other type of literature. Bret
Harte, writing in 1899, mentioned as the leading short-story
writers then living Joel Chandler Harris, George W. Cable,
Mark Twain, Charles Egbert Craddock (Miss Murfree), and
Mary E. Wilkins (now Mrs. Freeman). These names, to-
gether with that of Bret Harte himself, indicate that ex-

1 See Book III, Chap, vj

Dialects of the Whites 361

cellence in dialect and excellence in the short story have been
almost synonymous in American literature since the Civil
War. They indicate also that dialect has been both an expres-
sion and a cause of the interstate knowledge and interstate
sympathy that have linked the far separated sections of the
United States into closer bonds of union and fellowship.

The resemblances, however, existing among the dialects
of the different sections of the United States are so great, and
the differences so slight, that one hesitates to call these speech
peculiarities dialects at all. The reign of the newspaper,
diffused educational facilities, increasing means of travel and
transportation, together with the American passion for a
standardized average of correctness, have checked the ten-
dency to dialect that the colonists brought with them. The
effort now making in England, through the Society for Pure
English, to restore the old words and racy idioms that survive
in the Cornish, Sussex, and Northumbrian dialects and thus to
enrich and revitalize standard English, could hardly find imita-
tion in this country, because there are no American dialects
that offer corresponding rewards. The differences between the
New England dialect, the Southern dialect, and the Western
dialect, for example, are differences in pronunciation, in in-
tonation, in stress, and slurring, not primarily in the loss or
preservation of old words or old idioms. The speech of the
mountain districts, especially that of the Southern Appalachian
region, retains, it is true, a few words and locutions of old and
honourable origin ; but these are by no means numerous enough
to be used for regenerative purposes on a large scale. Hit (it),
holp (helped), ax (ask), afeard (afraid), fray (combat), fraction
(as in Troilus and Cressida II, in, 107), antic (clown), humans
(human beings), mought (might), Old Christmas (6 January),
hone (yearn), tilth (agriculture), back a letter (address an en-
velope), and a few others may be heard in the mountains of
Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But to
affirm that in this dialect or in the dialect of any other part
of the United States is to be found our best reservoir of fresh
and vigorous English or our surest safeguard against slovenly
pronunciation would be manifestly absurd.

While much remains to be done in accurately classifying
American speech peculiarities, it needs no proof that the

362 Dialect Writers

strongest impetus to a fresh study and appraisal of American
dialect was given by James Russell Lowell 1 in hisBiglow
Papers (1848, 1866) and in the Introductions with which he
prefaced them. The early masters of the short story, Irving,
Poe, and Hawthorne, looked askance at dialect, as did Long-
fellow and Whittier in their abolition poems. But Bret Harte 2
gave new force to Lowell's views by his effective use of dialect
in the stories of the forty-niners, and from 1870 to the present
time dialect has played a leading part in the attempt to portray
and interpret American character against the background of
social environment. Edward Eggleston, 3 who brought a new
dialect into literature in The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), spoke
for all his colleagues when he said:

If I were a dispassionate critic, and were set to judge my own
novels as the writings of another, I should say that what distinguishes
them from other works of fiction is the prominence which they
give to social conditions; that the individual characters are here
treated to a greater degree than elsewhere as parts of a study of a
society as in some sense the logical results of the environment.
Whatever may be the rank assigned to these stories as works of
literary art, they will always have a certain value as materials for
the student of social history.

With the exception of the negro dialects and those that are
more French or German than English, American dialects fall
into three groups, those of New England, the South, and the
West. The dialect employed by Bret Harte has often been
criticized as belonging to no one of these groups. The charge
is made that it is merely an importation of cockney English.
The critics, however, when pressed for proof, have been able to
cite only the use of which in such initial sentences as

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain.

This is undoubtedly cockney English, but it is American as
well, though it has always been and still is rarely heard. 4

1 See Book II, Chap. xxiv. * See Book III, Chap. vi.

J See Book III, Chap. xi.

4 See Henry Childs Merwin's Life of Bret Harte (1911), pp. 325-327. Some
of Mr. Merwin's citations, however, are not pertinent but belong to the which h(
construction noted in Uncle Remus.

Western Dialect 3 6 3

Bret Harte's dialect has also been subjected to criticism on the
charge of being too clever. It seems at times to be the author's
own creation rather than a transcript of speech actually cur-
rent in California at the time. Much of this criticism turns
on the failure to distinguish between dialect and slang, slang
having a right to be original. The society, moreover, that
Bret Harte portrays was unique in its compositeness. There
were preachers, teachers, lawyers, and doctors among those who
flocked to California as well as toughs, tramps, dead-beats, and
illiterates. 'The faith, courage, vigor, youth, and capacity
for adventure necessary to this emigration," says Bret Harte,
"produced a body of men as strongly distinctive as were the
companions of Jason." William Grey 1 describes the pioneers
with whom he went to California as "a fine-looking and well
educated body of men, all young." That the language of
these men should be picturesque and representative in its idiom
and as intellectual as the occasion might demand, is not sur-
prising. Investigation has shown that of Bret Harte's three
hundred dialect words and phrases a mere handful remain
unidentified as American.

The term Western, however, usually has reference not to the
Pacific slope but to the Middle West and South-west. The
Western dialect is currently understood to be .the dialect
found in the writings of Mark Twain, 2 Edward Eggleston,
Hamlin Garland, 3 Owen Wister, and James Whitcomb Riley.*
But this dialect is also composite. The original sources are
chiefly New England and the South, with a mingling here and
there of German and Scandinavian elements. Thus the pioneer
dialect of Southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois was mainly
Southern, while the northern portions of these States reflect
the New England influence. The speech of Nebraska shows
the influence of Swedish and Pennsylvania German settlers.
Western and Central New York was settled chiefly by New
Englanders, but in the last few decades there are evidences of
Irish, German, and Scandinavian influences. Eastern New
York and Pennsylvania were intermediate in their speech
habits between New England and the South, their dialect
showing traces of both.

1 Pioneer Times in California. 3 See Book III, Chap. vin.

3 See Book III, Chap. vi. "See Book III, Chap. x.

364 Dialect Writers

Even cultivated Indianians, particularly those of Southern
antecedents, have the habit of clinging to their words; they do not
bite them off sharply. ... In New England and in Virginia the
Italian a finds recognition, whereas in the intermediate region the
narrower sound of the vowel prevails; and likewise the softening
of r is noted in New England and among the Virginians and other
Southerners, while in the intermediate territory and at the West r
receives its full sound. The shrill nasal tone is still marked in the
back country folk of New England, while the Southern and South-
western farmer's speech is fuller and more open-mouthed. . . .
At the South and in New England, where there is less mingling of
elements, the old usages will probably endure much longer; and it
is a fair assumption that in the Mississippi Valley and in the Trans-
Missouri country, a normal American speech free of local idiosyn-
crasies will appear first. 1

This New England dialect which has spread so widely
through the West and North-west was summarized by Lowell
in the following seven general rules 2 :

1. The genuine Yankee never gives the rough sound to the r
when he can help it, and often displays considerable ingenuity in
avoiding it even before a vowel.

2. He seldom sounds the final g, a piece of self-denial, if we
consider his partiality for nasals. The same of the final d, as han 1
and stan' for hand and stand.

3. The h in such words as while, when, where, he omits alto-

4. In regard to a, he shows some inconsistency, sometimes
giving a close and obscure sound, as hev for have, hendy for handy,
ez for as, thet for that, and again giving it the broad sound it has in
father, as hdnsome for handsome.

5. To the sound ou he prefixes an e (hard to exemplify other-
wise than orally). . . .

6. Auin such words as daughter and slaughter, he pronounces ah,

7. To the dish thus seasoned add a drawl ad libitum.

The New England dialect may perhaps best be studied in such
later writers as Rose Terry Cooke, 3 Sarah Orne Jewett, 4 and
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. 5

1 Meredith Nicholson, The Hoosiers (1900), pp. 58-60.
1 The Biglow Papers, first series, Introduction.
J See Book III, Chap. VI. *Ibid.

Southern Dialect 365

What is known as the Southern dialect may be formulated
also in seven general rules:

1. Like does duty for as if in such sentences as "He looks like
he was sick." This construction, says Lowell, is "never found in
New England."

2. 'Low (allow), meaning think and say, though "never heard
in New England" (Lowell), is very common among white and
black illiterates, as it is in the pages of Bret Harte. Guess in the
New England sense is also used, but New England cal'late (calcu-
late) is unknown.

3. Such words as tune, news, duty (but not true, rule, sue, dude}
have the vanishing ^-sound heard in few. * This pronunciation, like
the retention of broad a, can hardly be called dialectal; but it is
almost a shibboleth of the Southerner to the manner born, and
helps to differentiate him from the Westerner and Northerner.

4. The vanishing ;y-sound heard in gyarden, cyards, Cyarter,
Gyarfield, is common in Virginia but less so in other parts of the

5. The same may be said of broad a. intermediate a (halfway
between father and fat) being distinctively academic and acquired.

6. More, store, floor, four, door, and similar words are usually
pronounced mo, sto, flo, fo, do by negroes. Among the white popula-
tion the r is not pronounced but these words have two distinct
syllables, the last syllable having the obscure uh sound heard in
mower or slower. The tendency in the North and West to pro-
nounce long o as au (in autumnal rather than in autumn) is not
observable in the South.

7. The most distinctive idiom in the South is the use of you all,
meaning not all of you but you folks, you people, you boys, you girls.
It may be addressed to one person but always implies more than
one. If a Southerner says to a clerk in a store, "Do you all keep
shoes here?" he means by you all not the single clerk but the entire
firm or force that owns or operates the store. 2

Notable writers of the Southern dialect besides Harris,
Page, and Cable, are Richard Malcolm Johnston, 3 Charles
Egbert Craddock, 4 and O. Henry. 5

1 See Some Variant Pronunciations in the New South, by William A. Read,

Online LibraryWilliam Peterfield TrentThe Cambridge history of American literature → online text (page 71 of 144)