Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Uncle Remus and the Folklorists

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Uncle Remus and the Folklorists

Article excerpt

No one was more surprised than Joel Chandler Harris himself to learn that the Negro animal fables he had written for the Atlanta Constitution had a "scientific" as well as a literary value. Yet within six months of the first weekly installment of the stories in the Constitution on November 16, 1879, John Wesley Powell of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology had written him concerning their ethnological importance. Powell's was but the first of a flood of such communications. As Harris later recalled, the collection of the stories under the title Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, published in December, 1880, "brought letters from learned philologists and folklore students from England to India.... from royal institutes and literary societies, from scholars and travelers." (1) Harris's biographers agree that he knew little if anything about the subject of folklore when he first began writing the Uncle Remus series, (2) and Harris himself in the introduction to Uncle Remus said that "ethnological considerations formed no part of the undertaking which has resulted in the publication of this volume." (3) It would have been surprising had Harris known much about the subject since it was at the time a relatively undeveloped field of study in America. The lore of Southern Negroes, moreover, was virtually unknown outside the South. Powell, who was a student of Indian folklore, had been completely unaware of the existence of the Negro animal tales until he saw them in the Constitution. As the Journal of American Folklore noted in its initial issue in 1888, it was Harris himself who first introduced Negro folktales to both the general public and the folklorists. (4)

If Harris knew little about folklore, he nevertheless betrayed a quick curiosity in the subject. When he announced the forthcoming publication of Uncle Remus in a Constitution article in April, 1880, he included a discussion of Powell's communication with him; and by the time he wrote his introduction to Uncle Remus, he had read enough in other folklore studies to formulate a short comparison of his Negro stories to South American Indian folklore. After the publication of Uncle Remus, Harris's interest in the subject appears to have grown rapidly. He became a subscriber to the Folk-Lore Journal, published in London, and added a number of folklore studies to his library. (5) Meanwhile, he continued to publish more Uncle Remus stories in the Constitution and national magazines, and when he collected these in 1883 in Nights with Uncle Remus, he provided a long introduction which reflected his increased interest in the subject of folklore. Harris could hardly have foreseen at this point that "ethnological considerations" would significantly influence his career as a writer. But it was such considerations which would prove a source of aggravation to him in Nights with Uncle Remus and would eventually lead him to the decision to retire Uncle Remus and write no more Negro folktales.

When Harris became concerned with the ethnological import of the tales, he found himself within a school of scientific thought which was in the process of constructing an elaborate argument which presumably explained the cultural inferiority of American Negroes. In the post-Civil War period, cultural anthropology, or ethnology, was influenced directly by Darwinian evolutionism. Ethnologists, as well as social evolutionists such as Herbert Spencer, believed that complex industrial societies were analogous to biologic organisms high on the scale of evolution while primitive societies were analogous to undifferentiated organisms at a rudimentary stage of biologic evolution. The most influential of the American ethnologists--Lewis Henry Morgan, Daniel G. Brinton, and John W. Powell, all of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology--were convinced that each separate culture developed through well defined stages of primitivity, barbarism, and civilization, which, as Morgan stated it, were "connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress. …

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