Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Plutarch's Life of Alexander and Joel Chandler Harris's Story of "Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Two Fat Pullets" (1918)

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Plutarch's Life of Alexander and Joel Chandler Harris's Story of "Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Two Fat Pullets" (1918)

Article excerpt

SCHOLARSHIP CONCERNING JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS'S STORIES of Uncle Remus has focused upon three general areas: their use of folklore, their use of dialect, and their role in the creation or perversion of the "happy darky" myth. (1) Several studies have explored the influence Harris has had upon other writers or in turn the influence that other writers have had upon him. (2) Nevertheless, there remains much work to be done in this area, especially since Harris was both a hugely popular writer and a keen student of language and literature as well. (3) Here is an example of what may be found from "Brother Rabbit, Brother Fox and Two Fat Pullets," a tale published during 1918 in the collection entitled Uncle Remus Returns.

In the later years of Uncle Remus's fictive life, after some unhappy time spent in the city, he returns to the familiar rural existence of the plantation. There he serves various members of his master's family, whose lives encompass three generations. Included in this group is Miss Sally, the mother of the first little boy featured in so many of the earlier tales, and Miss Sally's grandson, the son of the first little boy who had by that time grown up and married.

In the frame of the story, the little boy tells Uncle Remus: (4)

   after I was ready to go to bed last night, I didn't feel very
   sleepy, and grandmother told me a story. She said it was one you
   used to tell to papa. But that wasn't all: She said that all the
   animals were once meat-eaters. I don't see how that could be. (p.
   815)

After Uncle Remus assures the boy that his grandmother was a reliable source, the lad declares that "Grandmother was telling how Brother Rabbit got some meat from Mr. Man" (p. 815). He then quotes his grandmother as saying that Uncle Remus "was not the only person that said that animals ate meat or something else besides vegetables. She told how Plutarch said something about the sheep eating fish" (p. 816).

In response, Uncle Remus inquires, "Did she say dat?" And after some moments of reflection, he exclaims "Plutarch! Is Miss Sally say what plantation he live on?" When the boy shakes his head in denial, Uncle Remus "with a sigh of relief" says, "he ain't never is live in deze parts, kaze ef he had I'd 'a' know'd 'im. I 'speck Miss Sally hear talk un him de time she went ter Ferginny, kaze ef dey'd 'a' been any Plutarch ... I'd 'a' know'd him" (p. 816).

Paul M. Cousins employs the episode as evidence supporting his idea that Uncle Remus was a "born storyteller." (5) But neither Cousins nor any other scholar has a word to say about the curious story itself, or its curious source, Plutarch. For names from Graeco-Roman antiquity are in truth not at all common elements in the stories of Uncle Remus. Besides this reference to Plutarch, the only other "classical" name Harris used--besides Remus's own name, doubtless derived from the Romulus and Remus legend--is that of Uncle Plato, a mule driver. Uncle Plato sounds his presence with "a long tin bugle" at the start of the tale of "Brother Fox's Fish-Trap," published during 1883 in the collection entitled Nights With Uncle Remus.

Furthermore, the idea of "sheep eating fish" seems on the surface to be so laughably absurd as to need no analysis, and it therefore stands ostensibly as evidence of Harris's vivid imagination. But such is not the case. For the icthyophagous sheep are not the product of Harris's fertile mind; instead they make up a small portion of one of the Parallel Lives of Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. …

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