The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 10. Importance to Negro Folk lore

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 ethnological 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; among the West Indian islanders; in Brazil; in Cape Colony; among the Bushmen of South Africa; along the lower Congo; in West Central Africa; among the Hottentots; and among the Jatakas or “Birth-Stories” of Buddha.

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

  • 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 plantation. 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 exaggeration.
  • 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 scientific 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.
  • 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 African 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.