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

§ 8. Uncle Remus

It is evident, therefore, that Joel Chandler Harris came at a time when the interest in the negro was at its height. His value as literary material had been realized in part, but no satisfactory portrait of him had been drawn. The war, too, with its attendant saturnalia of Reconstruction, was over, and the negro was trying to fit himself into a new political and industrial régime. It will be seen also that Uncle Remus is a very different character from those by which the negro had hitherto found representation in literature. The character of Uncle Remus is noteworthy not only because it represents both a type and an individual, but because the type is now nearly extinct. Before the war every large plantation or group of plantations had its Uncle Remus; today he lingers here and there in a few villages of the South, but is regarded more as a curiosity, a specimen, a relic of the past than as a part of the present.

As portrayed by Harris, Uncle Remus sums up the past and dimly hints the future. The character was modelled in part after that of an old negro, Uncle George Terrell, whom Harris had learned to know intimately on the Turner plantation. The Uncle Remus of the stories is eighty years old, but still moves and speaks with the vigour of youth.

  • He had always exercised authority over his fellow-servants. He had been the captain of the corn-pile, the stoutest at the log-rolling, the swiftest with the hoe, the neatest with the plough, and the plantation hands still looked upon him as their leader.
  • His life spanned three distinct and widely divergent periods; he had looked out upon three worlds—the South before the war, the South during the war, and the South after the war. He is tenderly cared for by his former owners, “Mars John” and “Miss Sally”; he has his own little patch of ground around his cabin; and he is devotedly attached to Miss Sally’s “little boy.” In spite of their difference in years, the child and the old man have one point in common: they both look out upon the world with eager, wide-eyed interest. Uncle Remus expresses their common point of view in a conversation with Brer Ab. Brer Ab had been telling Uncle Remus of some of the miraculous things seen by a coloured woman in a trance:
  • “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.”
  • 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 Uncle Remus represents the world of the Underman; it has no reasoned 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 the rabbit lost 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, whether 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.