Joel Chandler Harris and Folklore
Folklore in America
The term “folk-lore” emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when an interest in the traditional beliefs, legends, and customs among groups of people became an established subject of intellectual and scientific pursuit. The Brothers Grimm and their celebrated collections of European folk tales and fairy tales, the first of which was published in 1812, are among the pioneers of folklorist work in Europe. Folklore as a scholarly discipline (also called folkloristics) has a longer tradition in Europe than in the United States which first established its American Folklore Society (AFS) in 1888. Prior to the founding of the AFS, however, early nineteenth century Americans had already begun to express interest recording and analyzing the songs and cultures of Native American peoples. In the mid-1800s, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, considered the father of American folklore, articulated a systematic concept for folklore as a discipline based on his work recording the oral traditions of the Ojibwa.
Interest in African American folklore was nonexistent until the second half of the nineteenth century when William Francis Allen and two other collectors compiled a book of slave songs published in 1867. Soon thereafter, Joel Chandler Harris’s popular Uncle Remus tales would help foster a wider interest in African American folklore. Perhaps because of Harris’s central role in bringing widespread attention to the folktales of African Americans, the dominant subject of scholarly commentary on Harris concerns his reputation and legacy as a folklorist and linguist. [Keenan, Hugh T., and R. Bruce Bickley. Joel Chandler Harris: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1977-1996: With Supplement, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997. xi. Print.]
Joel Chandler Harris as Folklorist
Harris’s own sense of himself as a folklorist is complicated and contradictory. In later years, he staunchly denied being anything more than a collector and downplayed the value of scientific, mechanical approaches to stories. [Baer, Florence E. “Joel Chandler Harris: An ‘Accidental’ Folklorist.” Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Ed. Bruce R. Bickley. Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1981. 191. Print.] But his earlier work suggests that this dismissal of the folklorist branch of study was a later development and potentially masked some degree of professional disappointment. As a young man, Harris enthusiastically pursued folklorist studies, subscribing to the British Folk-Lore Journal and becoming a charter member of the American Folklore Society. [Baer 189.] His lengthy introduction to Nights with Uncle Remus which situated the tales within the professional discourse of the discipline indicated Harris’s interest in contributing to the community of professional folklorists. [Baer 190.] The cause of Harris’s eventual disenchantment with the field is unclear, but Florence E. Baer speculates that the failure of the folklorist community to respond to or even acknowledge Harris’s efforts to enter the field prompted him to disavow any interest in the discipline. [Baer 191.] Nonetheless, Harris was an important figure to the study of American folklore. Bickley and Keenan note that “[t]he immense popularity of the Uncle Remus books inspired amateur and professional folklorists—black, white, continental, eastern, and Native American—to pay more attention to their folk heritages.” [Bickley and Keenan xi.]
Present-day concerns about Harris’s folklorist practices emerge from our difficulty in identifying Harris’s sociopolitical values. Harris’s Uncle Remus tales have been condemned for portraying the antebellum South as a culturally rich place as a direct result of slavery. Also problematizing Harris’s legacy as a folklorist are his motivations for sharing the stories he relates; like other nineteenth century collectors, Harris believed that the tales and the dialect in which they were told were “survivals, rapidly disappearing relics in a changed world,” and that a record of them should be preserved. [Baer 186.] The nineteenth-century scientific community frequently asserted that the Darwinian ideas of origin, survival, natural selection, progress, and development left African Americans at the bottom of an evolutionary social pyramid. Because Native American and African populations in America were presumed to be poised for extinction, these folklorists and collectors “were not motivated by a respect for and honor of ‘the past;’” rather, they hoped the collected materials would serve as relics for scholarly reflection and debate in an exclusively Euro-American future at the pinnacle of Enlightenment. [Plant, Deborah G. Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit. Women writers of color. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers, 2007. 61. Print.] Once Harris’s intentions as a storyteller were called into question by later scholarship, the stories themselves no longer seemed politically neutral, but appeared to stand as reminders of discomfiting nineteenth-century racial sensibilities.
Harris's position as mediator and purveyor of African American folklore has further complicated his legacy. Alice Walker most famously criticized Harris for the disruptive role he played in the transmission of her cultural identity. In a speech in 1981, Walker remarked, “As far as I'm concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage. … In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that could have meant so much to all of our children, the stories that they would have heard from us and not from Walt Disney.” [Walker, Alice. Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 32. Print.]
Such criticisms of folklorist practices extended beyond Harris, of course. Folklorists have been accused of showing interest exclusively in the “lore” while the actual “folk” to which the lore belongs are overlooked. Folklorist Alan Dundes explains “the folklorist can be said to be practicing the longstanding exploitative tradition of academic colonialism” in which the investigator is rewarded for his/her work, while the often poor informant’s life remains unimproved. [Dundes, Alan. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. 34. Print.] Even Zora Neale Hurston’s 1935 collection of the folklore of Southern working-class African Americans entitled Mules and Men initially met with such criticism by African American scholars like Sterling Brown.
Regardless, Harris’s Brer Rabbit Tales have had an undeniably far-reaching influence. The tales were re-appropriated throughout the twentieth century, featured in The Brownies’ Book, and refashioned in Julius Lester’s Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which was published in 1987 and received the Coretta Scott King Award. Dundes remarks, “had Joel Chandler Harris not been interested in Negro folklore, one of the great stimuli to collectors of Negro folktales would have been absent and many of the collections of tales inspired by Harris’ efforts might never have been made.” [Dundes 525.] For better or for worse, Harris’s Brer Rabbit tales have left a long—if conflicted—legacy that still resonates to this day.