Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 94-96
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Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist' The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. By Walter M. Brasch. Mercer University Press, 2000 399 pp. Cloth $35.00.
In 1975 critic Robert A. Bone surveyed two decades of scholarship to find that charges of racism had put Joel Chandler Harris "in bad odor among the younger generation of literary men." But to most readers and even many scholars today, Harris is not only odorless but invisible—forgotten, ignored. Walter M. Brasch discovered this when he mentioned Harris and his Uncle Remus stories in passing to an upper-level college journalism class. "Who?" asked one brave soul, while the rest simply jotted down the unfamiliar name in their notebooks. Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist' is Brasch's response to this student's question. It is also a comprehensive biography of Harris that presents a wide array of source material and offers the most extensive account of Harris's (and Brer Rabbit's) long-term influence in American popular culture to date. Writing primarily to reintroduce Harris to a new generation of readers, Brasch restores Harris's name in another sense: by ably demonstrating what a "web of contradictions" this late nineteenth-century journalist and literary giant was, Brasch [End Page 94] makes it far more difficult for modern-day observers to dismiss Harris as simply another racist southern white.
Brasch's restorative work is important because Harris is important, most of all as a prominent white racial moderate who maintained his support for black education and advancement throughout the nadir of southern race relations. As segregation hardened and lynch mobs terrorized black communities throughout the region, Harris continued to speak to white southerners' better selves. Writing in a widely syndicated article in 1900, he argued that "race prejudice . . . seems to be an instinct of the human mind" and "is but one of the equipments of our poor human nature" that Christianity must "eradicate and obliterate." A few years later, Harris wrote Andrew Carnegie seeking financial support for a new magazine so that "the policies and principles I have in mind—the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing—may be definitively carried out." Brasch expands on a central premise of a 1990 article by historian Wayne Mixon—that Harris was an important racial iconoclast who is worth remembering—by quoting sources such as Harris's letter to Carnegie in full and by emphasizing the many contradictions in Harris's life and writings. "He was a segregationist, but fought for racial equality, justice—and integration," Brasch writes. And although Harris's narrator Uncle Remus and the dialect he speaks have become equated with racist stereotypes, Brasch asserts that this "definitive character portrayal of Blacks shows a wide range of emotion and beliefs." Meanwhile, the language of the tales is "relatively accurate," and the Brer Rabbit stories themselves are part of a "revolutionary" black oral tradition.
Perhaps because of his background as a journalist and editor, Brasch focuses more attention on Harris's short magazine fiction than most scholars. This emphasis helps to establish Harris's importance as a literary figure in his own day, an importance second only to that of Mark Twain. Harris's popularity is also evident in sales figures and in the praise offered up by contemporaries ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Samuel Gompers. Brasch quotes one such tribute after another, making his book especially useful for understanding Harris's place in the literary pantheon of his era.
In addition to quoting many sources at length, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist' reproduces dozens of photographs as well as title pages and other documents. Its abundance of images, including pen-and-ink drawings of Brer Rabbit and other critters that appear in the margins, enhances the book's visual appeal. Unfortunately, with abundance has come sloppiness in the book's...