Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Joel Chandler Harris and the Burgess Bedtime Stories

John Goldthwaite, in his 1996 book, The Natural History of Make-Believe, argues strongly that Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories were the key influence on 20th century children's literature: "By anthropomorphizing the fauna of the rural neighborhoods, Uncle Remus gave storytellers fresh material with which to reconstruct the world in terms that could be at once familiar and magical with suggestion."(p. 285) The serial format, moreover, allows us to "perceive ourselves members in good standing of the community that will survive us...we are invited to live awhile where time is arrested and the world people, unchanged, forever." (p. 282)" The key authors that Goldthwaite lists as influenced by Harris include Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Walt Kelly, and Thornton Burgess.

Uncle Remus is, of course, very difficult for modern readers. The stories are written in sometime impenetrable (if sociolinguistically accurate) dialect, and, as Goldthwaite notes, "Uncle Remus [the ex-slave] may have been the right, the necessary, choice of character for the telling of these tales, but he was...the wrong one for the preserving of them." (p. 255). Remus is rarely read, except as an example of racism in 19th century popular culture, and his wide influence has been forgotten.

Google Books offers some examples for the brave reader:


When it comes to Burgess, there are also a few specific influences. First, Uncle Remus is full of origin tales (Rudyard Kipling's (1902) Just So Stories may have also been an influence here). These would make up the bulk of the stories in the Mother West books (especially later in the series). Second, any character perceived as "southern" (Unc' Billy Possum, Old Mr. Buzzard, et al.) speaks in dialect and addresses the other characters with "Brer." Indeed, it appears that before Burgess himself started called every rabbit he saw, "Peter," he would address them as "Brer". See the example below from the Boys Scouts of Woodcraft Camp book.

Goldthwaite argues that the figure of Grandfather Frog, the chief storyteller, is the animal version of Uncle Remus.

During Burgess's era, the Uncle Remus connection would have been an obvious one. In fact, a direct comparison with Uncle Remus was part of the advertising for the Bedtime Book series. Here's a sample that draws on a New York Times review.

Here's another that claims an interesting kinship


A 1972 piece encouraging research in the first issue of the academic journal, Children's Literature, lists a grab-bag of potential topics. These include things like "War in Children's Literature" and "A Linguistic Study of Winnie-the-Pooh." There are two Burgess-related topics. The first, "Thornton W. Burgess's stories and Ecology" is (ahem) underway. The second, "The Image of the Black in Thornton Burgess's stories for Children" is more puzzling. Except for the porter scene in the first Boy Scout book, I'm not aware of any other representations in Burgess. Is it the Uncle Remus connection that provokes the question?


Tomorrow: Boys in disguise

3 comments:

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  2. > The second, "The Image of the Black in Thornton Burgess's stories for Children" is more puzzling. Except for the porter scene in the first Boy Scout book, I'm not aware of any other representations in Burgess. Is it the Uncle Remus connection that provokes the question? <

    All I can think of is that the Burgess character Unc Billy Possum refers to his children as "pickaninnies", a reference to black children. See "The Adventures of Unc Billy Possum" chapter 4, and "The Adventures of Reddy Fox" chapter 17.

    Though that term is very offensive today, in the 1910s when Burgess used it, it was generally considered affectionate, and was widely used by blacks and whites alike.

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