Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/April 1881/Plantation Folk-Lore


By Professor T. F. CRANE.

IN a passage in his recent essay on Hawthorne, which was received with some disfavor by his countrymen, Mr. James enumerated the "items of high civilization which are absent from the texture of American life." To these might be added an item of low civilization, but what, for the purpose of the imaginative writer, is of greater utility than the court or Epsom folk-lore. With the exception of a few legends of the Hudson due to the Dutch, and an occasional Indian legend (generally manufactured by the white man), there are no local legends from one end of the land to the other. In minor matters, such as superstitions, the case is no better; aside from the aversion to Friday, and sitting thirteen at table, we know of no general superstition. There are, however, two classes of native Americans which must be exempted from the application of the above rule the Indians and the Southern negroes. The superstitions of the latter, chiefly religious, have been darkly hinted at from time to time, and have occasionally afforded slight contributions to fiction; a few, the reader will remember, are to be found in Mark Twain's amusing book, "Tom Sawyer."

It was not suspected that the negroes possessed a large fund of one of the most entertaining classes of popular tales animal stories until a number were published in the "Riverside Magazine" (November, 1868; March, 1869), "taken down from the lips of an old negro in the vicinity of Charleston," variants of which appeared in the New York "Independent" (September 2, 1875), and from time to time in other papers. The first attempt at anything like a full or complete collection of these tales is in the book before us, which is not only a most entertaining and novel work but a valuable contribution to comparative folk-lore. The volume is divided into "Legends of the Old Plantation" and "Uncle Remus's Songs and Sayings." In addition to these there are some proverbs and "A Story of the War." The true value of the book, however, is in the thirty-four inimitable "Legends of the Old Plantation," which are related night after night by An old negro to the little grandson of his former owner. Too much praise can not be bestowed upon Mr. Harris for the manner in which he has executed his task: not only is the representation of the dialect better than anything that has heretofore been given, but he has shown himself a master in the difficult art of collecting popular tales. A glance at the variants of these stories published elsewhere will show the vast superiority of Mr. Harris's. It is not, however, in their literary character, interesting as it is, that we intend to examine briefly these fables, but simply in their relations to the similar tales of other countries.

Mr. Harris does not state the precise locality where he collected his fables. To cite the words of a competent critic ("The Nation," December 2, 1880): "Presumably his stories are all of Georgian origin, though he cites a variant from Florida; and he gives us proof that 'they have become a part of the domestic history of every Southern family.' However widely they may have been spread through our domestic slave-trade, we regard it as highly probable that the Sea-Island neighborhood from South Carolina to Florida was, as in the case of the slave-songs, the focus of the animal fables—an hypothesis which finds its support in the reference of both to an African and heathen origin." We have at present but scanty information as to the extent of the diffusion of these stories—variants have been found in South Carolina and Florida; no locality is mentioned for those given in the interesting article on "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," by William Owens, in "Lippincott's Magazine," December, 1877, pp. 748-755.[2]

These stories narrate the contests of wit between the rabbit, the terrapin, the bear, the wolf, and the fox. The first two, who are the embodiments of weakness and harmlessness, are always victorious; as Mr. Harris says, "It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness." The animals are all dignified with the title Brer, or Buh, as represented by Mr. Owens, who says, "It is generally supposed to be an abbreviation of the word 'brother'" (the br being sounded without the whir of the r), "but it probably is a title of respect equivalent to our Mr." The manners and customs of human beings are, after the usual fashion of fables, transferred to the animals in a way that excites the wonder of Uncle Remus's youthful auditor, and a mysterious Miss Meadows and "de gals" are introduced, with whom the animals are on terms of intimacy, and at whose house some of the most amusing incidents take place. A glance at the contents of these fables will at once reveal many familiar episodes, a few of which we shall note for a specific purpose.

In No. XVI, "Old Mr. Rabbit he's a Good Fisherman," Brer Rabbit, while the Fox, Coon, and Bear are clearing up "a new groun' fer ter plant a roas'n' year patch," slips away and hunts for a cool place to rest in. He finally came across a well with a bucket hanging in it and looking so cool that Brer Rabbit climbed in, and of course the bucket began to descend; "but Brer Rabbit he keep mighty still, kaze he dunner w'at minfiit gwineter be de nex'. He des lay dar en shuck en shiver." The Fox saw the Rabbit slip away and followed him, and his amazement can be imagined when he saw the Rabbit disappear down the well. The Rabbit on being asked, "Who you wizzitin' down dar?" answered that he was fishing, and invited the Fox to get into the other bucket and come down and help him. This the Fox did, and as he went down up went Brer Rabbit. The Fox is afterward pulled up by the owner of the well and escapes. This fable will be recognized at once from the familiar version in La Fontaine (XI, 6, "Le Loup et le Renard"), which he took from the "Roman de Renart." A much older version is found in the "Disciplina Clericalis," a collection of Oriental stories made in the first years of the twelfth century.

No. XVII, "Mr. Rabbit nibbles up the Butter," relates how Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Possum laid up their provisions together in the same shanty, and put the butter that Brer Fox brought into the spring-house to keep it cool. Brer Rabbit, however, under the pretense of going to see his family, leaves his companions at their work and takes a nibble at the butter. This goes on until the butter disappears, and, while the others are sleeping, Brer Rabbit smears Brer Possum's mouth with the butter on his paws. Brer Possum on waking up was naturally indignant, and demanded an ordeal by fire to prove his innocence, but, as ordeals among men even must sometimes have failed, the innocent Possum is burned up, greatly to the indignation of Uncle Remus's listener. With this story may be compared Grimm, No. 2, "The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership." A closer parallel is found in W. H. I. Bleek's "Reynard the Fox in South Africa; or Hottentot Fables and Tales" (London, Trübner, 1864, p. 18), "Which was the Thief?"

"A Jackal and a Hyena went and hired themselves to a man to be his servants. In the middle of the night the Jackal rose and smeared the Hyena's tail with some fat, and then ate all the rest of it which was in the house. In the morning the man missed his fat, and he immediately accused the Jackal of having eaten it. 'Look at the Hyena's tail,' said the rogue, 'and you will see who is the thief.' The man did so, and then thrashed the Hyena till she was nearly dead."

In No. XXV, "How Mr. Rabbit lost his Fine Bushy Tail," the Rabbit is victimized by the Fox, who persuades him to fish, one cold night, by dropping his long, bushy tail (rabbits formerly had such) into the water. It freezes fast, of course, and the poor Rabbit to get away is obliged to leave his tail in the ice. This is one of the familiar episodes in the "Roman de Renart."

Some of the stories contain incidents which are common to European popular tales, as in No. XX, "How Mr. Rabbit saved his Meat." Brer Wolf suspected Brer Rabbit of stealing some of his fish, and killed Brer Rabbit's best cow. The latter frightened the Wolf away by telling him that the "patter-rollers" (patrol, policemen) were coming, and proceeded to skin the cow and salt down the hide and stow away the carcass in the smoke-house. The end of the cow's tail he stuck in the ground, and called Brer Wolf. "Run yer. Brer Wolf, run yer! Yo' cow gwine in de groun'!" When Brer Wolf arrived, he found Brer Rabbit holding the tail with all his might to keep the cow from going into the ground. Brer Wolf caught hold, and off came the tail. The Wolf was not going to give the matter up so, and got a spade, a pick-axe, and a shovel, and began to dig for his cow, while Brer Rabbit sat on his front-porch smoking his cigar and watching him. This episode is found in a Basque story (Webster's "Basque Legends," p. 10) and in an Italian tale ("Jahrbuch für roman. und eng. Lit.," VIII, 252), and in many others that we have not space to mention.

No. XIII, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," relates how the Wolf persecuted Brer Rabbit, and carried off some of his family. To protect those left, "Brer Rabbit b'ilt 'im a straw house, en hit wuz tored down; den he made a house outen pine-tops, en dat went de same way; den he made 'im a bark house, en dat wuz i-aided on; en eve'y time he los' a house, he los' wunner his chilluns." Finally, he built a plank house with rock foundations, and then could live in peace. One day the Wolf, pursued by dogs, took refuge in Brer Rabbit's house, and begged him to hide him from the dogs. The Rabbit told him to get into a chest, and, the Wolf once secure, the Rabbit bored holes in the top of the chest, and poured boiling water in and scalded the Wolf to death. A similar story, except that seven Pigs and a Fox take the place of the Rabbits and Wolf, is told by Mr. Owens ("Lippincott," December, 1877, page 753), who cites as a parallel the Anglo-Saxon story of "The Three Blue Pigs." Another parallel may be found in a Venetian story (Bernoni, "Tradizioni Popolari Veneziane," p. 69, "El Galo").

One of the incidents in No. XX, "A Story about the Little Rabbits," is also familiar, and seems like a curious metamorphosis of a well-known trait of fairy tales. The Fox goes to Brer Rabbit's house, and the sight of the fat little Rabbits makes his mouth water, and he endeavors to invent some excuse for killing them. He finally sets them difficult tasks to do, intending to devour them if they fail; but a little Bird on top of the house sings the solution of all the difficulties, which are: to break off a piece of sugar-cane; to bring water in a sieve; and to put a big log on the fire. The second task is the one found in European folk-lore, an example occurring in another Venetian story (Bastanielo, Bernoni, "Fiabe," No. 6).

One of the most amusing stories in "Uncle Remus" is No. II, "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" (versions also in "Riverside Magazine," 1868, p. 505, and "Lippincott," December, 1877, p. 750), in which the Fox made "a contrapshun wat he call a Tar-Baby," out of tar and turpentine, and put it in the way of the Rabbit, who got stuck to it, and thus fell into the Fox's clutches. In the "South-African Folk-Lore Journal," I, p. 69, there is a curious parallel to the above story. A number of animals build a dam to hold water, and the jackal comes and muddies the water. A baboon is set to guard the dam, but the jackal easily outwits him. Then the tortoise offers to capture the jackal and proposes "that a thick coating of 'bijenwerk' (a kind of sticky, black substance found on beehives) should be spread all over him, and that he should go and stand at the entrance of the dam, on the water-level, so that the jackal might tread on him, and stick fast." The jackal is caught, but, with his customary craft, escapes.

In the last of Uncle Remus's stories. No. XXXIV, "The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox," the Fox and the Rabbit jump down the mouth of a cow and help themselves to meat, the Fox warning the Rabbit not "to cut 'roun' de haslett." The Rabbit disobeys the injunction, and the cow falls dead. The owner cuts her open to see what was the matter, and the Rabbit betrays the Fox, who was hiding in the "maul," and who is thereupon killed. In Bleek, p. 27, the Elephant and the Tortoise have a dispute, and the former determined to kill the latter, and asked him, "Little Tortoise, shall I chew you or swallow you down?" The little Tortoise said, "Swallow me, if you please!" and the Elephant swallowed it whole. After the Elephant had swallowed the little Tortoise, and it had entered his body, it tore off his liver, heart, and kidneys. The Elephant said, "Little Tortoise, you kill me." So the Elephant died; but the little Tortoise came out of his dead body and went wherever it liked.[3]

More remarkable, however, than the above casual points of resemblance is the substantial identity of these stories with those of a tribe of South American Indians. In 1870 Professor C. F. Hartt heard, at Santarem on the Amazons, from his guide in the lingua geral, a story, "The Tortoise that outran the Deer," a version of which he afterward published in the "Cornell Era" (January 20, 1871), and which attracted the attention of a writer in "The Nation" (February 23, 1871), who gave a variant of the same myth, as found among the negroes of South Carolina (the same story occurring in "Uncle Remus," p. 80). This singular resemblance does not seem to have been noticed again until Mr. Herbert Smith, in his "Brazil, the Amazons, and the Coast" (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1879), in a chapter devoted to "The Myths of the Amazonian Indians," gave a number of animal fables, but, owing to his insufficient acquaintance with comparative folk-lore, he was unable to throw any light on the subject, merely noticing the resemblances which had already attracted the attention of Professor Hartt and others. The proof-sheets of this chapter were sent to Mr. Harris, who at once saw that the similarity extended to almost every story quoted by Mr. Smith, and some are so nearly identical as to point unmistakably to a common origin; but when and where? Mr. Harris asks, "When did the negro or the North American Indian come into contact with the tribes of South America?"

Before examining this question, it may be well to compare hastily the stories in Hartt's "Amazonian Tortoise Myths" (Rio de Janeiro, 1875) and Smith's "Brazil" with their parallels in "Uncle Remus" and elsewhere. First, let us examine the stories common to Hartt, Smith, and Uncle Remus:

I. "How the Tortoise outran the Deer" (Hartt, p. 7; Smith, p. 543, gives the version in Hartt, saying: "I quote Professor Hartt's words for this story, as being better than the version, substantially the same, that I find in my note-book. The story is very common all over the Amazons."—"Riverside Magazine," November, 1868, p. 507; "Cornell Era," January 20, 1871; "Nation," February 23, 1871, p. 127; and "Lippincott's Magazine," December, 1877, p. 751). The Tortoise declares that it can outrun the Deer, and the latter challenges it to a race. The Tortoise secretly posts members of its family along the course, who answer for him when the Deer asks if he is ahead. The race begins, and the Deer is so bewildered at hearing the Tortoise's voice always ahead of him, that he runs against a tree and falls down dead. In "Uncle Remus" the Rabbit takes the place of the Deer, and the story ends with the Terrapin's victory without the death of his rival. In "Lippincott" the actors are Buh Rabbit and Buh Frog; but the writer remarks that another version makes the competitors Buh Deer and Buh Cooter (the Negro name for terrapin, or land-tortoise). A German version of this story is given in the "Riverside Magazine," September, 1868, and a version from Siam may be found in the "Orient und Occident," III, 497. A more important and significant parallel, however, is to be found in Bleek, No. 16, p. 32, "The Tortoises hunting the Ostriches": "One day, it is said, the Tortoises held a council how they might hunt Ostriches, and they said: 'Let us, on both sides, stand in rows near each other, and let one go to hunt the Ostriches, so that they must flee along through the midst of us.' They did so, and, as they were many, the Ostriches were obliged to run along through the midst of them. During this they did not move, but, remaining always in the same places, called each to the other, 'Are you there?' and each one answered, 'I am here.' The Ostriches, hearing this, ran so tremendously that they quite exhausted their strength, and fell down. Then the Tortoises assembled at the place where the Ostriches had fallen, and devoured them."

II. "How the Tortoise provoked a Contest of Strength between the Tapir and the Whale" (Hartt, p. 20; Smith, p. 545; "Uncle Remus," p. 111). In Hartt, a Tortoise went down to the sea to drink, and a Whale made sport of him, but the former said he was stronger than the latter, and could pull him on shore. The Whale laughed, but the Tortoise went into the forest to get a long root, and, while, looking for it, met a Tapir, who asked him what he was doing. The Tortoise replied that he was looking for a root to pull the Tapir into the sea with. The Tortoise found his root, and tied one end to the Tapir and the other end to the whale (of course, both remaining in ignorance of the performance); the two then tugged against each other, and finally gave up the struggle from sheer exhaustion. In another version (p. 23) the cobra grande, or mythical great serpent, and the jaguar are made to pull against each other in the same way. Smith mentions a version he himself heard, and then gives Professor Hartt's. In "Uncle Remus" Brer Terrapin brags that he can out-pull Brer Bear, and, borrowing Miss Meadows's bed-cord, he gives one end to the Bear, and, diving down into the water, fastens his own end to a big root, and the Bear soon gives up pulling against Brer Terrapin.

III. In a version of another story, "How a Tortoise killed a Jaguar" (Hartt, p. 29; Smith, p. 542; "Uncle Remus," p. 60), the Jaguar is represented as reaching down into the burrow and catching hold of the Tortoise, who, resisting, calls out, "Oh, you foolish fellow! you think you have caught me, when it is only the root of a tree you have secured." In "Uncle Remus," the Fox, in revenge for what will be told in the following story, determines to kill Brer Terrapin, The latter begs piteously not to be drowned, and the Fox, taken in by this, souses him into the water, still holding on to him, when the Terrapin "begin fer ter holler, 'Tu'n loose dat stump, en ketch holt er me.' Brer Fox he holler back, 'I ain't got holt er no stump, en I is got holt er you.'" But at last he was deceived by the Terrapin's cry that he was drowning, and let go of him.

IV. In the last-mentioned story, "How a Tortoise killed a Jaguar" (Hartt, p. 26; Smith, p. 541; for one incident only, "Uncle Remus," p. 52), a Monkey carried a Tortoise up into a palm-tree to eat the fruit. When his hunger was satisfied, the Tortoise wished to descend, but the Monkey had gone, so the Tortoise had to remain there until a Jaguar came along and asked him why he didn't come down. The Tortoise said he was afraid, but the Jaguar said: "Don't be afraid! Jump! I will catch you!" Then the Tortoise jumped down and struck the Jaguar on the head and killed him. In Mr. Smith's version, collected at the same place (Santarem), the Tortoise, after throwing the Jaguar down some fruit, slips off the tree, and, falling on the Jaguar's head, kills him. In "Uncle Remus," while the Rabbit and Terrapin are calling at Miss Meadows's, the Fox comes in on them unawares, and the Terrapin, who has been put up on a shelf, rolls off in his agitation, falls on the head of the Fox, and stuns him a moment, so that Brer Rabbit escapes.

These are all the stories in Hartt which have full or partial parallels in "Uncle Remus"; there are, however, several additional ones in Smith that belong here.

V. "Story of the Jaguar who wanted to marry the Deer's Daughter, but was cut out by the Cotia" (Smith, p. 547; "Riverside Magazine," 1868, p. 505; "Lippincott's," 1877, p. 753; and "Uncle Remus," p. 34). The Cotia brags that he can ride the Jaguar, and the Deer promises to give him his daughter if he does. The Cotia pretends to be ill, and the Jaguar charitably takes him on his back, and even ties him on with a root, and gives him a switch. When the Cotia finds himself master of the situation, he whips the Jaguar unmercifully, and rides him by the Deer's house. In "Lippincott" the Rabbit and Wolf, in the other versions the Rabbit and Fox, are the parties concerned.

VI. In the conclusion of Smith's version, p. 549, the Cotia slipped off the Jaguar's back, and hid in a hole before the latter could catch him. The Jaguar set an Owl to watch the hole, but the Cotia peeped out and threw a handful of sand in the Owl's face and ran away. A somewhat similar incident is found in "Uncle Remus," p. 39 ("Riverside Magazine," 1868, p. 508, III, at end), but, instead of throwing sand in the Buzzard's eyes, the Rabbit makes him believe that there is a squirrel in the tree in which the Rabbit is imprisoned, and, when the Buzzard rushes around to catch it, the Rabbit escapes.

VII. "Story of the Cotia who played Tricks on the Jaguar and outwitted him" (Smith, p. 549, at end). The Jaguar, enraged at the tricks played upon him by the Cotia, caught the latter and tied him to a tree, intending to drown him in the morning. The Cotia expressed his joy at this determination, and remarked that he would be very sad if he was going to be thrown into a brier-bush. The Jaguar, of course, changed his mind and threw his enemy into a brier-bush; whereat the Cotia ran away laughing. The same incident precisely occurs in "Uncle Remus," p. 29 ("Riverside Magazine," 1868, p. 505, I), with the Fox and the Rabbit, who begs, "fer de Lord's sake, don't fling me in dat brier-patch!" The Fox is again deceived, and the Rabbit, as he escapes unhurt, cries out, "Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox!"

VIII. A variant of the last story( Smith, pp. 552, 554) relates that, to be avenged on the Cotia, the Lion and Jaguar guarded a spring, so that the Cotia could get nothing to drink. After a time the Cotia became very thirsty, and, seeing a man pass with a jar on his head, said to himself, "I will see if I can get some water from that jar." So he ran ahead of the man and lay down in the path. The man thought it was a dead Cotia, and shoved it aside with his foot and went on. This the Cotia repeated four times, and at last the man said: "Here's another dead Cotia! Now, I will go back and get the others, and carry all four home." He put down the jar and went to look for the other Cotias. Then the Cotia jumped up and thrust his head into the jar, which contained molasses instead of water. In "Uncle Remus," p. 70, the Rabbit, by a similar stratagem, steals Brer Fox's game. Mr. Smith, p. 558, note, mentions a parallel to this story from Egypt (Khunzinger, "Upper Egypt, its People and its Products," p. 401). I do not recall any parallel in which animals are the actors; but a similar trick is found in many versions of the story of "The Master Thief," for instance, in Asbjörnsen and Moe's "Norske Folke-Eventyr," No. 34, "Mestertyven."

We are prepared now to consider briefly the origin of these stories, which are substantially the same in Brazil and in the Southern States. That the negroes of the United States obtained these stories from the South American Indians is an hypothesis no one would think of maintaining; but that the Indians heard these stories from the African slaves in Brazil, and that the latter, as well as those who were formerly slaves in the United States, brought these stories with them from Africa is, we think, beyond a doubt, the explanation of the resemblances we have noted. Owing to a scarcity of materials, we have not been able to show very clearly the African origin of these stories, but what we have cited makes it at least probable. Whether the African stories of "Reynard the Fox" are original with the Hottentots, or have been communicated to them by the Dutch, is a point we can not decide, in the absence of more ample material for comparison.

The most interesting point in the present investigation, and one that connects it with the recent discussions on the subject of folk-lore, is that, if our explanation be true, it shows that popular tales are more readily diffused than has heretofore been supposed. Professor Hartt ("Amazonian Tortoise Myths," p. 5) says: "The question has arisen, whether many of the stories I have given, that bear so close a resemblance to Old World fables, may not have been introduced by the negroes? But I see no reason for entertaining this suspicion, for they are too widely spread, their form is too thoroughly Brazilian, they are most numerous in just those regions where negroes are not and have not been abundant, and, moreover, they occur, not in Portuguese but in the lingua geral. The first objection would simply show the extent of the diffusion, the second what would naturally take place on the introduction of stories from a country with a different fauna, and the final objections were overthrown, we believe, by Professor Hartt's hearing these same stories from the negroes in Rio. He gave up the hypothesis of an Indian origin, and did not continue his collection. Mr. Smith (p. 548) makes about the same objections, which are invalidated by the writer's own admissions: "They are repeated in remote provinces, among half-wild tribes who hardly (the italics are ours) ever see the negroes. . . . Many of the tortoise myths are told by the Mundurucú Indians, the majority of whom can not speak Portuguese." Mr. Smith also confirms, what has been said above, that these stories are told in Rio by the negroes, and a very suspicious circumstance is the introduction of a lion into one of the stories (p. 551), which, as Mr. Smith remarks, "shows that the narrator had heard of lions, probably from the slaves."

In taking leave of this interesting subject we must reiterate our praise of Mr. Harris's charming volume, and we trust that its scientific side may not be overlooked, but awaken an interest in negro folk-lore which will result in other works as entertaining and valuable as "Uncle Remus."

  1. Uncle Remus. His Songs and his Sayings. The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation. By Joel Chandler Harris. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881.
  2. There are four stories in this article which have no parallels in "Uncle Remus": "Buh Rabbit, Buh Wolf, and the Pears"; "Buh Rabbit frightens Buh Wolf"; "The Rooster and the Cornbread;" and "Buh Elephant and Buh Lion," which last has a distant resemblance to a story in Koelle's "African Native Literature," London, 1854, p. 177.
  3. Mr. Harris includes among the animal fables a story which properly does not belong there, and which is nothing but a well-known European tale which Uncle Remus must have heard from the whites, although Mr. Harris, p. 136, note, says, "This story is popular on the coast and among the rice-plantations, and, since the publication of some of the animal-myths in the newspapers, I have received a version of it from a planter in southwest Georgia." The story in question is No. XXXII, "Jacky-my-Lantern," and is nothing but a version of the French story of "Bonhomme Misère," which is of Italian origin. (See Pitrè, "Fiabe," Nos. 124, 125; De Gubernatis, "Novelline di Sto. Stefano," No. 32, etc.)