Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Oh My What an Unsatisfactory Day


FROM JULY 2006

“There is a state with more than half the area of Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and yet has not produced a single idea. Once upon a time a Georgian printed a couple of books that attracted notice, but immediately it turned out that he was little more than an amanuensis for the local blacks--that his works were really the products, not of white Georgia, but of black Georgia. Writing afterward as a white man, he swiftly subsided into the fifth rank. And he is not only the glory of the literature of Georgia; he is, almost literally, the whole of the literature of Georgia--nay, of the entire art of Georgia.”

From “The Sahara of the Bozart”
H.L. Mencken (1917)

Sure, you could protest. You could say, “What about Sidney Lanier? Doesn’t “Song of the Chattahoochee” make the American literary hit parade?” But I wouldn’t argue too hard. In your heart you know he’s right. At least, rhetorical excess aside, he was mainly right in 1917. Has anyone read “Song of the Chattahoochee” in the last hundred years without being forced to by an English teacher? The comforting thought is that there was a gracious plenty of legitimate literary glory coming down the line to prove this jackass Mencken wrong: James Dickey, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and, most of all, the little girl who would be born to Edwin and Regina O’Connor of Savannah about eight years after Mencken heaped contumely (to steal a phrase from Decatur’s Roy Blount) on the literature of my home state.

Do you have any idea what the hell an “amanuensis” is? I didn’t. Turns out to be “one who is employed to take dictation or to copy manuscript.” I did figure out quickly who he was calling an amanuensis: Joel Chandler Harris, creator (or popularizer, if you prefer) of the Uncle Remus stories. You know the how those stories go: Uncle Remus, a garrulous old slave, tells comic tales of talking animals (Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, et. al.) to a small white boy, son of the plantation’s owner. Mencken’s charge is a common one: these enormously popular dialect stories ( originally published in the Atlanta Constitution and later in best-selling collections) were not really Harris’ own creation, but merely copied from the slaves and ex-slaves on the plantations where Harris spent his youth. Later critics charged (accurately) that the figure of Uncle Remus belongs with Amos and Andy in the Racist Stereotype Hall of Fame. Harris’ defenders contend that he was actually a true literary craftsman and that he deeply respected his sources. Whatever. Whether you consider Harris a sensitive folklorist or an intellectual property thief, a brilliant writer or a mere – ahem – amanuensis, or some combination of these, there is no denying the staying power of the Uncle Remus stories in general, and one in particular: “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story.”

Actually, it is two stories, published serially. In part one Brer Fox tricks his nemesis Brer Rabbit into getting himself stuck in a boy-shaped glob of tar. In part two, as Brer Fox considers how to cause his prisoner the most pain, Brer Rabbit (in what may be the best known deployment of reverse psychology in all of literature) pleads miserably not to be thrown in the briar patch, tricking Brer Fox into throwing him into the one place where can actually free himself from the tar. Psych! There’s so much to dig about this story. For starters, its fun. My children, like generations of children before them, love the humor, the trickery, the talking animals, the suspense. On the academic wavelength, scholars have long interpreted Brer Rabbit as a representation of the black man in the post-bellum South, using his wits to prosper in a hostile world. I’m sure that by now some pomo scholar must have gone deeper and analyzed the text as a racial hall of mirrors. Then there’s the enduring allusive potency of this story. If you don’t believe me, google “tar baby” and “Iraq.”

My kids have been exposed to Harris’ work in a couple of ways. They enjoyed a performance of Brer Rabbit stories at the Center for Puppetry Arts last year. Also, I have been able to read some of the stories to them in picture book form, from one of the many updated versions of the stories now available. Not that I object to the pungency of the original. The problem is that Harris’ reconstructed dialect is so thick as to make the stories almost impossible to read aloud. Here’s Brer Rabbit getting stuck, as it originally appeared in the local paper (the same one I get in the driveway every morning):

" 'I'm gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter 'spectubble folks ef hit's de las' ack,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. 'Ef you don't take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I'm gwin ter bus' you wide open,' sezee.

"Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox he lay low.

"Brer Rabbit keep on axin' 'im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin' nothin', twel present'y Brer Rabbit drew back wid his fis', he did, en bilp he tuck 'er side er de head. Right dar's whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis' stuck, en he can't pull loose. De tar hilt 'im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

" 'Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han' en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low.


Can’t read six pages of that aloud, sez I.

I have had Harris on the brain lately because of one of our summertime experiences. This summer my wife cooked up the splendid idea of our own custom-made summer day camp for our own kids – “Keeping it Veal” – complete with field trips, art, and sports. Gradually we scaled back our ambitions to a week of field trips to local museums and educational tourist attractions: The Fernbank Museum, the High Museum, The World of Coke, the Georgia Aquarium, and the Wren’s Nest, home of Joel Chandler Harris. We all had fun and it was an enriching week for the kids. What escaped none of us was that of the five destinations we visited, one of these things was not like the others. Fernbank and the High satisfactorily counter Mencken’s complaints about Georgia as cultural backwater, and the World of Coke and the Aquarium – though they are both more about spectacle than about learning – are impressive. Each is a credit to the city.

But the Wren’s Nest, compared to these others, is just sorry.

Our visit, which cost $36 for the whole family, consisted of a seriously dated biographical slide show presented in a dingy parlor, followed by a tour through three rooms of the house. Though we learned a great deal about the peculiar domestic life of the Harris family during the tour, we also heard an awful lot about wallpaper. We wound up in a tiny little gift shop in back room that led to the exit (The Wren’s Nest has learned this much from the Aquarium and the World of Coke – nobody escapes without going through the gift shop).

I know we were there on a bad day. I’m told that the best time to visit the Wren’s Nest are days when they have professional storytellers on hand to tell the Uncle Remus stories.

I know that the Wren’s Nest, located as it is in a tough neighborhood, has an uphill struggle to become a tourist destination.

I know that an author’s house has certain inherent limitations as a tourist destination. I remember standing outside the Plexiglas barrier at Poe’s dorm room at UVa wondering, “What’s the big deal?”

I know that Harris’ problematic connection to the South’s racist heritage makes it difficult for the city to embrace him as a historical figure to be proud of.

And I know that the weakness of the Wren’s Nest as a tourist destination isn’t for lack of trying on the part of Harris’ devotees. Almost from the moment of his death they have been laboring and contributing to make his home a living monument to his life and work. In Atlanta, merely saving a historic building from the wrecking ball is achievement in itself, irrespective of what you’re able to do with the building.

And yet I cannot help believing that someone who matters as much as Harris deserves something more appealing. I’m not asking for Brer Turtle waterslides. Lord no. I would not want a visit to the Wren’s Nest to be like a visit to the World of Coke, but it could be considerably more engaging than it is now. Would a 21st century multi-media presentation be too much to ask? And perhaps a way to experience Uncle Remus stories when the storytellers aren’t there? And what about organizing exhibits by theme rather than by room, so that we could learn more about his controversial work than his uncontroversial home furnishings?

I know, however, that I should be careful what I wish for. The last time an institution with a talent for tourist-oriented spectacle got hold of Uncle Remus, the result was Song of the South, a film so appalling in its sunny depiction of race relations in the antebellum South that it is said to be permanently locked away in Disney’s vault. I have never seen it, but I gather that it makes Gone With the Wind look racially enlightened by comparison.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a zip-a-de-doo-dah!

(For a full and fascinating assessment of Harris and his literary rehabilitation, see this article that appeared some years ago in our fine local alternative newspaper, Creative Loafing. The author convincingly argues for Harris significance as a national cultural figure).

NOTE: Since this piece was posted, a local storyteller who specializes in Harris visited my American Literature class. I cannot speak highly enough of him.

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