Brer Rabbit (cousin to Peter across the water)

>Speaking of famous rabbits who get into trouble, I thought I’d shift from Beatrix Potter’s polite English pastoral bunny (Peter Rabbit) to the sharp American trickster Brer Rabbit. The man who made Uncle Remus and his stories come alive was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), who died 100 years ago on July 3rd. Shown here is one binding variant (of four) of the first edition, first issue of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. We also have an 1895 edition, as well as the 1892 edition of his autobiographical novel On the plantation.

Throughout his career Harris was painfully modest about his storytelling abilities. His success, he said, was an accident. He was not a real writer, he argued, only a chronicler of local color. But the growing audience who watched for his Remus tales and plantation proverbs felt otherwise. Letters from throughout the nation, where his material had been spread by the newspaper exchange tradition of the time, called for more.

Finally D. Appleton and Company proposed that he issue his work in book form. Although Appleton’s agent reported that Harris was “diffident in the extreme,” he finally agreed, provided some new material, and published in November 1880 Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. (The book was dated 1881 but put on the market in late 1880 to catch the Christmas trade.) The book was an immediate success; ten thousand copies were sold the first four months and critical reviews were overwhelmingly favorable. “Mr. Harris’s book is altogether excellent of its kind,” a New York Times (1 December 1880) reviewer wrote, “and in preserving certain quaint legends and giving us exactly the sounds of the negro dialect, he has established on a firm basis the first real book of American folk lore.” (Sam G. Riley, DLB vol. 91).

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