That Wascally Wabbit: Review of American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition, and Brer Rabbit by Emily Zobel Marshall
American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition, and Brer Rabbit. Emily Zobel Marshall. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
As a kid, I watched Bugs Bunny play his “wascally” tricks on Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and other characters. I never thought of the trickster rabbit in relation to Africa, even in my adulthood. I never thought about him in relation to the enslavement of millions of people. I always thought of him merely as an anthropomorphic “wabbit” that caused mischief and always succeeded. Emily Zobel Marshall draws this connection, if briefly, in her book American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition and Brer Rabbit, tracing Bugs Bunny’s lineage to Africa, specifically to the Yoruba and Ashanti trickster gods Eshu and Anansi, as one of many manifestations of the rabbit trickster figure in the Black diaspora of the Americas.
Throughout her book, Marshall details the history of Brer Rabbit, the trickster’s reach, and the ways that Black writers like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison countered the appropriation of the character by white authors such as Joel Chandler Harris and Beatrix Potter. Ultimately, Marshall’s book works “to explore the cultural trajectory of the brer Rabbit trickster figure, and through comparisons to the Anansi trickster of the Caribbean, scrutinize the cultural insights Brer Rabbit can offer us in terms of our understanding of black American folk culture and the cultural and psychological legacies of enslavement.”
Marshall’s core argument comes down to confronting the folkloric practices of gathering and compiling the oral trickster tales of enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals in America and the Caribbean, the ways that white authors appropriated those tales and profited from them, and examining how leading Black authors reclaimed those appropriated tales in their own writing. Nostalgically longing for the pre-Civil War era, Joel Chandler Harris collected and compiled African-American folktales in an effort to preserve the past as he saw it: an idyllic vision that would inform the creation of the mythological Old South. During the late nineteenth century, Harris became a respected folklorist and collector; however, as time moved forward, critics started to chip away at the whitewashed walls of Harris’ constructed history.
Marshall provides a valuable examination of the ways that Harris appropriates Brer Rabbit, and how writers like Ellison and Morrison responded to this appropropriation, but I am left wanting more in certain areas. Specifically, Marshall mentions authors such as Louisianian Alcée Fortier, a professor of language at Tulane University in New Orleans and a founding member and president of the American Folklore Society in chapter three. Fortier published Louisiana Folktales: In French Dialect and English Translation (1895). In this unfortunately short, fourteen-page chapter, however, Marshall spends about eleven on Joel Chandler Harris and only about three on Fortier and another author, Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. Harris takes up a large chunk of the book, here and elsewhere, and Marshall’s dissection of Harris and his impact is valuable and well done. However, the lack of space given to Fortier and Jones, Jr. is a missed opportunity to broaden the discussion.
A similar thing occurs when Marshall introduces the connections between Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny in chapter four, where her focus is explicitly on problematizing popular adaptations of the Brer Rabbit figure. Here, she begins with a discussion of Harris’s influence on Beatrix Potter’s work and how Potter moved to disassociate herself from Harris’s racist thought by disavowing the writer’s influence on her own Peter Rabbit. Next, Marshall details African-American writer, artist, and political activist Julius Lester’s responses to Harris in the 1960s, and the twenty-page chapter concludes with two paragraphs on Bugs Bunny. Again, while the discussions of Harris’ influence on Potter and Lester’s responses to Harris are important and well argued, the move to conclude with Bugs Bunny so quickly and with little discussion, in a chapter explicitly concerned with the popularization of the Brer Rabbit figure, leaves me pleading for more.
Melded within Marshall’s argument, as well, is a critique of folklore practices and the gathering of trickster narratives (by mostly white folklorists) both in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Marshall’s engagement with this history stands out because she details the ways that whites collected Brer Rabbit and Anansi tales in the U.S. and the Caribbean, respectively. Ultimately, Marshall argues that in contrast to African Americans “there was a continued sense of ownership felt by African descendants in the Anglophone Caribbean for Anansi.” This led to a greater connection between the Caribbean Anansi and his Ashanti ancestor while, as Alice Walker put it, Joel Chandler Harris made her and others “feel ashamed of [her heritage]” with his appropriation of Brer Rabbit and its subsequent broad cultural impact.
Concluding American Trickster, Marshall looks at three Black authors who write back to Harris’s Uncle Remus: Ralph Ellison, Nella Larsen, and Toni Morrison. To a certain extent, Marshall’s discussion here reminds me of the ways that Black readers took the blatant Blaxploitation tropes created for white audiences by Holloway House and reappropriated it, claiming it as their own in hip hop and other art forms. Similarly, these three authors took back what Harris had stolen. Along with other African-American writers such as Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, they speak back to Remus. Marshall spends the bulk of this section looking at the ways that Morrison’s texts “celebrate the richness of trickster narration and explore the potential of trickster tactics to overcome reductive and essentializing views of black femininity” through her use of female protagonists. One author lacking an in-depth examination, though, is Alice Walker. Walker grew up close to Harris’s hometown, and Marshall references her throughout. A chapter exploring Walker’s relationship with and challenge to Harris, instead of mentions here and there, would have added significantly to the section of African American authors responding to Remus.
Overall, American Trickster provides a broad examination of Brer Rabbit, from his origins in African belief-systems, to Harris’s wildly successful appropriation in the Uncle Remus stories, to his eventual place in popular culture and, finally, to the ways that African-American authors reclaimed him. While there are areas where I wish Marshall would have broadened the discussion, I found American Trickster enlightening, especially in its examination of Harris’s collection methods and his impact. Marshall’s work engages with a long history of scholars such as Daryl Dance, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Julius Lester, and more, and we should consider American Trickster within this context. Marshall provides a detailed history of Brer Rabbit in America, focusing on the tricker’s appropriation and reclamation. The exploration of this trajectory serves us well when thinking not only historically but also within our current media landscape. American Trickster is a book for Black literary and cultural studies scholars as well as the broader audience. It provides us with a lens to see how the depictions of Brer Rabbit that Harris and others appropriated in the nineteenth century remain with us today in new forms.
Matthew Teutsch (he/him/his) is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther. He can be found on Twitter as @silaslapham.
This review was invited by editor Sean Guynes in November 2020. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly networks. A review copy was arranged.