Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from southern African-Americans. Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop's Fables and Jean de La Fontaine's stories. Uncle Remus is a kindly old former slave who serves as a storytelling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him.
The stories are written in an eye dialect devised by Harris to represent a Deep South Gullah dialect. The genre of stories is the trickster tale. At the time of Harris's publication, his work was praised for its ability to capture plantation Negro dialect.
Br'er Rabbit ("Brother Rabbit") is the main character of the stories, a likable character, prone to tricks and trouble-making, who is often opposed by Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. In one tale, Br'er Fox constructs a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br'er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the "tar baby" amiably but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as Tar Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and becomes stuck.
The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the narrator's "old Uncle" stereotype were considered overly demeaning by many African-American people, reflecting what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the stories' context, as they are set on a former slave-owning plantation and portrayed in a passive, even docile, manner. Nevertheless, Harris's work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. He claimed to have listened to, and memorized, the African American animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy at the plantation; he wrote them down some years later. He acknowledged his debt to these storytellers in his fictionalized autobiography, On the Plantation (1892). Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition.
Harris himself said, in the introduction to Uncle Remus, that he hoped his book would be considered:
Mark Twain read the Uncle Remus stories to his children, who were awed to meet Harris himself. In his Autobiography Twain describes Harris thus:
Twain wrote: "It may be that Jim Wolf was as bashful as Harris. It hardly seems possible...." Jim Wolf is a character from the first humorous story Twain ever told: "Jim Wolf and the Cats.”