Southern Literature
(LIT-C400, Spring 2000)
 

Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908)


Born in the Putman County seat of Eatonton, Georgia, in the late days of the antebellum South, Joel Chandler Harris was the love child of Mary Harris, a respectable, unmarried woman, who, at thirty-one, ran away from her home in an adjoining county with an Irish day laborer. Deserted soon after her son's birth, the proud and educated Mary lived with Joe (Harris' lifelong nickname) in a one-room shed. With the exception of Mary's sewing, their livelihood depended on the generosity of Eatonton citizens.

Raised in what Harris later described as "the seat of Southern humor," the freckle-faced, red-haired Joe, an admired and funny prankster, lived out the middle-Georgia tradition of backwoods humor captured by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, William Tappan Thompson, and Richard Malcolm Johnston. The jokes, mischief-making, and clowning provided a useful facade for the extraordinarily shy, sensitive, and self-conscious Joe, who struggled throughout his lifetime with a speech impediment and a horror of public appearances, speaking or reading. Even Mark Twain and George W. Cable could not later cajole a terrified Harris to become part of their lucrative public readings. Unsuccessful in formal schooling, Joe devoured books and newspapers, particularly The Countryman, an ardently pro-Confederate and influential weekly published by Joseph Addison Turner at his nearby, two thousand-acre plantation Turnwold.When Turner advertised for "a young white boy" interested in learning "the printer's trade," the thirteen-year-old Harris seized the opportunity.

The four years (1862-1866) Harris lived at Turnwold changed his life and shaped his career. Under the tutelage of the well-educated Turner, Harris became a neophyte journalist and acquired the information and values that would make him, like his mentor, a champion of southern life and literature. However, Turner's southern patriot dreams died with the arrival of Federal troops in 1864 and the failure of Turnwold and its newspaper two years later.  In his autobiographical reflections, On the Plantation (1892), Harris described his early friendship with the Turnwold slaves, especially the storytellers Mink, Old George, and Aunt Crissy--all of whom became a composite for Uncle Remus. For Harris, Eatonton and Turnwold were emblems of southern hospitality and compassionate gentility. While Harris was never fully separated from his vision of a loving, egalitarian, slave-holding Confederacy, his sympathy and his literary fame would rest with those who, like himself, learned to survive on the margins of white privilege and power.

After Turnwold, Harris' journalistic career evolved from typesetting and secretarial positions in Macon and New Orleans to service as an increasingly popular columnist, humorist, and editor in Forsyth and Savannah. Three years after his 1873 marriage to French Canadian Esther LaRose--a lifelong happy union with eight children--Harris moved to Atlanta to avoid a yellow-fever epidemic and there joined Henry Grady as associate co-editor of the Atlanta Constitution. The two men placed their differing visions in the service of the New South. Grady preached dramatic economic reform; Harris sought national reconciliation through sectional healing and the celebration of southern ways and literature.

In addition to his editorials, Harris' wrote increasingly popular dialect sketches in the voice of an aging black man, who first appeared in the Constitution on October 26, 1876. But it was only a year later, with the publication of "Uncle Remus as a Rebel," that Harris created the first full portrait of Uncle Remus, asreaders would come to know and love him. Harris revised it as "Story of the War" in his 1880 collection Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880); the first printing sold 10,000 copies. In "A Story of the War," Harris uses the popular local-color device of a northern visitor, who learns first-hand the "truths" about the South. Remus explains his war activities: protecting his white mistress (Miss Sally), wounding a union soldier (who consequently loses his arm), and nursing the soldier ("Marse" John) back to health and eventual marriage with the mistress. This initiation provides the framework for the subsequent Uncle Remus material. "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox" was first published on July 20, 1879, in the Constitution. Renamed "Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy," the story, which opened the first Uncle Remus collection, presents the six-year-old son of Miss Sally and Marse John. The boy, sitting in the flickering firelight of Uncle Remus' cabin, begs for stories and asks questions as Remus beguiles him with tale after tale of the dancing, singing, smoking, tobacco-chewing trickster Brer Rabbit. Among the tales, proverbs, songs and myths, which make up this first collection is "Why the Negro is Black." Its startling premise--that "Dey wuz a time w'en all de w'ite folks 'us black"--could only be tolerated from the safe distances that the now-venerated Harris had created with his dialect speaking, faithful ex-slave.

In the eight Uncle Remus books that followed, the little boy was eventually replaced by his son, but Brer Rabbit continued to fool creatures much stronger and less cunning than he in eight tales. Based on African folktales that were retold in many areas of the South, stories like "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" and Brer Rabbit's brier-patch escape in "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox" have become the stuff of American legend, emerging transformed in many forms, including Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1981). In the southern local colorists' antebellum gallery of loyal blacks, Uncle Remus remains distinctive: energetic, sometimes overbearing and always influential. Harris' stories of Uncle Remus create an antebellum climate of mutual trust, a gentle South of mostly beneficial race relations, one that northerners could respect, even admire.

Although the ten Uncle Remus collections (three published posthumously) constitute Harris' most familiar legacy, they were only part of his oeuvre. His distinguished and lengthy literary career spanned more than twenty-five years, producing essays, novels, a fictional autobiography, several collections of other middle Georgia tales (featuring the spirited black woman Aunt Minervy Ann and former Confederate private and wisecracking philosopher Billy Sanders) as well as stories of freed blacks, the Civil War, and plain rural and mountain folk. "Where's Duncan?" from Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches (1887), provides a sample of this lesser known but equally impressive work. The story relates the fiery destruction of an old white planter, his angry mulatta mistress, and, presumably, their son, who has returned to confront them both. "Where's Duncan?" exposes the violence, discord, and isolation of southern life that Harris often disguised with humor; its narrative ambiguity and surrealism point toward the later work of southern modernists like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

After his retirement from the Constitution in 1900, Harris increased his commitment to writing, publishing additional tales and novels, including Gabriel Tolliver:A Story of the Reconstruction (1902). He was made a charter member of the American Academy of Folklore in 1889, awarded an honorary doctorate from Emory College, and became the only southerner invited to join the newly established American Academy of Arts and Letters. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 applauded Harris for writing "what exults the South in the mind of every man who reads it, and yet what has not a flavor of bitterness toward any other part of the Union." The Harris Roosevelt admired disguised grim truths as "a tale, honey, an' tellin' tales is playin.'" Even though Harris was a serious and influential regional writer and essayist, what Harris called "poor little stories" by a "dull reporter" with only "an old negro man, a little boy" established his contemporary fame and have lingered as the measure of his lasting influence.
 

Primary Sources
Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, 1880, ed. Robert Hemenway, ed., 1982; Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation, 1883; Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White, 1884; Balaam and His Master and Other Sketches and Stories, 1891; Sister Jane: Her Friends and
Acquaintances, 1896; Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches, 1897; The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann, 1899; Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of the
Reconstruction, 1902; Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist: Miscellaneous Literary, Political, and Social Writings, ed. Julia Collier Harris, 1931; The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, ed. Richard Chase, 1955.
Secondary Sources
Julia C. Harris, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, 1918; Robert Lemuel Wiggins, The Life of Joel Chandler Harris: From Obscurity in Boyhood to Fame in Early Manhood, 1918; Alvin F. Harlow, Joel Chandler Harris, Plantation Storyteller, 1941; Paul M. Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography, 1968; R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris, 1978, (rev. ed. 1987); Hugh T. Kennan, ed., Dearest Chums and Partners: Joel Chandler Harris's Letters to His Children: A Domestic Biography, 1993; R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, 1981; Stella Brewer Brookes, Joel Chandler Harris--Folklorist, 1950, This is copyrighted material; all rights strictly reserved. For permission to reproduce, contact Barbara C. Ewell (bewell@loyno.edu) or Pamela Menke (pmenke@regis.edu).