One of the South’s most treasured authors, Joel Chandler Harris gained national prominence for his numerous volumes of Uncle Remus folktales. Harris’s long-standing legacy as a “progressive conservative” New South journalist, folklorist, fiction writer, and children’s author continues to influence our society today.
Early Life and Education
Harris was born in Eatonton on December 9, 1845 (not 1848, as traditionally believed). His mother, Mary Ann Harris, had left Richmond County to live in Eatonton—the original hometown of her maternal grandmother, Tabitha Turman—with her lover. Harris’s father, however, whose identity is uncertain, deserted his young family shortly after his son’s birth. Leading Eatonton citizen Dr. Andrew Reid befriended Mary and Joel, giving them a small cottage to live in behind his own mansion.
To make herself financially independent, Mary Harris took in sewing and helped neighbors with gardening. She also gave young Joel constant attention, reciting middle Georgia pioneer stories and reading Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield aloud so regularly that he memorized whole passages. When Harris reached school age, Andrew Reid stepped forward again and paid his tuition at Kate Davidson’s local academy for boys and girls. Harris later attended the Eatonton Academy for boys. One of his teachers recalled his excellent memory and writing ability. He also devoured newspapers and as many books as he could find. His classmates remembered that the undersized, carrot-topped, freckled-faced boy had a robust sense of humor and was an inveterate practical joker. In part, his joking and pranking may have been a way of masking a slight stammer, which was a lifelong affliction.
Early Career: The Turnwold Years
Gifted with a strong memory and a love of books, writing skills and a mischievous sense of humor, Harris was hired in March 1862 at age sixteen as a printing compositor for Joseph Addison Turner, the owner of 1,000-acre Turnwold Plantation. The semirestored plantation house and the historical marker commemorating Turnwold and Harris’s years there are located nine miles northeast of Eatonton on Old Phoenix Road. A country squire of the Thomas Jefferson mold, Turner aimed “to cultivate corn, cotton, and literature.” He had installed an old Washington hand press in a building behind the main house and was ready to publish what was probably America’s only plantation newspaper, The Countryman.
Harris’s four years at Turnwold (1862-66) shaped his career in profound ways. Like Benjamin Franklin a century earlier, and like contemporaries Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, Harris learned to write by hand-setting newspaper type as a young man. He began composing lines of type at Turner’s elbow. Turner soon obtained a draft exemption for Harris because of his undersized build—and because his work for a paper loyal to the Southern cause aided the war effort. Turner gave Harris fatherly advice and expanded his education in the liberal arts by recommending books from his vast personal library. An avid sectionalist, Turner endorsed Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Timrod but also stressed Dickens and Shakespeare. He encouraged Harris to write creatively and critically. Harris published at least thirty poems and book reviews for The Countryman, along with numerous comic paragraphs over the byline “The Countryman’s Devil.”
Harris also had full access to Turnwold’s slave quarters and to the kitchen, where he listened to African American animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy. These enslaved people became models for Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy, and other figures in the African American animal tales Harris began writing a decade later. Harris’s fictionalized autobiography, On the Plantation (1892), chronicles the influence of the Turnwold years on his development. The people he met and the stories he heard, the literary sensibility he began to cultivate there, and several physical features of the extensive middle Georgia plantation property itself informed Harris’s writing.
In 1864 Union troops under General William T. Sherman ransacked Turnwold, stealing valuables, including horses and livestock, on their march to the sea. Destruction on neighboring plantations was far worse, but nevertheless on May 8, 1866, Turner reluctantly had to suspend operations. Harris found himself a published author at age twenty, and he had also learned that writing was in his blood.
After a brief homecoming in Eatonton, Harris took a typesetting job in 1866 for the Macon Telegraph, some forty miles south, but he found that writing only routine journalism did not satisfy his expanding literary ambitions. After serving briefly as personal secretary to William Evelyn, publisher of the New Orleans Crescent Monthly, Harris returned home to accept the job of editor with the Monroe Advertiser of Forsyth, forty miles southwest of Eatonton. Harris enjoyed his years (1867-70) on the staff of this lively weekly owned by James P. Harrison, who had worked for Turner and also knew Harris. His sketches of rural Georgia life and character, book reviews, puns, and humorous paragraphs were widely reprinted and soon gained him a statewide reputation. In the fall of 1870 he was offered the position of associate editor on the highly respected Savannah Morning News. William Tappan Thompson, whose “Major Jones” sketches were second only in popularity to Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes, was the founder and editor of the paper. In Savannah, Harris returned to a heritage of Georgia humor at its best.
Harris’s comic and human-interest paragraphs in his “Affairs of Georgia” column for the Morning News were regularly reprinted around the state as “Hot shots from Red Hair-is,” “Harris Sparks,” and “Red-Top Flashes.” Harris also wrote editorials for the Morning News about compromised morality and “shifty” politicians that revealed the humane and democratic philosophy he espoused throughout his personal and professional life. While he was living at the Florida House (later part of the Marshall House) in Savannah, he courted and fell in love with a fellow resident, French Canadian Esther LaRose, the daughter of a steamer captain who plied the Georgia-Florida coast. They married in April 1873.
When a deadly yellow fever epidemic hit Savannah in August 1876, the Harris family, which now included two children, moved to higher ground in Atlanta to wait out the epidemic. (One of these children, Julian Harris, later became a writer and editor in his own right.) In September 1876 Atlanta Constitution editor Evan Howell and his outspoken new associate editor Henry W. Grady hired the young journalist whose paragraphs they had already been reprinting. He was soon named associate editor. Harris quickly discovered that Atlanta had become not only the fastest-growing city in the Southeast but also the very center of what Grady, a decade later, famously described as the New South. Harris soon was recognized as one of the country’s most important chroniclers of the changing face of the Old South become New.
A Literary Awakening: Uncle Remus Collections
Harris’s Constitution editorials expanded on the social, political, and literary themes he had begun exploring in Forsyth and Savannah—themes he would also treat both directly and indirectly in his folktales and fiction to come. When he was asked to fill in for absent dialect-writer Sam Small, he invented an engaging Black character named Uncle Remus, who liked dropping by the Constitution offices to share humorous anecdotes and sardonic insights about life on the streets of bustling postwar Atlanta. But an article Harris read on African American folklore in Lippincott’s, which included a transcribed story of “Buh Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” reminded him of the Brer Rabbit trickster stories he had heard from the enslaved people at Turnwold Plantation. His Uncle Remus character now began to tell old plantation folktales, back-home aphorisms, and African American folk songs, and newspapers around the country eagerly reprinted his rural legends and sayings. Before long, Harris had composed enough material for a book. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation was published by Appleton in November 1880. Within four months it had sold 10,000 copies and was quickly reprinted. Harris eventually wrote 185 of the tales.
For the next quarter-century, Harris lived a double life professionally. He was one of two associate editors of the premier newspaper in the Southeast, helping readers interpret the complex New South movement. He was also the creative writer, the “other fellow,” as he termed himself: a prolific, committed, and ambitious re-creator of folk stories, a literary comedian, fiction writer, and author of children’s books. Harris published thirty-five books in his lifetime, in addition to writing thousands of articles for the Constitution over a twenty-four-year period. Along with his first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the most ambitious of the Uncle Remus volumes is Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation (1883). This book comprises seventy-one tales that feature stories told by four different Black narrators, including Uncle Remus.
Harris published five other collections of Uncle Remus tales in his lifetime, the most accomplished of which is Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905). In this volume, a seemingly ageless Uncle Remus tells his complex allegorical tales to the son of the little boy from the first stories. This frail, citified, and “unduly repressed” child is sent by Miss Sally, his grandmother, to Remus’s knee to learn how to be a real boy in a complex, competitive, and even predatory world. Three shorter volumes of previously uncollected Uncle Remus stories appeared after Harris’s death.
The Uncle Remus volumes assured Harris’s reputation, which became international almost overnight. Professional folklorists praised his work in popularizing Black storytelling traditions. In 1888 Harris was named a charter member, with Mark Twain, of the American Folklore Society. Before long, in fact, publishing local dialect tales became an international phenomenon: Harris helped spawn a whole industry. Twain had been so impressed by Harris’s dialect-writing skills that he had invited Harris in 1882 to meet him and George Washington Cable in New Orleans, Louisiana, to plan an ambitious series of platform readings around the country. Because of his persistent stammer, however, Harris turned down the lucrative offer. The future author of Huckleberry Finn took some of Harris’s material on the road with him, and Twain reported later that the tar baby story was always one of his most popular stage-readings.
Harris also left his impact on major literary figures to come. Rudyard Kipling, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison all responded to the legacy of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby that Harris had helped popularize. Fellow Eatonton writer Alice Walker protested, however, that Harris had stolen her African American folklore heritage and had made it a white man’s publishing commodity.
Short Stories and Novels
Harris was a much more ambitious writer than he implied in his typically self-effacing public statements about being “an accidental author.” He had been writing literary reviews for two decades before he moved to Atlanta, and he had published his first attempt at extended fiction—a somewhat clumsy episodic love story, The Romance of Rockville —as a serialized novel in the Constitution in 1878. Yet Harris took his work as a fiction writer seriously, and he honed his craft considerably in the course of publishing seven volumes of short stories (in addition to the Uncle Remus tales) and three more novels. In his local-color short fiction and novels, Harris explored the lighter and the darker sides of conflicts in race, class, and gender in the South.
Harris published his first collection of short stories, Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White, in 1884, followed by Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches (1887), Balaam and His Master and Other Sketches and Stories (1891), and an interlocking set of narratives, The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann (1899). Among the best of Harris’s local-color stories are “Free Joe and the Rest of the World,” a poignant and regularly anthologized story about an isolated Black freedman scorned by enslaved Black and resented by poor whites; “Mingo,” a study in prejudice and resentment between upper-class and lower-class white families; “At Teague Poteet’s,” a Georgia moonshiner tale that also influenced Huckleberry Finn; and several of the energetic and highly engaging Minervy Ann narratives. The title story of The Making of a Statesman and Other Stories (1902) is a modern narrative about the personal sacrifices a ghostwriter makes in order to help a politician be successful.
Books for Children
Harris’s Uncle Remus volumes are simultaneously adult folktales and children’s literature because the Brer Rabbit trickster tales work on multiple levels, as voluminous scholarship on these stories confirms. But Harris also wrote six volumes of stories primarily for children: Little Mr. Thimblefinger and His Queer Country (1894) and its sequel, Mr. Rabbit at Home (1895); The Story of Aaron (1896) and its companion volume, Aaron in the Wildwoods (1897); and another tandem set of stories, Plantation Pageants (1899) and Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine (1903). Harris’s recreation of believable and engaging critters, particularly in his Brer Rabbit tales, virtually revolutionized the modern children’s story. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Howard Garis’s Uncle Wiggly, and A. A. Milne’s Pooh Bear—not to mention a whole herd of film and television reincarnations of trickster Brer Rabbit and his gullible adversaries—are all reinventions of Harris’s highly animated creatures that talk and behave “de same ez folks.”
Harris retired from the Atlanta Constitution in 1900, free at last of what he termed the “newspaper grind” but leaving an influential legacy as a “progressive conservative”—a New South journalist who actively promoted socioeconomic, sectional, and racial reconciliation. In addition to publishing the final volumes of Uncle Remus stories, children’s books, and adult fiction, he founded Uncle Remus’s Magazine, was honored by President Theodore Roosevelt in Atlanta and at the White House, and was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Harris died on July 3, 1908, of acute nephritis and was buried in Westview Cemetery, West End, Atlanta. Obituary writers were not exaggerating when they eulogized this celebrated middle Georgia writer as “the most beloved man in America.” Only Harris’s friend and admirer, Mark Twain, who died two years later, surpassed Harris in popular reputation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Harris’s retelling of the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby remains one of the world’s best-known folktales, and his complex legacy as a literary comedian, New South journalist, folklorist, fiction writer, and children’s author continues to influence modern culture in a surprising number of ways.
Harris’s fully restored Victorian home and museum house in Atlanta, the Wren’s Nest, located off I-20 at 1050 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard S.W., has served as the headquarters for the Joel Chandler Harris Association (previously called the Uncle Remus Memorial Association) since 1913. The Uncle Remus Museum on 214 Oak Street in Eatonton, comprising two authentic mid-nineteenth-century hewn-log slave cabins, contains Harris memorabilia and a diorama of scenes from the folktales.
In 2000 Harris was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.