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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Joel Chandler Harris

The conflicts between the values of the Old and New South were vividly illustrated in the journalistic and literary career of Joel Chandler Harris.

Born in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, in 1848, Harris was the son of a poor white mother and an Irish day laborer who deserted his family shortly after Harris's birth. His mother supported the family through her work as a seamstress, but at thirteen Harris set out on his own, becoming an apprentice to Joseph Addison Turner, who published a newspaper on his plantation, Turnwold. It was from the slaves on this plantation, in the twilight of the Old South, that Harris first heard the African American folktales that were to make him famous.

Following the Civil War he worked on other newspapers in New Orleans and throughout Georgia, culminating in 1876 in his appointment to the editorial staff of the Atlanta Constitution. The Constitution was run by Henry Woodfin Grady (1850-1889), Georgia's most enthusiastic promoter of the "New South," an industrialized, urbanized, "Yankeefied" society totally reconciled to its restoration to the Union. Harris too was a believer in both sectional reconciliation and the commercial development of the region, and he produced numerous editorials supporting Grady's vision. In addition, however, he fulfilled a quite different assignment for the paper as he returned to the world of his youth in the retelling of the slave stories through a black character called Uncle Remus. Modeled after some of the slaves he had encountered at Turnwold, Uncle Remus in the earliest sketches was presented in an urban setting and used to express harsh critiques of the ex-slaves, particularly those who sought political power and formal education. This character evolved into the Remus with whom contemporary readers are familiar: the gentle old man who transfixes a little white boy night after night with stories about small, seemingly defenseless animals whose cunning outwits stronger but less intelligent beasts.

Reprinted in newspapers throughout the nation, the Uncle Remus stories were an immediate success, appealing to a reading public already receptive to the image of the antebellum South as an idyllic land where master and slave lived in harmony and older slaves considered the master's children their own. In 1880 Harris published his first collection, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, followed in 1883 by Nights With Uncle Remus. There were several collections of Uncle Remus stories during Harris's lifetime, of which the first, with the classic Tar Baby story, is probably the best. As the demand for more stories intensified, he was hard-pressed to come up with them and had to turn to the recollections of others; inevitably these later stories lacked the immediacy and vividness of those in the 1880 edition.

Harris was not unaware of the psychological implications of the stories he retold; he knew why the slaves, with few or no means at hand for effective physical resistance, celebrated the successes of weak but clever creatures like Brer Tarrypin and Brer Rabbit over the stronger but slower Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Wolf. He never told the stories to his own children, because in so many of them the punishments doled out to the smaller creatures' enemies (boiling, skinning alive, and burning) are so brutal. Nonetheless, in essays and rare public appearances he persisted in depicting the African American as gentle, compassionate, and eager for reconciliation with whites.

Harris became prolific in the 1880s and 1890s, producing such short story collections as Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White (1884) and Free Joe, and Other Georgia Sketches (1887). He also wrote several novels and a collection of sketches built around a poor white homespun philosopher called Uncle Billy Sanders. But it was for Uncle Remus that Harris was destined to be best remembered, and the release of a full-length Walt Disney motion picture, Song of the South, in 1946 introduced new generations to a set of characters who appear assured of a permanent place in American folklore.

A shy, self-effacing man, Harris thought of himself as a "cornfield journalist" whose chief contribution was as compiler rather than creator. But his picturesque recollections and his marvelous ear for dialect have won him well-deserved praise. Harris unquestionably sentimentalized the lives of slaves in his sketches, and even in "Free Joe," where he reveals an awareness of the cruel side of race relations in the antebellum South, he has written a story that many critics see as supporting mainstream southern claims that blacks were better off in slavery. In judging Harris's work, however, we must recall that he was writing at a time when the South's most virulent spokespeople, in literature and in politics, were painting for a gullible public a picture of African Americans as vicious and bestial. Whatever his deficiencies in bridging the gap between races, Harris's nostalgic black portraits did serve to awaken white readers to the richness of African American folklore, a treasure they would have otherwise not encountered.

George Friedman
Towson State University

In the Heath Anthology
from Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches
      Free Joe and the Rest of the World (1887)
from Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings
      Chapter II: "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" (1880)
      Chapter IV: "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox" (1880)

Other Works
Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White (1884)
Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction (1902)

Cultural Objects
Image file"Song of the South" - Disney's contoversial adaptation of Uncle Remus

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Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches
The complete text of Harris' book, including scans of the illustrations and frontmatter.

Uncle Remus
Selections from Uncle Remus, illustrations, and contemporary reviews.

Biography of Joel Chandler Harris
A biographical sketch accompanied by a photograph.

Perspectives in American Literature
A list of works and a bibliography of secondary sources.

Secondary Sources

R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris, 1978, 1987

R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., ed., Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris, 1981

Stella Brewer Brookes, Joel Chandler Harris, Folklorist, 1950

Paul M. Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris, 1968

Alvin F. Harlow, Joel Chandler Harris: Plantation Storyteller, 1941

Julia Collier Harris, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, 1918

Robert Hemenway, ed., Introducion, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, 1982

Hugh T. Keenan, Dearest Chums and Partners: Joel Chandler Harris's Letters to His Children: A Domestic Biography, 1993

Eric T. Montenyohl, "Joel Chandler Harris and American Folklore," Atlanta Folklore Journal 30 (Fall-Winter 1986-7):79-88

Eric J. Sundquist, "Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, and the New Negro" in To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, 1993

Bernard Wolfe, "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit," in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel, ed., Alan Dundes, 1973, 1981