Biography of Joel Chandler Harris
Born in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century to an unwed mother and abandoned by his Irish father, Joel Chandler Harris would overcome his humble origins to become a nationally prominent journalist, folklorist, and story writer. He spent a successful 24-year career in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution where he first wrote the Uncle Remus sketches that would make him famous. Though Harris’s use of southern African American oral culture as the basis of his Uncle Remus stories and his adoption of irregularly spelled dialect have complicated his legacy today, he was a hugely popular and influential writer in his day, admired by figures such as Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.
Childhood in Georgia
The exact date of Harris’s birth is uncertain as he claimed differing ages to suit the needs of the moment: though Harris’s invented birth date of December 9, 1848 had long been accepted by the public, biographer Walter M. Brasch identifies 1846 as the probable year of Harris’s birth. After being abandoned by Harris’s unidentified father, Harris’s mother, Mary Ann Harris, worked as a seamstress. A prominent citizen of Eatonton, Andrew Reid, took a kindly interest in the mother and young son and helped to support them, later paying for Harris’s tuition at local schools. Plagued by a stutter and embarrassed by the circumstances of his birth and red hair, Harris was a shy boy with an undistinguished academic record.
In 1862, at the purported age of sixteen, Harris took a job as a printer’s apprentice on Joseph Addison Turner’s 1000-acre plantation, Turnwold. An aficionado of printing, Turner had an old Washington hand press installed in a building behind the main house where he printed a plantation newspaper entitled The Countryman, and declared the cultivation of “corn, cotton, and literature” the plantation’s mission [Cousins, Paul M. Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968. 40. Print.] . There, Harris immersed himself in Turner’s extensive library. Turner encouraged the adolescent to read widely and to write poems, humorous paragraphs, and book reviews for publication in The Countryman. Harris’s four years at Turnwold Plantation prepared him for his future career as a journalist. More importantly, during his time on the plantation, Harris had access to the slaves’ quarters where he encountered a rich African-American tradition of storytelling which left an indelible impression on the young, aspiring writer.
On May 8, 1866, Turner reluctantly suspended operations after the plantation was ransacked as part of General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign. Harris eventually found a new job as an editor with the Monroe Advertiser of Forsyth (1867-70). There he continued his writing career, publishing sketches of rural Georgia life, book reviews and humorous passages. In 1870, Harris was offered the position of associate editor for the Savannah Morning News where Harris honed his reputation as a great comedic writer.
While in Savannah, Harris met and married French Canadian Esther LaRose. In August 1876, Harris and his family (which then included two children) moved to Atlanta to escape the deadly yellow fever epidemic raging through Savannah. Harris joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution as an associate editor. In 1876, he took over the paper’s popular local color column, an assignment with great implications for Harris’s future. The American reading public of the late nineteenth century was captivated by local color tales; columns devoted to such writing were a regular feature across the country’s periodicals. Regionalist writing, with its particular attention to the representation of local dialects, gave the country, still recovering from the divisiveness of the Civil War, a means of articulating a national identity by giving voice to and celebrating the distinctive speech of each region.
It was for the Constitution’s local color column that Harris first invented the Uncle Remus character which would eventually bring him such fame. Harris’s first Remus creation was an urban African American man who stopped by the newspaper office to report on social issues and problems plaguing the South during the Reconstruction. Harris struggled with the column and did not intend to continue it, but an article on the significance of the folklore of southern African Americans published in Lippincott’s Magazine by William Owens inspired him. Newly attuned to the literary value of African American folklore and disgusted with the inaccuracies of Owen’s article, Harris decided to use the Constitution’s local color column to share the folktales he had heard from the slaves at Turnwold Plantation [Brasch, Walter M. Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the "Cornfield Journalist": The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2000. 51. Print.] . He changed the circumstances of the Uncle Remus character and the framework of the tales—now Uncle Remus lived in a cabin on a plantation and told his stories to a little white boy. The column’s popularity led to the publication of a compilation of Harris’s stories entitled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation. The book was published by Appleton in November 1880 and was the most popular collection of the adapted slave narratives then on the market [Maddux, Rachael. “Dummies in the Attic.” Paste Magazine.com Paste Media Group, 30 June 2008. Web. 22 July 2010.] . [Alcee Fortier published Louisiana Folk Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation in 1895, which featured Brer Rabbit, known in Louisiana as Compair Lapin. A.M.H. Christensen published a collection entitled Afro-American Folk Lore: Told Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1892 based on the stories she heard growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina.] For nearly two decades, Harris continued to write additional volumes of stories, 185 tales in all. Harris died on July 3, 1908, of acute nephritis and was buried in Westview Cemetery, West End, Atlanta.
Influence and Posthumous Controversy
Throughout his life, Harris balanced his career as a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution with his writing life. As a journalist, he was a prominent voice of the New South movement, promoting socioeconomic, sectional, and racial reconciliation during the challenging years following the Civil War, but it was the Uncle Remus stories that assured Harris’s fame and influence. In 1888 Harris, along with his friend Mark Twain, was named a charter member of the American Folklore Society. Harris is credited with influencing future writers including Rudyard Kippling, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. In addition, the popularization of anthropomorphized critters of the Brer Rabbit tales revolutionized modern children’s stories, spawning similar fictional creations in the works of Beatrix Potter, Howard Garis, and A. A. Milne. Brer Rabbit’s trickster identity has been reinvented in children’s television cartoons as characters such as Warner Bros.’s Bugs Bunny.
Despite their widespread popularity, Harris’s Uncle Remus tales became the subject of controversy in the twentieth century and continue to engender debate today. Harris’s fall from grace was precipitated by a conglomeration of historical and cultural factors borne out of the tensions of the early twentieth century. The years following the First World War—in which more than 400,000 African Americans served as soldiers—were marked by increased racial tension and horrific violence in the form of race riots and lynchings. Racist stereotypes of African Americans were put in service of selling products, some, like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, drawn directly from the characters made famous in Harris’s tales.
African American writers emerging from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s first voiced concerns that Harris distorted the black folk legacy [Keenan, Hugh T., and R. Bruce Bickley. Joel Chandler Harris: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1977-1996: With Supplement, 1892-1976. Introduction. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997. xi. Print.] . Sterling A. Brown argued that Harris perpetuated the stereotype of the happy slave and paternalistically cast slavery as a benign institution [Brasch 289.] . The target for much of the criticism directed against Harris and his writing was the language Harris employed in telling the Uncle Remus stories. Dialect writing gradually fell out of favor in the twentieth century, and by the time of the Civil Rights Movement, the act of a white author adopting African American dialect was construed as inherently racist [Brasch 302.] .
In 1939, Walt Disney bought all the rights to Harris’s books and premiered a live action-animated feature film called Song of the South in Atlanta in 1946. The film, “a grossly romanticized and syrupy version of life on a Southern plantation,” was heavily criticized for its portrayal of African Americans (Disney has never released the film on VHS or DVD) [Brasch 278.] . The publicity generated by the film caused the Disney incarnation of the Uncle Remus stories to eclipse the books themselves and established a new, highly problematic, interpretation of Harris and his work.
Additionally, Harris’s position as a white male writer of African American subjects raised charges of misappropriation of African American culture. Alice Walker most famously discussed this issue in a speech delivered to the Atlanta Historical Society in 1981, noting: “As far as I'm concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage. How did he steal it? By making me feel ashamed of it. In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that could have meant so much to all of our children, the stories that they would have heard from us and not from Walt Disney” [Walker, Alice. Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 32. Print.]
Responses to Harris, however, are not univocal or static. Harris’s legacy is celebrated by twentieth century folklorists and linguists who appreciated Harris’s ability to capture spoken African American dialect and preserve both the creolized language and culture [Brasch xx.] . Hugh P. Keenan and R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. contend that “With Uncle Remus’s help, Harris led his black and poor white characters out of their shanties, past the Big House of the old plantation era, and openly down the Big Road into the twentieth century” [Keenan, Bickley xxi.]