The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939

Joel Chandler Harris's Correspondence

Joel Chandler Harris’s correspondence with artists, authors, and politicians helps illustrate how he intended his work and how it was received by prominent readers of his day. The following materials are archived at Emory University’s Manuscripts and Rare Book Library , and are used with their permission.

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce (1842 – c. 1913) was an American satiric writer most famous for his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge,” and his mock reference book The Devil’s Dictionary, which was first published as a column in 1881 and appeared in irregular installments in magazines and newspapers over the course of thirty years. A veteran of the Civil War, Bierce’s military service and combat experience informed much of his work. Bierce disappeared in 1913 while traveling with rebel troops during the Mexican Revolution and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

In 1896, Bierce, who had a reputation for writing inflammatory pieces about other writers, published a piece attacking Harris in The New York Journal. As Harris’s response here shows, Harris was keenly sensitive to criticism and took it quite personally; he also disclaims the Remus stories as not his own, but “stories originally told to me by negroes.”

George Washington Cable

George Washington Cable (1844 – 1925) was an American journalist and novelist, a native of Louisiana and known for his portrayal of Creole life in his fiction. Cable served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His later support for civil rights and his outspoken criticism of the racism of Creole culture, especially in his 1880 novel The Grandissimes, together with his depiction of the legacy of racism in The Silent South in 1885, garnered resentment from Southern readers, eventually driving him to relocate to Massachusetts.

In the correspondence collected here, Cable and Harris briefly discuss publishing and Cable's Home Culture Clubs, for which he requests Harris's autograph in order to place it in salable copies of Harris's books. Later, Cable writes to Harris’s daughter-in-law as she prepares her biography of Harris, and recounts an evening with Harris, Mark Twain, and a publisher, during which Harris was too shy to read for a small, private audience. Cable claims, “The children were inconsolable to find Uncle Remus nothing more than a white man,” underscoring how Harris had become a seemingly authentic black voice to many American readers.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), American industrialist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, earned his fortune in the steel industry. He is celebrated for his success in helping bring about the triumph of industrial capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. A friend and admirer of Harris, Carnegie visited Harris at his home in Atlanta, the Wren’s Nest, in 1906. Carnegie helped fund Uncle Remus’s Magazine, of which Harris was editor.

In this illuminating correspondence, Harris approaches Carnegie for financial support of Uncle Remus’s Magazine, and states, “I am sure that I shall be able to smooth over and soothe, and finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races. At my time of life I have no higher ambition; in fact, it is the only ambition I have ever had, the only line of policy that I have ever deliberately mapped out in my own mind.” These insights into Harris’s thinking reveal that while we view his fiction today as perpetuating racial stereotypes, he viewed himself as working toward “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” While Carnegie’s response focused mostly on his interests in world peace, he offers his support for Harris’s “genius,” which depicts “the Slave in his most attractive form, the story teller of his master's children.” This characterization speaks more to what we now see as Harris’s failings—portraying Remus as hyperbolically loyal—than to his goals of racial justice.

Frederick Church

Frederick S. Church (1842 –- 1924) was an American artist who often illustrated anthropomorphic depictions of animals. Following his discharge from service as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Church attended Chicago’s Academy of Design with the intention of becoming an artist. He succeeded in becoming an acclaimed artist and his illustrations appeared in many magazines and periodicals. Church provided illustrations for Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), though privately Harris was dissatisfied with Church’s racially caricatured depictions, especially of Uncle Remus.

These letters show Harris urging Church to illustrate each of the tales in his first Uncle Remus book, even though Church seemed to want to omit some of them. Harris also gives Church free reign in depicting Miss Meadows (who Church envisions as a young woman and a later illustrator drew as a mouse) because Harris himself is “a compiler merely.” However, he urges Church to use James H. Moser’s illustration of Uncle Remus as a guide to depicting the character. Later, Church’s correspondence with an agent shows that he wanted to continue illustrating Harris’s tales despite its relatively low pay because he liked “the Brer Rabbit biz” and appreciated the wide audience that the illustrations earn him.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)

Samuel Clemens (also known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain) (1835 – 1910) was an American author and humorist, recognized as “the father of American literature.” Twain is perhaps best known for his two novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Clemens and Harris maintained professional and personal interest in each other’s lives and work. Both began their writing careers as authors of comedic sketches for newspaper publication and both were interested in preserving regional speech and culture through their writing.

In these letters, the two men primarily discuss publishing, upon which Twain advises Harris. Early in their exchange, Harris inquires about a ghost story that Twain had mentioned, and Twain responds by sending Harris “De Woman wid de Gold’n Arm.” He tells Harris that while he tells the story using dialect, he will refrain from spelling it so in his letter because he cannot write dialect in Harris’s “matchless” way.

Arthur Frost

Arthur Burdett Frost (1851 – 1928) was an American illustrator and painter and a pioneer of comic strips and comic books. Frost illustrated several of Harris’s works including Uncle Remus and His Friends and the fifteenth anniversary edition of Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings and became Harris’s preferred illustrator, even briefly touring Georgia with Harris in order to study the area for his illustrations (though after Harris’s death, Frost would tell Harris’s daughter-in-law that “absolutely nothing happened” on this trip).

In these letters, which intermittently span almost the entirety of Harris’s literary career, the two men discuss a number of topics, including the fact that they both had red hair, a characteristic that Harris had been deeply insecure about since childhood. Harris, who expresses his admiration for Frost frequently in their correspondence, encourages Frost to illustrate his tales in his own way, and writes, "We shall then have real American stuff illustrated in real American style."

Frost and Harris discuss several literary and artistic figures of their day, including Frank Stockton, the author of “The Lady, or the Tiger?”; Alice French, the prolific local color author who wrote under the name Octave Thanet; and E. W. Kemble, the illustrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and some of Harris’s earlier tales. Harris confides to Frost that he disliked Kemble’s work, calling him “too flip” and claiming that “for a man who has no conception whatever of human nature, Kemble does very well." However, Harris seems comfortable with Frost’s casual objectification of black subjects in this correspondence. After Harris’s death, Frost writes Harris’s daughter-in-law and tells her that Harris “was one of my dearest friends,” and that “I consider Uncle Remus the best thing I ever did in illustration." He also indicates that years after Harris’s death, his “reputation is on the increase, if that were possible,” speaking to Harris’s popularity in the early twentieth century.

Hamlin Garland

Hamlin Garland (1860 – 1940) was an American writer most known for his depiction of Midwest farm life, particularly his collection of short stories entitled Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border (1917). Garland befriended Harris during a trip to Atlanta where he visited Harris in his office at the Atlanta Constitution.

In this correspondence, Garland introduces himself as a “big-fisted western plowboy.” He seeks Harris’s help in broadening the membership of The National Institute for Arts and Letters, hoping to diversify it by including Southern authors. The organization would not admit its first female member, Julia Ward Howe, until 1907, and it would be decades before it would admit the first black member, W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1943.

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. He began his literary career by contributing poetry, short stories, and reviews to magazines including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. As first the assistant editor (1866-71) and later the editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1871-1881), Howells wielded enormous influence over American literary taste. He helped advance the careers of authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James, and became a staunch proponent of American realism. Howells’s most famous novel is The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).

This letter from Harris to Howells is a response to Howells’s invitation for Harris to contribute a piece for publication. Harris expresses a desire to write a story about Qua, an African slave who fought in the Battle of Kettle Creek in Wilkes County, Georgia during the Revolutionary War.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) was a British writer of short stories, poetry, and novels and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Kipling is arguably most remembered for his contributions to children’s literature, including The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901). Kipling’s celebration of British imperialism, pervasive in the writing he produced, has left him a controversial figure in the twenty-first century. Kipling was a long-time admirer of Harris’s Uncle Remus stories whose anthropomorphic animal characters Kipling cited as inspiration for his own writing.

In this correspondence Kipling expresses his admiration for Harris, going back to his adolescence, and asks him to clarify the origin of the Miss Meadows character.

Thomas Nelson Page

Thomas Nelson Page (1853 – 1922) was an American writer, lawyer, and ambassador to Italy during the First World War. As a writer, Page popularized plantation fiction, which depicted a romanticized vision of plantation life and the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War.

In this correspondence, Page thanks Harris for a favorable review of his “Unc’ Edinburg's Drowndin': A Plantation Echo," then writes proposing a joint reading tour. Later he writes Harris asking him questions about his stories in order to include the information in a piece on postbellum Southern literature, claiming that Harris is one of “the few who were the creators of a Southern Literature.” Among other questions, he asks Harris, “Had any one else put the buskin on the negro before you did so?” —in other words, he asks if any other (presumably white) author had given dramatic voice to black Americans before Harris.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) was the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt’s civil rights record was mixed, as he ultimately abandoned his more progressive ideals and failed to make significant headway against Jim Crow. Roosevelt was also widely seen as betraying his black constituents when he bowed to criticism for inviting the first black guest, Booker T. Washington, to the White House, and when he issued dishonorable discharges to a battalion of black soldiers who were framed in a racially charged episode in Brownsville, Texas. Roosevelt was a vocal admirer of Harris and the Uncle Remus tales, and even invited Harris to a private dinner at the White House in 1907.

The correspondence collected here demonstrates Harris’s wide influence. Roosevelt writes admiringly to Harris, indicating he believes Harris’s work “serves to bring our people closer together.” He talks frequently of his domestic life, offering details about his children and their affection for Harris. (Letters from Roosevelt’s son and wife are also included here.) “Our entire household is devoted to Joel Chandler Harris,” he writes to a coordinator of his wife’s travels, urging him to set up a meeting between Harris and Edith Roosevelt. Roosevelt expresses his support for and subscribes to Uncle Remus’s Magazine, even writing a letter for publication there urging the country to consider Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a national hymn. Roosevelt, who occasionally calls Harris “Uncle Remus,” sends a telegraph to Harris’s son saying he is “inexpressibly shocked and grieved” upon hearing of Harris’s death. Later, Roosevelt would publish a letter in Uncle Remus’s Magazine opining, “I very firmly believe that his writings will last; that they will be read as long as anything written in our language during his time is read.”