Postbellum America, 1866-1913
Joel Chandler Harris, 1848-1908By Monica Horne
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Joel Chandler Harris was an accomplished and well-known writer in his time. He was known for his journalism skills but most of all for his stories narrated by the character, Uncle Remus. His early career consisted of a typesetter and paragrapher and later an editor as well, although he was not well recognized for his editorial input.
Harris was a shy man, and self-conscious of his looks. As an adult he wore a wide brimmed hat even indoors to cover his red hair. Because of his shyness he never appeared publicly to present any of his works. However, he was well known for his sense of humor in his writings and it is believed that perhaps he hid behind his humor because of his low self-esteem. Growing up he was known to often play practical jokes on his friends, which on several occasions turned out to be harmful to the friend.
Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia and was raised by his single mother. His formal education ended by his early teens. At that time, he became a printer’s devil for the Countryman, a local newspaper owned by Joseph Addison Turner. Turner owned the Turnwold Plantation, which Harris later moved to. It was here, at Turnwold, that Harris was first introduced the Negro slaves. He spent many hours with the slaves listening to their folklore. He had an ear for their dialect and committed to memory both their stories and language. It would later prove to be an asset to his career. In the stories of Uncle Remus, Harris was able to capture the reader and listener’s attention by his accurate detail of the Negro folklore of the plantation slave. Although other writers had also imitated the language, they were unable to capture it the way Harris did. Turner’s business collapsed in 1866 with the end of the American Civil War and Harris left Turnwold.
After Turnwold and The Countryman, Harris worked as a typesetter for the Macon Telegraph, the New Orleans Crescent Monthly and the Forsyth, Georgia, Monroe Advertiser. After the Advertiser he became as associate editor of the Savannah Morning News. He married Esther LaRose while living in Savannah in 1873. They had nine children but lost three to childhood illnesses. In 1876, Harris moved his family to Atlanta because of an epidemic of yellow fever in Savannah. It was there that he obtained his job with the Atlanta Constitution. Harris lived in Atlanta until his death in 1908. He died of acute nephritis and cirrhosis of the liver.
Harris provided humor in his works and depicted issues of the underlying racial overtones of the time through his works. In “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” found in the collection, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox are at odds with each other once again. This is a humorous story because Brer Rabbit becomes insulted by the indignance of the tar baby. Brer Rabbit expects the tar baby to speak to him since he is “respectubble folk”, however he does not realize this is a set-up by Brer Fox. Brer Rabbit later finds himself stuck to the tar baby with hands, feet, and head when he begins to hit the tar baby for not speaking. Brer Fox is “laying low” and watching with delight. Brer Fox then appears, speaks to Brer Rabbit and makes fun of him stating, “You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’, ‘sezee en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo’.” Harris’ imagery makes this story easy for the reader/listener to picture this tale in his mind and chuckle to himself at the sight of Brer Rabbit stuck to the tar baby.
Harris’ stories focus on the issues of slavery and white supremacy in the time of post American Civil War as well. Uncle Remus is the narrator and the animals represent the white and black populations. Arnold suggest in an article written on Harris published in the Encyclopedia of American Humorists, that tensions between the races is represented by one animal being the stronger creature (Brer Fox) and one the weaker (Brer Rabbit) in nature. The weaker creature obtains triumph not by his physical strength but by his ability to outsmart the other. Thus, these two creatures represent white and black in the society of the time respectively. Perhaps through his humor and his creativeness, Harris had a lesson for us all in social order and how we treat our fellow man.
BibliographyThe History of Uncle Remus
Arnold, Jr., St. George Tucker. “Harris, Joel Chandler.” Encyclopedia of American Humorists. New York: Garland, 1988.
Encyclopedia of American Humorists is a well respected collection series of American humorists. Found in its volumes are detailed yet easy to read biographies of the author, followed by a bibliography, biography list and references.Brickley, Jr., R. Bruce. “Joel Chandler Harris.” Encyclopedia of Literary Biography: American Humorists, Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.
Published in 1978, Dictionary of Literary Biography, provides reliable information in the history of literary figures. In each of it's biographical entries a list of the author's works are provided followed by detailed biographical sketch of the author. Entries include photographs of the authors, and copies of some manuscripts. Completing the sketch is a bibliography list, a biography list and a reference list.Hale, Doty. “Joel Chandler Harris.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Short Story Writers 1880-1910, Vol. 78. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.
Hoskins, Robert L. “Joel Chandler Harris.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Magazine Journalists, Vol. 91. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.
Keenan, Hugh T. “Joel Chandler Harris.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers for Children Before 1900, Vol. 42. Detroit.