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Joel Chandler Harris

Joel Chandler Harris

American writer Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) used folklore, fiction, dialect, and other devices of local color to picture both black and white Georgians under slavery and Reconstruction.

Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Ga., the illegitimate son of Mary Harris. Scantily educated, at 13 Harris became an apprentice printer on a little newspaper edited and published by Joseph Addison Turner, a highly literate planter, lawyer, and writer, and learned about writing under Turner's tutelage. Harris then worked on newspapers in several Southern cities. While in Savannah he met and married Esther LaRose; they had nine children. In 1876 Harris began a 24-year association with the Atlanta Constitution.

Harris's work as a columnist led to his creation of Uncle Remus, the black singer of songs and teller of stories. The tales, collected in Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880), are based upon folklore and are told by the venerable family servant to a little boy on a Georgia plantation. The book's favorable reviews and large sales led to magazine publication of stories later collected in Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), Told by Uncle Remus (1905), and others.

Remus, the old storyteller, is wise, perceptive, imaginative, poetic, and gifted with a sly sense of humor. The stories can be read for the larger picture they give of the exploited blacks who invented them. Their hero, Brer Rabbit, as Harris observed, is "the weakest and most harmless of all animals, " but he is "victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox." Thus "it is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness." However, since Uncle Remus's casual revelations often picture idyllically the lives of slaves and kindly whites on an ante-bellum plantation, these tales cultivated sympathy for Harris's people and his South. Critics believe that Harris's conscious aim was to end sectional antagonism.

In other fictional works Harris enlarged his portrayal of Southerners to include aristocrats, members of the middle class, mountaineers, and poor white farmers. Genre stories appeared in Mingo and Other Sketches (1884), Free Joe (1887), and other collections. There were two novels: Sister Jane, Her Friends and Acquaintances (1896) and Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction (1902). Harris died on July 3, 1908, in Atlanta.

Further Reading

Harris's On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures during the War (1892), gives an autobiographical account of an important period in his life. Julia C. Harris contributed valuable intimate details in Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris (1918) and Joel Chandler Harris as Editor and Essayist (1931). Probably the best biographical and critical account is Paul M. Cousins, Joel Chandler Harris (1968). A useful specialized study is Stella B. Brookes, Joel Chandler Harris, Folklorist (1950).

Additional Sources

Bickley, R. Bruce, Joel Chandler Harris, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. □

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Harris, Joel Chandler

Joel Chandler Harris, 1848–1908, American short-story writer and humorist, b. Eatonton, Ga., considered one of the greatest American regionalist writers. As an apprentice to the editor of the Countryman, a newspaper published on a Southern plantation, Harris gained firsthand knowledge of black slaves and their folklore. His stories and sketches of the South were originally published in the Atlanta Constitution, with which he was associated from 1876 to 1900. Harris's first collection, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881), brought him immediate fame. Featuring as their narrator a lovable, shrewd former slave, the Uncle Remus stories drew upon African-American folklore and humor and captured the authentic life, character, and dialect of Southern blacks. The demand for his stories and sketches was so great that Harris followed with nine more books in a similar vein, including The Tar Baby (1904) and Uncle Remus and Br'er Rabbit (1906). In other notable works, such as Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White (1884) and Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches (1887), Harris portrayed with accuracy and insight the aristocrats and poor whites of Georgia.

See his life and letters (ed. by J. C. Harris, 1918); biographies by P. M. Cousins (1968) and R. B. Bickley, Jr. (1987); study by R. B. Bickley, Jr. (1981).

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Harris, Joel Chandler

Harris, Joel Chandler (1848–1908) US writer. A journalist in the American South for much of his career, Harris is best known for the Uncle Remus stories, retellings of African-American folk-tales. The character of Brer Rabbit is perhaps his most memorable.

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Harris, Joel Chandler

HARRIS, Joel Chandler

Nationality: American. Born: Near city of Eatonton, Georgia, 9 December 1848. Education: Eatonton Academy for Boys. Family: Married Esther LaRose in 1873; nine children. Career: Print-er's devil and typesetter, Countryman weekly, published at the Turnwold Plantation, 1862-66; staff member, Macon Telegraph, Georgia, 1866; reporter, Crescent Monthly, New Orleans, 1866-67; staff writer, Monroe Advertiser, Forsyth, Georgia, 1867-70; staff writer, Savannah Morning News, Georgia, 1870-76; staff writer, Atlanta Constitution, 1876-1900; founder, with his son Julian, Uncle Remus's magazine, Atlanta, 1907-08. Awards: L.H.D.: Emory College, Oxford, Georgia, 1902. Member: American Academy, 1905. Died: 2 July 1908.

Publications

Collections

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, edited by Richard Chase. 1955.

Short Stories

Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation. 1880; as Uncle Remus and His Legends of the Old Plantation, 1881; as Uncle Remus; or, Mr. Fox, Mr. Rabbit, and Mr. Terrapin, 1881; revised edition, 1895.

Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation. 1883.

Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White. 1884.

Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches. 1887.

Daddy Jake the Runaway and Short Stories Told after Dark. 1889.

Balaam and His Master and Other Sketches and Stories. 1891.

A Plantation Printer: The Adventures of a Georgia Boy During the War. 1892; as On the Plantation, 1892.

Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads, with Sketches of Negro Character. 1892.

Little Mr. Thimblefinger and His Queer Country: What the Children Saw and Heard There. 1894.

Mr. Rabbit at Home. 1895.

Stories of Georgia. 1896; revised edition, 1896.

Aaron in the Wildwoods. 1897.

Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War. 1898.

Plantation Pageants. 1899.

The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann. 1899.

On the Wing of Occasions. 1900.

The Making of a Statesman and Other Stories. 1902.

Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine. 1903.

A Little Union Scout: A Tale of Tennessee During the Civil War. 1904.

Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation. 1905.

Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. 1907.

The Bishop and the Boogerman. 1909; as The Bishop and the Bogie-Man, 1909.

Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. 1910.

Uncle Remus Returns. 1918.

The Witch Wolf: An Uncle Remus Story. 1921.

Novels

The Story of Aaron (So Named), The Son of Ben Ali, Told by His Friends and Acquaintances. 1896.

Sister Jane, Her Friends and Acquaintances. 1896.

Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction. 1902.

The Shadow Between His Shoulder-Blades. 1909.

Qua: A Romance of the Revolution, edited by Thomas H. English. 1946.

Poetry

The Tar-Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus. 1904.

Other

Harris, Editor and Essayist: Miscellaneous Literary, Political, and Social Writings, edited by Julia C. Harris. 1931.

Dearest Chums and Partners: Joel Chandler Harris's Letters to His Children: A Domestic Biography. 1993.

Editor, Life of Henry W. Grady, Including His Writings and Speeches: A Memorial Volume. 1890.

Editor, The Book of Fun and Frolic. 1901; as Merrymaker, 1902.

Editor, World's Wit and Humor. 1904.

Translator, Evening Tales, by Frédéric Ortoli. 1893.

*

Bibliography:

in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, 1959; Harris: A Reference Guide by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., and others, 1978; Joel Chandler Harris, An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1977-1996 by R. Bruce Bickley, 1997.

Critical Studies:

The Life and Letters of Harris by Julia Collier Harris, 1918; Harris, Folklorist by Stella Brewer Brookes, 1950; Harris: A Biography by Paul M. Cousins, 1968; Harris by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., 1978, and Critical Essays on Harris edited by Bickley, 1981; Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales by Florence E. Baer, 1980.

* * *

In his novels, journalism, and stories Joel Chandler Harris tried to preserve the best of the Old South to promote America's reconciliation after the Civil War. Besides his tales of reunion he is famous for his Uncle Remus stories, a series of African-American folktales told by a former slave.

The reunion tales are unfailingly formulaic. They typically feature a middle Georgia rural setting, a narrator who is returning from the city to a community he knew as a youth in the idyllic days before the war, a faithful ex-slave who has returned to serve former masters after his newfound freedom proves disappointing, a Yankee soldier wounded in the vicinity who remains afterward, and southern whites who are perhaps a bit too proud but are nevertheless worthy of the reader's sympathy.

Harris takes particular care in depicting those characters toward whom the white South may have had a lingering wariness or antagonism. The Yankee soldier, for example, usually faces initial antagonism but through his wholesome good nature is eventually accepted into, and makes essential contributions to, the southern community. This acceptance may be dramatized in his being wedded to a southern woman and entrusted with the management of her family's plantation ("Aunt Fountain's Prisoner," "The Old Bascom Place," and "A Story of the War") or in his developing a lasting friendship with a southern man ("Little Compton"). In either case the denouement advocates a healthy union of the best of the old (southern) way of life with the best of the new (northern). Thus, the reader's faith in the South's, and by extension America's, future is restored.

Harris also invests considerable time developing benevolent black characters. Often these faithful servants narrate substantial portions of the stories, a common device used in reconciliation fiction of the period. As in Thomas Nelson Page's "Marse Chan," Harris's stories such as "Mingo," "Balaam and His Master," and "A Story of the War" feature a former slave who chronicles the happiness, trials, and tribulations of his or her owners with pleasure, respect, and love. These ex-slave narrators seem to have no lives or aspirations of their own; they live a vicarious existence through their former masters. Having the supposed victims of southern slavery speak adoringly of kindly masters reassured the white South that the blacks bore no grudge against them. It also reassured the North that the South could be trusted once again to rule itself and its former slaves.

One noteworthy variation on the reunion story is "Mingo." Here reconciliation is not between the North and the South but between southern social classes. Feratia Bivins is a proud poor white whose son marries the daughter of the aristocratic Wornums, who consequently disown her. After the son and daughter die during the Civil War, their child is left in the care of Feratia and the ex-slave Mingo, who returns from an aimless search for freedom to help support his former mistress's child. Eventually Mrs. Wornum, chastened by the news of her daughter's death, humbles herself before Feratia so that she can become acquainted with her granddaughter. Feratia not only swallows her resentment of the rich woman but also overcomes her poor-white prejudice against blacks, acknowledging that without Mingo she and her granddaughter could never have survived. The story's ending portrays a union of aristocrat, poor white, and child (the product of the marriage of the two classes), presided over by the constancy, benevolence, and practical good sense of an ex-slave who has committed himself even in freedom to serving whites.

Harris is most famous for his popular Uncle Remus tales, which also have a conciliatory purpose. They are usually framed by dialogue between Uncle Remus, a kindly ex-slave who remains on his mistress and her Yankee husband's plantation after the war doing various chores, and the little son of the plantation owners. But, as several literary critics have pointed out, the tales have another dimension that transcends Harris's political purposes; inside the frame stories there are animal legends that were orally transmitted by the slaves for several generations before Harris preserved them in written form.

Spread over ten volumes, these 220 tales are a wealth of information about the folk imagination and, more specifically, about African-American efforts to preserve their humanity during slavery. Some of the tales are concerned with etiology, or how the earth and its creatures became what they are. For example, "How Mr. Rabbit Lost His Fine Bushy Tail" and "Why Mr. Possum Has No Hair on His Tail" describe the origins of the physical characteristics of animals. "The Story of the Deluge, and How It Came About" is a universal myth of a great flood. In addition, though, this story allegorizes the position of the oppressed slave in American society. In the story the crawfishes, unable to get a hearing at a raucous assembly of animals and literally stepped on by the larger animals, gain revenge by drilling holes into the ground and unleashing a deluge. The moral of the story seems to be that the weak cannot be ignored: they are capable of undermining the strong and powerful.

The triumph of the powerless is a common theme in the tales. The slave's preference for the weaker animals is perhaps best conveyed by Brer Rabbit, a trickster—that is, a legendary hero who survives against superior force through his superior wit and ability to deceive his enemies. The rabbit's tricks are often violent and inhumane. Several critics have suggested that they are a reflection of the slave system and give vent to the slave's suppressed desire for vengeance for the abuses of slavery.

On the allegorical level the competition between Brer Rabbit and his foes suggests real or potential disputes over power and ownership in plantation society. In "Mr. Rabbit Grossly Deceives Mr. Fox," for example, sexual competition is treated from the slave's point of view. Brer Fox would like dearly to humiliate Brer Rabbit in front of "Miss Meadows and the gals" to prove his superiority, but the rabbit pretends to be ill and tricks the fox into carrying him before the ladies on his saddled back. The rabbit wins the admiration of the women while the fox appears to be merely a beast of burden. The story ends with Brer Rabbit sauntering into the ladies' house triumphantly smoking a cigar.

Although the allegory is not consistent because the stories were not conceived by a single author nor created systematically, the animal tales give remarkable insight into the experience of the slaves and the world they lived in. These and Harris's other short fiction influenced a nation's perception of the South and the African-American.

—William L. Howard

See the essay on "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story."

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