Joel Chandler Harris

1845 or 48 -- 1908

HarrisA native of Eatonton, Joel Chandler Harris gained fame a century ago as the writer of children's stories told in dialect by Uncle Remus, a slave who entertained a young white boy with American folktales. While scholars debate Harris's actual birth year, 1845 or 1848, the young boy born December 9 in Billy Barne's Tavern to the unwed Mary Harris suffered the pangs of illegitimacy by stammering in public and being self-effacing. Obviously bright, Harris received the attention of Andrew Reid who paid his tuition at Union Academy. He befriended elderly slaves George Terrell and Old Harbert who entertained him with trickster tales about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and the other critters in the Briar Patch. In 1862 Harris left Eatonton to work as a printer's devil on The Countryman published by Joseph Addison Turner on his Putnam County plantation, Turnworld. Here he studied the trade of the journalist under Turner's watchful eye and from a fence post at Turnwold witnessed Sherman's March to the Sea, an event he captured in his tribute to Turner, the 1892 memoir On the Pantation. With defeat, Harris left Putnam County for newspaper jobs in New Orleans and Savannah before landing at the Atlanta Constitution in 1879. The next year appeared the collection Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings and in 1883, Nights with Uncle Remus. The animated exposure of Walt Disney's 1946 "Song of the South" has obscured the true Uncle Remus tales that are more complex than presented in the movie and represent only part of Harris's corpus of work. Unlike the moonlight and magnolias of the popular southern fiction of his day, Harris wove complicated stories filled with humor and pathos. In Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White, published in 1884, Free Joe, published in 1887, and Daddy Jake the Runaway, published in 1889, Harris presented a darker side to slavery than had previously appeared in the Uncle Remus tales. These stories epitomized the tragedy and realism of the age. Like his contemporary and friend, Mark Twain, Harris composed a national literaturethat used localism to describe the universal. This shy red-headed and freckled man understood more of humanity and the world because of personal circumstances which enables him to relate to those society deemed less fortunate. He died at his Atlanta home, the Wren's Nest.

Photo courtesy of The Eatonton Messenger
Created 17 May 2000. Last Updated Friday, December 15, 2000.
© 2000 Eatonton Literary Festival