Judging a nineteenth century writer by twenty-first century standards is not a fair fight. It is easier to pass judgment on an era’s faults than it is to comprehend what it was like to live during the time period.
Soon after the Civil War had ended Joel Chandler Harris began publishing stories based on African folk tales. Starting in 1880 the stories became a series of Uncle Remus books, about a former slave who befriended a young white boy living on a plantation. Speaking in thick Southern dialect Uncle Remus told stories about trickster Brer (Brother) Rabbit, who could out wit other animals.
The books became best sellers, and Harris received fan letters from English writer Rudyard Kipling and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of Samuel Clemens a/k/a Mark Twain. Uncle Remus stories remained popular for generations, and in 1946 several of them became the basis for an Academy Award winning movie The Song of the South.
But starting in about 1970 the stories fell out of favor, and Uncle Remus began to be seen as a racial stereotype. It was claimed the former slave’s kind and friendly demeanor made it seem as though slavery had been a benevolent work arrangement.
Harris was accused of stealing from the African American heritage, and was criticized for not doing more to improve the lives of southern blacks during his decades of work as a newspaper editor. Wow, serious complaints.
Instead of wading into all the controversy I will tell you a little about the writer.
Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, but sources differ on whether his birth year was 1845 or 1848. What everyone agrees on is that his mother never married, and his father’s identity is unknown. At the time of his birth – and for more than a century afterwards – the word used in laws and court documents to describe Harris’ legal status was bastard. Many people based respectability on family background, and Harris spent a lifetime knowing a large swath of “proper” society rejected him due to the circumstances of his birth.
Harris and his mother got by on his mother’s meager earnings from sewing and gardening work, and from the charity of neighbors. They lived in a cottage behind the home of a physician named Dr. Andrew Reid, and the doctor paid for the boy’s school tuition.
During Harris’ school years he became known for his pranks and practical jokes. This may have been a defense strategy, to provide classmates with an opportunity to laugh at his antics instead of mocking him. Harris was not just a child with unknown paternity – he also had fiery red hair, freckles, was short in stature and stuttered. He later remarked that he had been a forlorn and friendless boy.
Harris loved to read, and the local postmaster would save newspapers and magazines for him. In 1862 he began work as a type setter at a weekly newspaper The Countryman, published at Turnwold plantation, nine miles from Eatonton. The young man had grown up without a father in his life, and the newspaper owner, Joseph Addison Turner, became a father-figure to him. Turner allowed Harris to read the books in his library, and encouraged him to write stories and articles for publication.
When Harris wasn’t working he would go to the slave quarters and listen to elderly slaves tell stories about trickster animals. One of the slaves was Uncle George Terrell, who became a second father-figure to Harris, as well as the inspiration for the Uncle Remus character.
In 1864 Union troops under the leadership of General Sherman ransacked Turnwold plantation, but The Countryman continued to be published up until 1866. The Union army left many of the neighboring plantations in ruins, and buying a newspaper became a luxury few could afford.
During the next decade Harris worked at several newspapers, leaving one of them because fellow employees continually mocked his appearance. While working at the Savannah Morning News he wrote a humor column, Affairs of Georgia, that was often reprinted in other newspapers.
In 1873 Harris married eighteen year old Mary Ester LaRose. He continued at the Morning News until 1876, when the Harris family moved to Atlanta to escape a yellow fever epidemic.
From 1876 to 1900 Harris worked at the Atlantic Constitution. He began a column which featured an ex-slave named Uncle Remus who would stop by the newspaper office and give his opinion on social and racial issues. In 1879 the Atlantic Constitution published The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus, one of the tales Harris had heard in the slave quarters at Turnwold plantation. Uncle Remus stories became a regular feature in the newspaper. The stories were reprinted in papers across the country, and publisher D. Appleton and Company asked Harris to compile them into a book.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings was published in 1880. In Mr. Harris’ introduction he wrote that the stories “may be considered a curiously sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe’s wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South. Mrs. Stowe …. painted the portrait of the Southern slave-owner, and defended him.” He was referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I’m at a loss to explain what he meant by stating the book was a “defense of slavery.” Perhaps it would be easier to understand if I had read his words in 1880.
From what I have read about Joel Chandler Harris it appears he felt most slave owners had been good people, and cruelty to slaves had been a rare occurrence. Back in the 1860s the short, red-headed, stuttering, illegitimate young man had found acceptance and encouragement from a slave owner, and Harris had happy memories of visiting the slave quarters at Turnwold plantation.
During his time as an assistant editor and editorial writer at the Atlantic Constitution Harris acknowledged that slavery had ended and reconstruction of the South was the law of the land. He believed freed slaves had a right to an education, plus unrestricted access to the ballot box. And he felt it was vital to preserve the legacy of the African folk tales he’d heard from Uncle George Terrell and others who’d spent most of their lives as unpaid laborers on Southern plantations.
He may have believed that the average black person was less intelligent than the average white person, but if that had been his opinion he shared the viewpoint of many white people who’d had more formal education than he’d received.
As to the criticism that Harris had not been a strong enough advocate for the rights of former slaves I’ll not attempt to decide if he was prejudiced against the cause, or if he felt he couldn’t antagonize the whites who supported Southern newspapers.
Harris ended his newspaper career in 1900, but continued to write for major magazines, and to compile Uncle Remus stories into books up until his 1908 death from cirrhosis of the liver. Although he’d suffered from alcoholism the former forlorn and friendless boy had been a beloved husband and father, as well as the shy and modest author of dozens of books once admired around the world.
Should his stories be read today? The only caution I’d give to those interested in the work of Joel Chandler Harris is that his use of regional dialect requires the reader to interpret the equivalent of a foreign language. Here is the first sentence spoken by Uncle Remus:
“Bimeby, one day, atter Brer Fox bin doin’ all dat he could fer ter ketch Brer Rabbit, en Brer Rabbit bein doin’ all he could fer ter keep ‘im fum it, Brer Fox say to hisse’f dat he’d put up a game on Brer Rabbit, en he ain’t mo’n got de wuds out’n his mouf twel Brer Rabbit came a lopin’ up de big road, lookin’ des ez plump, en ez fat, en ez sassy ez a Moggin hoss in a barley-patch.”
With a little practice it becomes easier to understand what Uncle Remus is saying, but the stories never become a quick read. If you wish to take on a challenge the book Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings can be downloaded without cost at: www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2306/pg2306-images.html