Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Joel Chandler Harris, 1848-1908
Harris, Joel Chandler, (1848-1908) Writer
Harris, the illegitimate son of Mary Harris and an Irish laborer, was born on 9 December 1848, near Eatonton, Ga. His death from nephritis came in Atlanta on 3 July 1908.
Harris's formal schooling was spotty, but he read widely in world, English, and American literature, with Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield being his favorite book. His major training came at the hands of Joseph Addison Turner, who edited The Countryman, a weekly newspaper published at the middle Georgia plantation Turnwold. From 1862 to 1866 young Harris worked on the paper, read from Turner's library, and listened to the speech and tales of the plantation blacks. It was his beginning as a writer.
Harris worked for several other newspapers before joining the staff of the Atlanta Constitution in 1876 as associate editor. Here he began publishing his famous Uncle Remus stories, using the black dialect he had heard on the plantation. His fame soon spread nationally because of the Uncle Remus tales, and three major Remus books followed: Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), and Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892). Numerous other volumes of the tales were published both during his lifetime and posthumously.
Diverse in taste and talents, Harris also wrote six children's books, all set on a Georgia plantation, and several novelettes and novels—most importantly, Sister Jane: Her Friends and Acquaintances (1896), a novel that depicts antebellum Georgia, and Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction (1902), his major long work. Other ventures into long narrative include an autobiographical novel, On the Plantation (1892), the setting of which is Turnwold. Adept at the short story, Harris produced five collections, the main ones being Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White (1884) and Free Joe and Other Georgia Sketches (1887). And with his son Julian he established Uncle Remus's Magazine in 1907.
Although Harris disavowed regionalism in art ("My idea is that truth is more important than sectionalism, and that literature that can be labeled Northern, Southern, Western, or Eastern, is not worth labeling at all"), his writings are unsurpassed in reflecting the southern environment. His short stories are born of the Georgia soil, his novels echo the strains of the Civil War South, his editorials for the Constitution deal with southern social and political issues, and, of course, his famed Uncle Remus tales capture the diction and dialect of the plantation blacks while presenting genuine folk legends. Enlivened with gentle humor and irony, Harris's portraits of the Georgia Negro and his faithful handling of the folk tales constitute his major contributions to southern and American literature. His was a southern voice with a national range.
David B. Kesterson
North Texas State University
R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris (1978), with Karen L. Bickley and Thomas H. English, Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide (1978) Arthur Hobson Quinn, American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey (1936); Bernard Wolfe, Commentary (July 1949).