Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

Joel Chandler Harris, 1848-1908
Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches
New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1887.


Joel Chandler Harris, celebrated fiction writer and Georgia newspaperman, was born on December 9, 1848 in the town of Eatonton, Georgia, as the illegitimate child of Mary Ann Harris and an Irish laborer. Despite gaining international celebrity, chiefly due to his animal folktales told through the voice of Uncle Remus, Harris's personal nature was decidedly more reticent. Throughout his life he suffered acute embarrassment due to his short stature, shocking red hair, and a severe stammer. While plagued by these personal insecurities, which no doubt contributed to his longstanding refusal to give public readings, Harris was naturally inclined toward humor and practical joking. As a youth he was known for being a clever prankster, a trait that would later manifest itself in the characters of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the other "creeturs" that populate his Uncle Remus tales.

Harris moved to Turnwold Plantation in 1862, where he was first introduced to the plantation lore that later would inspire his fiction. There the thirteen-year-old Harris was apprenticed to Joseph Addison Turner, with whom he worked on his weekly newspaper, The Countryman. Sharing Harris's sharp wit and joking manner, Turner willingly served as his mentor. He also gave the young apprentice access to his expansive collection of books, and encouraged him to develop his literary style, so that after only a short tenure at Turnwold, Harris was publishing his own poetry and essays in The Countryman. Yet his most significant experience on the Turnwold Plantation is indisputably the time he spent in the slave quarters listening to African American folktales. These stories provided much of the material for the Uncle Remus tales, and Harris would later model many of his African American characters, including Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy, 'Tildy, and Daddy Jack, on the storytellers from his youth. Though he would not begin writing his animal folktales for another decade, Harris's work demonstrates his remarkable memory for the stories as well as the nuances of dialect in which they were told.

Turner's newspaper folded in 1866, at which time Harris began the first of a series of newspaper jobs that garnered him wide respect as both a reporter and an editor. He worked in New Orleans, Macon, Georgia, and Forsyth, Georgia, ultimately gaining enough experience to land a position as a regular humor columnist with the Savannah Morning News. He began courting Esther LaRose during this time and the two were married in 1873; they had nine children together. In 1876 he moved his family to Atlanta where he secured a position with the well-known Constitution, which, under the direction of Henry Grady and Evan Howell, was positioning itself as the New South's most progressive journalistic voice. Between 1876 and 1880, Harris made his own contribution to the newspaper's rising reputation with his sketches of an African American character named Uncle Remus, a shrewd storyteller who reminisces about plantation life in the Old South. In November 1880, D. Appleton published Harris's first collection of stories entitled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation, which made Harris a national literary figure.

Encouraged by the popularity of his Uncle Remus tales, Harris broadened his fictional scope to address the problems of Reconstruction plaguing the postwar South. In 1887 he published a collection of short stories in the local color tradition entitled Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches. Addressing the tenuous position of African Americans and impoverished whites in rural Georgia both before and after the Civil War, Free Joe also expresses Harris's strong desire for the country's reconciliation. The title story, "Free Joe and the Rest of the World," is one of his most anthologized stories and has received significant criticism. Harris provides a portrait of Joe, an African American freedman living in the town of Hillsborough, Georgia in 1860, who finds himself isolated from any community due to his ill-defined social position between enslaved blacks and poor whites. The slave community rejects him out of envy for his freedom, and the poor white community only grudgingly acknowledges his humanity. Banned from visiting his wife, Lucinda, who lives on the Calderwood plantation where she is a slave, Joe patiently waits on its outskirts for brief visits from her. When Lucinda's visits end abruptly, Joe turns to Micajah and Becky Staley, a poor white couple living nearby, for information about her disappearance. Unable to accept news from the Staleys suggesting that she has likely been sold to another plantation, Joe continues his vigils for several months in their old meeting spot until he is found dead one day by Micajah. The story demonstrates Harris's sensitivity to the unfairness of racial hierarchy, particularly regarding the difficult position of free African Americans during slavery.

The remaining stories in the collection, "Little Compton," "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner," "Trouble on Lost Mountain," and "Azalia" make a specific appeal for reconciliation between the North and the South. "Little Compton," also set in the middle-Georgian town of Hillsborough, relays the growing friendship between a northern business entrepreneur, Little Compton, and a prominent local resident, Jack Walthall. The ten-year friendship is tested by the approaching Civil War, which causes Compton to flee north under the false impression that his southern friends will tar and feather him for his northern affiliations. The two men ultimately reunite at Gettysburg on opposite sides of the fighting, and return to Hillsborough together after each loses an arm during battle. Harris, with characteristic optimism, ends his tale by suggesting that their rekindled friendship is a sign of unity and peace to come.

"Aunt Fountain's Prisoner" and "Azalia" offer similar sentimental resolutions, for in each a northerner and southerner find love and companionship in the South, a phenomenon that Harris refers to as "practical Reconstruction." "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner" also considers the South's transition to a more modern pace, as an esteemed plantation is transformed into a successful dairy farm in the postwar years. Financially wrecked after the war, the Tomlinson Place is saved by a business-minded Yankee named Ferris Trunion who spends time there with the Tomlinson family while recovering from war wounds. Harris portrays Trunion as an affable fellow who generously invests his own money to stabilize the plantation, and wins the heart of Mr. Tomlinson and his daughter, Lady. Aunt Fountain, the Tomlinsons' cook, narrates their story. Her mistress, the graceful yet stubborn Mrs. Harriet Bledsoe Tomlinson, reluctantly accepts Trunion into her family after his marriage to her daughter, despite her quiet contempt for his northern business sense, or, as Aunt Fountain describes it, "his push and vim."

"Trouble on Lost Mountain" shares the theme of encroaching modernity in the South; however, its foreboding tone and tragic ending set it apart from Harris's other tales of North-South reconciliation. Set in the postwar years, "Trouble on Lost Mountain" is the story of the Hightowers, a rural mountaineering family whose remote position keeps them isolated from the changing South below. When Mr. Chichester, a Boston entrepreneur, arrives on the mountain in search of mineral beds for his business up north, he befriends Abe Hightower, and wins over the other members of the family with his sophisticated manners. The Hightowers accept him into their home and begin to see their relations with other mountain folk from a new perspective. In particular, Babe Hightower, Abe's only daughter, briefly envisions a life beyond her current one as sweetheart to a local named Tuck Peevy. Her newfound friendship with Chichester drives Tuck to jealous despair, and in an attempt to win Babe back he shoots at Chichester, only to hit Babe accidentally. Babe's death arrests time on the mountain for Tuck and the Hightowers, suggesting that failure to understand or accept change is a kind of death in life for those on Lost Mountain.

Works Consulted: Bain, Robert, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1979; Hart, James D., ed., Oxford Companion to American Literature, 6th ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Retrieved August 19, 2004: < nge/Article.jsp?id=h-525>; Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists, 1800-1950, volume 11, Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.

Armistead Lemon

Document menu