Article abstract: Harris was best known in his day for his collections of Uncle Remus tales, which were not created but recorded by him. When the American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1905, Harris was elected to be one of the inaugural members. With the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, however, and with the portrayal of Uncle Remus as a man among cartoons in Walt Disney’s movie Song of the South, the figure of Uncle Remus fell into some amount of literary and political disfavor. More recent studies of folklore have, however, established Harris’ importance as a folklorist who collected authentic black folk tales.
Born in Putnam County, Georgia, the illegitimate son of an Irish laborer who deserted the family just after his birth, Joel Chandler Harris spent a rather ordinary boyhood in rural Georgia. He was not very interested in school and seems to have preferred playing pranks to studying. In 1862, at age fourteen, Harris was given a job as a printer’s devil by Addison Turner, an eccentric planter who published a rural weekly newspaper, The Countryman, on his nearby plantation. It is impossible to overestimate Turner’s influence on young Harris, for in addition to allowing him to contribute pieces to the paper, Turner also encouraged him to read extensively in his private library and to roam around his thousand-acre plantation. It was here that Harris first heard the black folk narratives that were later to become the heart of the Uncle Remus stories. After working for Turner for four years, Harris held brief jobs at several newspapers around the South. In 1873 he married Esther LaRose and soon settled in Atlanta, where he lived until his death in 1908.
In 1876, Harris was hired to do editorial paragraphing for the Atlanta Constitution. Soon after his arrival, he was asked to take over a black-dialect column from a retiring writer, and, on October 26, 1876, his first sketch appeared, featuring the witty observations of an older black man. A month later the older black man was officially called “Uncle Remus,” and a major new voice in American humor was born. Uncle Remus began as a rather thin, almost vaudevillian caricature of a black man who supposedly dropped by the Atlanta Constitution office to offer practical comments, and some of Harris’ own opinions, on corrupt politicians and lazy African Americans. The character grew, however, when Harris transferred the locale of the sketches to a plantation and incorporated tales he had heard in the slave quarters during his early days with Turner. In late 1880, Harris collected twenty-one “urban” and thirty-four “plantation” Uncle Remus sketches along with black songs, maxims, and proverbs in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. The collection was an immediate success, and, much to Harris’ astonishment and embarrassment, he was famous.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings proved so popular that Harris went on to publish a half-dozen more Uncle Remus volumes in his lifetime. In 1881, Harris, who now had a steady and comfortable income, moved his family to a large farmhouse in Atlanta’s West End, where he did most of his writing at night after returning home from work. His second collection, Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), is the most important and the one that most fully shows the fruits of his labor. In it, Uncle Remus is rounded out much more to become a complete character in his own right, and other characters on the plantation are introduced as storytellers, principally Daddy Jack, a character who speaks in a Sea Island dialect called “Gullah,” and who Harris used to tell stories he perceived to be of a different cultural origin than the stories that Uncle Remus tells. As popular as these Uncle Remus collections were, Harris never considered that their merit was inherently literary. He always insisted that in them he was the “compiler” of a folklore and dialect that were fast disappearing in the South at the end of the nineteenth century. He was careful to include only the Uncle Remus tales that could be verified as authentic black oral narratives, and, with his usual diffidence, he minimized his own role in elevating them to artistic short fiction.
In Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White (1884), Harris surprised his readers by temporarily moving away from the Uncle Remus formula. The collection was favorably reviewed, and Harris showed that his literary talents could be stretched to include what he considered to be more serious forms. The title story, “Mingo: A Sketch of Life in Middle Georgia,” is an admirable local-color portrayal of class conflicts. The central conflict is between two white families, the aristocratic Wornums and the poor-white Bivinses. Before the Civil War, the Wornums’ daughter, Cordelia, had married the Bivinses’ son, Henry Clay, much to the displeasure of the Wornum family, who promptly disinherited her. Henry Clay was killed in the war and Cordelia died shortly thereafter, leaving a daughter in the care of Mrs. Feratia Bivins, Henry’s mother. Mrs. Wornum is overcome with grief after the death of the children and realizes that she has made a mistake in snubbing the Bivinses, but fiercely proud Feratia cannot forgive her. In a comic yet pathos-filled scene, Mrs. Wornum asks Feratia Bivins to let her see her granddaughter, whom she has never seen. Feratia coolly replies, “if I had as much politeness, ma’am, as I had cheers, I’d ast you to set down,” and adamantly refuses to let Mrs. Wornum see the baby. The final wise commentary, however, comes from Mingo, a former Wornum slave who is loyal to his old master and acts as the surrogate father for the surviving child. It is the black man’s strength of character and endurance that promises reconciliation and social progress....
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