Study Guide

Joel Chandler Harris

Joel Chandler Harris Essay - Harris, Joel Chandler

Harris, Joel Chandler

Introduction

Harris, Joel Chandler 1848-1908

American short story writer, novelist, journalist, and children's author.

Best known as the creator of the fictional character Uncle Remus, an old former slave who relates folktales to a young white listener, Harris is generally regarded as the first person to accurately record the dialect and folklore of African Americans. His life spanned the days of slavery and the Reconstruction, and his works evince both a sympathy for the tradition of slavery as well as a humanistic concern for blacks—a dichotomy that has prompted much discussion about the value and intent of Harris's stories. He is also considered an important author of Southern local-color stories, although most of his works in this vein do not have the humor and universal themes of the fables told by Uncle Remus.

Biographical Information

Harris was born near Eatonton, Georgia, to an unwed mother. Biographers note that his red hair and his status as an illegitimate child resulted in excessive shyness on the part of Harris, who attempted to overcome his reticence through humor and practical jokes. At thirteen Harris went to work as a typesetter's apprentice to Joseph Addison Turner, editor and publisher of the weekly Countryman. Harris was allowed to explore the library on Turner's plantation, where the paper was printed, and Turner also tutored the boy in English literature and grammar. With his finances eroded because of the Civil War, Turner halted publication of The Countryman in 1866. Harris moved to Macon to take a job as a typesetter with the Telegraph. In 1867 he began three years as a staff writer with the Monroe Advertiser in Forsyth, Georgia, and subsequently worked as an associate editor for the Savannah Morning News, where his daily column gained him a regular following. Harris moved to Atlanta in 1876 and took a position with the Constitution. There he published a series of sketches written in prose intended to duplicate the speech of plantation slaves. Harris introduced the Uncle Remus character in 1879, using him as a mouthpiece to recount the slave legends and folktales that Harris had heard as a young man on Turner's plantation. Harris's stories earned him fame, which increased in 1880 upon the publication of Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings, the first of many collections of Uncle Remus tales. He also published several volumes of local-color stories, a few novels, and children's books, among other works, before retiring in 1900 from his position as editor at the Constitution. Harris remained busy with various literary projects until his death in 1908.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Harris's major collections are Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings; Nights with Uncle Remus; Uncle Remus and His Friends; and Told by Uncle Remus. Related by Uncle Remus to a young boy, his folktales often depict anthropomorphic animals competing to get the better of each other. Brer Rabbit is a central character in a majority of these tales, and he defeats his larger, stronger adversaries—commonly Brer Fox—through wit and sometimes homicide. Harris's animal characters always pretend to be sociable and neighborly throughout their contests, never openly acknowledging their ongoing warfare or accusing each other of misdeeds. Other folktales in Harris's collections treat myths, supernatural events, and folk wisdom. In his local-color stories Harris depicted common folk, black and white, who were trying to adapt to the social and economic disruptions of life in the South during the Civil War and the Reconstruction.

Critical Reception

The dialect sketches of Harris were immediately hailed as the most accurate and entertaining tales of their type. His admirers found a compelling sense of authenticity in the narrative voice of Uncle Remus; to many, Remus reminded them of idyllic life before the war. The folktales gained the attention of ethnologists and folklorists, and critics agree that Harris provided an invaluable service by recording African American tales which may have otherwise been lost to history. However, many scholars point to latent racism in Harris's portrait of slavery as a pleasant institution, and others have noted that Harris himself believed that slavery had been beneficial to African Americans. In fairness to Harris, historians have shown that these racist attitudes were widespread in the antebellum South. Many of Harris's contemporaries actually considered his views on race progressive because, among other things, he advocated public education for blacks. Nevertheless, the treatment of race in Harris's stories has garnered much controversy and influenced critical debate about the import of the animal tales. Regarding the amoral quality of the stories, readers have maintained that Brer Rabbit's crafty, nearly sinister deeds are simply entertaining; some commentators find that the stories present violence and cynicism without discrimination, undermining the ostensible humor of the tales; while still others maintain that Brer Rabbit's viciousness toward his stronger foes parallels the slave's bitter hatred of his owner. The debate surrounding Harris and his works has helped ensure that the Uncle Remus tales are still discussed more than a hundred years after the publication of Harris's first animal tale.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: Folklore of the Old Plantation 1880

Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation 1883

Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White 1884

Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches 1887

Daddy Jake the Runaway, and Short Stories Told after Dark by "Uncle Remus" 1889

Balaam and His Master, and Other Sketches and Stories 1891

Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads (short stories and poems) 1892

Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War 1898

The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann 1899

Plantation Pageants 1899

*On the Wing of Occasions: Being the Authorized Version of Certain Curious Episodes of the Late Civil War, Including the Hitherto Suppressed Narrative of the Kidnapping of President Lincoln 1900

The Making of a Statesman, and Other Stories 1902

Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation 1905

Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit 1907

Uncle Remus and the Little Boy 1910

Uncle Remus Returns 1918

The Witch and the Wolf: An Uncle Remus Story 1921

The Favorite Uncle Remus 1948

Seven Tales of Uncle Remus 1948

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus 1955

*Published in 1909 as The Kidnapping of President Lincoln, and Other War Detective Stories.

Other Major Works

On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures during the War (autobiographical novel) 1892

Sister Jane, Her Friends and Acquaintances: A Narrative of Certain Events and Episodes Transcribed from the Papers of the Late William Wornum (novel) 1896

Stories of Georgia (history) 1896

Gabriel Tolliver: A Story of Reconstruction (novel) 1902

A Little Union Scout (novel) 1904

The Tar-Baby, and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (poems) 1904

The Shadow between His Shoulder-Blades (novel) 1909

Joel Chandler Harris, Editor and Essayist: Miscellaneous Literary, Political, and Social Writings (journalism and essays) 1931

Qua: A Romance of the Revolution (unfinished novel) 1946

Criticism

Joel Chandler Harris (essay date 1880)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, compiled by Richard Chase, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955, pp. xxi-xxvii.

[In the following essay, which was originally published as the introduction to Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Harris expresses interest in the documentary and comparative anthropological significance of his stories.]

I am advised by my publishers that this book is to be included in their catalogue of humorous publications, and this friendly warning gives me an opportunity to say that however humorous it may be in effect, its intention is perfectly serious; and, even if it were otherwise, it seems...

(The entire section is 2723 words.)

The Spectator (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: A review of Uncle Remus and His Legends of the Old Plantation, in The Spectator, Vol. 53, No. 2753, April 2, 1881, pp. 445-46.

[In the following review of the English version of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the critic applauds Harris's tales while noting that the collection depicts the "gullibility of the stronger races" as well as "delight" in "the habits of cunning, deceit, and dishonesty. "]

This charming little book [Uncle Remus and His Legends of the Old Plantation] appears to be written by a partisan of "the peculiar institution," and so very thorough a partisan, that he speaks of Mrs. Stowe's "wonderful defence of...

(The entire section is 3536 words.)

The New York Times (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: A review of Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches, in The New York Times, January 15, 1888, p. 14.

[In the following review, the critic praises Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches.]

[In Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches] may be found "Free Joe," "Little Compton," "Aunt Fountain's Prisoner," "Trouble at Lost Mountain," and "Azalia." We know of no story which for simple pathos equals "Free Joe," Joe being that poor old colored man, freed by an accident, and to whom freedom had been a curse. How with a few words Mr. Harris gives us the character of Spite Calderwood, who just for "cussedness" separates Joe from Lucinda, until there is no one he...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: A review of Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches, in The Nation, Vol. 46, No. 1183, March 1, 1888, pp. 182-83.

[In the following review, the critic notes that the stories in Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches are realistic yet beautiful.]

Mr. Harris's stories bound together under the title Free Joe depict the life and characters with which he has already made us familiar. The Georgian negro, bond and free, the poor white, and the mountaineer are given enduring life by his pen. It may be heresy to suggest it, but one feels that his portraits of the Southern aristocrat, as he was before the war, are no less truthful. The rich young...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

The Chicago Tribune (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "Uncle Remus's War Stories," in The Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1900, p. 10, part 2.

[In the following review, the critic praises On the Wing of Occasions, particularly the story "The Kidnapping of President Lincoln. "]

[The stories in On the Wing of Occasions] deal with some more or less imaginary episodes in the unwritten history of the civil war, and they cause the reader to realize how much more interesting certain unwritten records are than some that have been accepted as history. The stories are full of action and of skillfully managed plot, and though we have no actual battle scenes they are yet tales of warfare, with battle fields within...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

William Malone Baskerville (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "Joel Chandler Harris," in Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies, Volume I, Publishing House M. E. Church, South, 1897, pp. 41-88.

[In the following essay, which is usually considered the first substantial biographical and critical study of Harris, Baskerville provides a general appreciation of the author, whom he deems "the most sympathetic, the most original, the truest delineator" of African American life.]

Middle Georgia is the birthplace and home of the raciest and most original kind of Southern humor. In this quarter native material was earliest recognized and first made use of. A school of writers arose who looked out of their eyes and...

(The entire section is 7665 words.)

The Nation (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: A review of On the Wing of Occasions, in The Nation, Vol. 71, No. 1848, November 29, 1900, pp. 429-30.

[The following review presents a positive assessment of the collection On the Wing of Occasions.]

Lest the glory of fresh conquest should obliterate the memory of battles long ago, Mr. Harris has, perhaps, deemed the moment opportune to print "Certain Curious Episodes of the Late Civil War." The episodes are not very curious, and not at all incredible. The narration drags over unimportant matters and then leaps, leaving gaps as if Mr. Harris had forgotten the really critical moves in the games of political conspiracy. Capt. McCarthy, the soul of...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Thomas H. English (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "In Memory of Uncle Remus," in The Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, No. 2, February, 1940, pp. 77-83.

[An American educator and critic, English edited Harris's works Qua: A Romance of the Revolution (1946) and Seven Tales of Uncle Remus (1948). In addition, he is the author of A.B. Frost and His Predecessors Illustrating Uncle Remus (1978) and the coauthor of Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide (1978). In the following excerpt, English avers that philanthropy and sensitivity pervaded Harris's life and fiction.]

Shortly after joining [the Atlanta Constitution, Joel Chandler Harris began] the series of Negro dialect...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Bernard Wolfe (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit: 'Takes a Limber-Toe Gemmun fer ter Jump Jim Crow'," in Commentary, Vol. 8, No. 1, July, 1949, pp. 31-41.

[Wolfe is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. A note appended to the following essay upon its initial publication in Commentary states: "For generations, American children and adults have chuckled over the adventures of Uncle Remus's Brer Rabbit. Bernard Wolfe here suggests that Uncle Remus's loyal white readers may not, after all, have properly understood that the joke was on them: at the heart of the merry fables was the half-suppressed revenge of a resentful minority."]

Aunt Jemima, Beulah,...

(The entire section is 7380 words.)

Ellen Douglass Leyburn (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Animal Stories," in Satiric Allegory: Mirror of Man, Archon Books, 1969, pp. 57-70.

[Leyburn was an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a study originally published in 1956, she presents the Uncle Remus animal stories as models of satiric allegory.]

"prettie Allegories stealing under the formali Tales of beastes, makes many more beastly then beastes: begin to heare the sound of vertue from these dumb speakers."

Sir Philip Sidney

Brute creation seems sometimes to exist as a satire on mankind. All that the allegorist needs to do is to point the parallel....

(The entire section is 3476 words.)

Darwin T. Turner (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Daddy Joel Harris and His Old-Time Darkies," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. I, No. 1, December, 1968, pp. 20-41.

[Turner is an American educator, poet, and critic specializing in African American and Southern literature. In the following essay, he proposes that Harris's depiction of African Americans is largely distorted, proceeding from an idealized notion of slavery and plantation life.]

Most readers identify Joel Chandler Harris with only one Negro—Uncle Remus, who blends wisdom and childishness in proportions which have endeared him to generations of white and black American readers. To presume that Uncle Remus is Harris's archetypal Negro,...

(The entire section is 7162 words.)

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Uncle Remus and the Ubiquitous Rabbit," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. X, No. 4, October, 1974, pp. 787-804.

[Rubin is an American critic and educator who has written and edited numerous studies of Southern literature. In the following excerpt, he defends Harris's depiction of African Americans, judging it progressive when considered in historical perspective, but finds the animal tales to be Harris's truly notable achievement for their direct, unsentimental portrayal of life.]

In late August of 1876, an epidemic of yellow fever struck the city of Savannah, Georgia. By the first of September, twenty-three persons had died, and...

(The entire section is 6227 words.)

Kathleen Light (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Uncle Remus and the Folklorists," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 88-104.

[Below, Light examines Harris's perception of the ethnological significance of his Uncle Remus stories.]

No one was more surprised than Joel Chandler Harris himself to learn that the Negro animal fables he had written for the Atlanta Constitution had a "scientific" as well as a literary value. Yet within six months of the first weekly installment of the stories in the Constitution on November 16, 1879, John Wesley Powell of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology had written him concerning their ethnological importance. Powell's...

(The entire section is 5379 words.)

Robert Bone (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Oral Tradition," in Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975, pp. 19-41.

[An American educator and critic, Bone is the author of The Negro Novel in America (1958) and Richard Wright (1969). In the following excerpt, he asserts that African American tales exemplified by Harris's Uncle Remus stories embody "the black slave's resistance to white power."]

Joel Chandler Harris is in bad odor among the younger generation of literary men. The blacks, who tend to equate Uncle Remus with Uncle Tom—sometimes, one suspects, without having read either Harris...

(The entire section is 7407 words.)

R. Bruce Bickley, Jr. (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Short Fiction," in Joel Chandler Harris, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 104-29.

[An American educator and critic, Bickley is the author of Joel Chandler Harris (1978) and Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide (1978) and the editor of Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris (1978). In the following excerpt, he surveys Harris's realistic short stories, published in collections between 1884 and 1902.]

I. THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF THE SHORT STORIES

When Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White appeared in 1884, reviewers were delighted to discover that Harris could write effective local-color and...

(The entire section is 10647 words.)

Raymond Hedin (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Uncle Remus: Puttin' on Ole Massa's Son," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XV, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 83-90.

[In the following essay, Hedin detects subversiveness not only in the tales related by Uncle Remus but also in Uncle Remus's narration and his interaction with the young boy to whom he tell the tales.]

In Joel Chandler Harris's collections of Uncle Remus tales, scholars have noticed an apparent contradiction between the tales themselves and the framework of teller and audience that Harris created as a setting for them. Folklorists and literary critics now tend to agree that Brer Rabbit and the other seemingly weak animals who inhabit the tales are...

(The entire section is 3509 words.)

Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Twisted Tales: Propaganda in the Tar-Baby Stories," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 54-69.

[In the following essay, Keenan asserts that the Uncle Remus tar-baby stories have been used in different ways as propaganda by Harris, African American slaves, Northerners, Southerners, and several other groups as recently as the late twentieth century.]

Just over a hundred years ago the Tar-Baby story was introduced into American literature, as propaganda, and throughout its history of retelling, it has continued to carry a propaganda message, or rather one should say, messages. Not only has the story been altered to carry different...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Joel Chandler Harris' Tales of Uncle Remus: For Mixed Audiences," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, ChLA Publishers, 1987, pp. 118-26.

[In the following essay, Keenan addresses prominent issues in scholarship regarding the Uncle Remus tales and reasserts the enduring value of these stories—for children and adults.]

In 1955, the folklorist Richard Chase compiled a rich anthology entitled The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, a collection of 185 tales taken from the nine books of Uncle Remus tales written by Joel Chandler Harris. Three of those books were...

(The entire section is 4211 words.)