Joel Chandler Harris Additional Biography

Biography

ph_0111205140-Harris.jpg Joel Chandler Harris Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Joel Chandler Harris was the first writer to create a regional literature of lasting interest out of the oral tradition of African American dialect stories told in the South in the nineteenth century. Although he wrote many newspaper articles, children’s stories, and novels about African Americans and mountaineers, he is remembered chiefly for his Uncle Remus stories. Born near Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia, Harris was educated in a local private school and encouraged to write by his mother. At the age of fourteen, he became a printer’s devil on The Countryman, but in 1864 the approach of Union troops forced him to leave the area. After working as a reporter on newspapers in New Orleans and Macon, Georgia, he returned to Eatonton and wrote humor pieces for the Savannah Morning News. In 1876, he became a staff writer for the Atlanta Constitution, where he remained for twenty-four years.

One of Harris’s assignments at the Constitution was to write humorous sketches. For this he began a study of African American folklore and dialect and attempted to reproduce the oral tales realistically in writing. The pieces that resulted were so successful when they appeared in newspapers in the North and the South that a selection was published in 1880 as Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. The stories are fables, related to one another by the dialect and personality of the narrator, Uncle Remus, who, not unlike Harris, was kindly and even-tempered yet shrewd. It was Remus’s delight in the methods used by the underdog members of his bestiary—especially Brer Rabbit—that so enthralled the readers of these tales. Prompted by reader demand, Harris produced hundreds of Uncle Remus tales, and from 1907 until his death he edited Uncle Remus’s Magazine.

Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 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, an old urban black who supposedly dropped by the Atlanta Constitution office to offer practical comments, and some of Harris’s own opinions, on corrupt politicians and lazy blacks. 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’s astonishment and embarrassment, he was famous.