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.
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.
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.