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From the Harper Anthology of American Literature

From the Uncle Remus Museum brochure

Biography of Joel Chandler Harris

WELL in advance of the twentieth-century development of folklore studies and cultural anthropology as academic disciplines, Joel Chandler Harris gathered the dialect tales he had heard in his childhood told by slaves. He placed them within a narrative context that made them available to a large white audience, sharpening the effects of their regional details and the age-old wisdom by which the enslaved secretly outwit their masters. Through his work with the Uncle Remus tales, he would introduce Ame ricans to the basic patterns and rhythms of southern African-American speech. Because of Harris' accomplishments, American mainstrean literature featured a memorable new character, Uncle Remus, as well as a new literary tradition.

The way had been hard for Harris as a child in Georgia. His day-laborer father deserted his mother just before his birth. Helped by the local people of Putnam County, the mother and the child made do until young Harris went to work for a newspaper at fourteen. Harris soon contributed humorous pieces to several Georgia papers, and he quickly gained a reputation in the newspaper world. In 1876 he joined the Atlanta Constitution in the city that became his permanent home. During this period Harris divided his time between editorial writing (urging southerners to "reconstruct" their habits and to rise above the conflicts of their past) and the dialect tales, which began to appear in print under the guise of Uncle Remus, the old slave.

His first collection of folk poems and proverbs was published in 1881 as Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. Further collections included Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1905). As the titles suggest, relationships are important; they develop between the wide-eyed audience (likened to a little white boy from the main plantation household) and the narrator who acts as "best friend"-whiling away the hours with a seemingly endless supply of tales. The lasting impression of the Remus stories on readers of all ages and from many countries (there were translations into twenty-seven languages) stems from the force of their slave lore.

Harris insisted that his sources were genuine and that his documentation of the plot and dialect was accurate. In this way, Uncle Remus goes back in time to African models, as well as to the animal tales of Aesop and Chaucer. Harris helped inspire other writers in the vernacular through his adroit use of narrative forms, his excellent ear for the subtleties of dialect, and his ability to emphasize the universal nature of these classic standoffs between the weak and the powerful.

Uncle Remus Museum

JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS was born in utter poverty in Putnam County in 1848. Although being poor presented the youngster with many hardships, it imbued him with a tender shyness -a shyness so extreme that it actually became an attractive asset and followed him all his life.

Putnam County was a land of cotton, large plantations, slave-holders, wealth and plenty. Private schooling was the fashion of the day and Joel Chandler Harris was able to attend school through the generosity of his neighbors who recognized his potentialities.

One of the young boy's favorite spots was the old Eatonton Post Office, because the postmaster would give him discarded papers and magazines to help satisfy his active and hungry mind. On one of his visits to the Post Office, Joel read an advertisement for a printer's devil in the first issue of The Countryman, a newspaper published at Turnwold, a local plantation. He immediately made application and was hired at the age of thirteen.

The publisher of The Countryman, Joseph Addison Turner, was a lawyer, scholar and planter. His newspaper was the only weekly ever published on a Southern plantation.

Turner was quick to recognize the ambition and talent of his young apprentice. In time, some of Joel's works began appearing in the newspaper. Turner was a stern taskmaster and he demanded a clear literary style, which was a tremendous asset to the gifted boy.

At Turnwold, Harris began his lifelong friendship with animals and with the plantation Negroes, whose folklore would later fill his writings. Fortunately, the youngster was associated with such aged and colorful slaves as "Uncle" George Terrell and "Uncle" Bob Capers. They had a gift for story-telling which Harris was later able to capture.

Harris' apprenticeship ended abruptly in 1864 when awing of Sherman's army invaded Putnam County. War had suddenly brought poverty to all, including Turnwold, forcing the ambitious youth to move on and seek his place in the world.

He worked for newspapers in New Orleans, Macon, Forsyth, Savannah and finally The Atlanta Constitution. It was under the guidance of Captain Evan P. Howell, of The Atlanta Constitution, that he began to publish the famous stories of Uncle Remus. Northern newspapers began to print the fascinating tales and almost overnight his fame was established.

In Atlanta, he worked with the energetic and farsighted men who rebuilt the city and the South during reconstruction days following the Civil War. His associates included Clark Howell, editor of The Atlanta Constitution; Frank Stanton, famous Georgia poet; and Henry W. Grady, the great Southern orator. Joel Chandler Harris died at the Wrens Nest, his home in Atlanta in 1908. Today, the Wrens Nest is a shrine devoted to his memory.

The works of Joel Chandler Harris are not limited to the tales of Uncle Remus. Stories of the old South and Reconstruction Days take their place among his masterpieces. However, the folk stories, with their inimitable characterizations of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and "all de critters", have never been equaled.

Source: Uncle Remus Museum, Eatonton, Georgia.

Joel Chandler Harris: "He made the lowly cabin-fires light the far windows of the world."
Frank L. Stanton

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