Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dec. 9: Br'er Rabbit and Joel Chandler Harris

He was one of America’s earliest folklore authors, using the dialect and stories from the land he grew up on. His stories – while not widely circulated today – have characters who are still know and loved by Americans of all ages.

Joel Chandler Harris was born on December 9, 1848, at Eatonton – a small town that is the county seat of Putnam County, and is located near the middle of Georgia. His father was an itinerant Irish laborer who disappeared just before Harris was born. His mother – Mary Harris – was unwed, and could barely make a living as a seamstress to support herself and her son.

While his early education was spotty, Harris was an avid reader of American, English, and world literary works. Reportedly his favorite author and book while growing up was Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.

Harris had to end his formal education at the age of thirteen so he could go to work in order to help the family finances. He was hired in March 1862 as an apprentice and typesetter, spending four years working for a weekly newspaper, The Countryman. The Countryman was published by Joseph Addison Turner at Turner’s Turnwold Plantation during the Civil War, and would issue its last publication in May 1866. The plantation was about nine miles north of Eatonton.

Harris would live on the Turnwold Plantation during this time, and several of the slaves who worked there would eventually became models for Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy, and other characters of his Uncle Remus series of stories that he would start to write twenty years after he left the plantation. This work for Turner during his formative years influenced Harris by directing him to a long and successful career in the newspaper world.

Harris would work for a variety of newspapers – including the Macon Telegraph, the New Orleans Crescent Monthly, the Monroe Advertiser, and the Savannah Morning News – where he was an assistant editor when he married Esther LaRose in 1873. The Harris’s would have nine children, although three would die due to childhood illnesses.

In 1876 he took a position as assistant editor with the Atlanta Constitution, which would be his employer for the next quarter century. Harris had moved to Atlanta because of an epidemic of yellow fever in Savannah and was able to land the job with the Constitution. It was his time with the Atlanta Constitution that Harris introduced his Uncle Remus stories. In 1881 he would buy a Queen Anne Victorian style home in Atlanta – the Wren’s Nest – where he would live until his death in 1908. His great-great-great grandson works in the house today as it’s executive director.

The idea for the Uncle Remus stories have their roots in Harris’ formative years while he was growing up in the Antebellum South. Slavery was the norm in the South during this period of American history, and even after the Civil War the role of superiority for Southern whites and subservience for Southern African-Americans was the norm rather than the exception in the rural regions of the South.

Harris spent quite a bit of his time with the African-American slaves living and working the land of Turnwold Plantation and it is thought that Uncle Remus is patterned after one slave – Uncle Bob Capers – who told fantastic stories to entertain and delight his audience after a hard days work in the fields. Harris would preserve the stories – most of whom had their roots in Africa – as well as the dialect, thus becoming one of the first folklore authors in American history. The Uncle Remus stories were full of the wit and wisdom of the era that Harris had heard many years before. Harris stated that he began writing the stories of Uncle Remus to “preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future." Some examples of wisdom from the Uncle Remus stories would include:

“Lazy fokes’s stummucks don’t git tired.”
From Plantation Proverbs
“Jay-bird don’t rob his own nes’.”
From Plantation Proverbs
“Licker talks mighty loud w’en it gits loose from de jug.”
From Plantation Proverbs
“Hungry rooster don’t cackle w’en he fine a wum.”
From Plantation Proverbs.
“Youk’n hide de fier, but w’at you gwine do wid de smoke?”
From Plantation Proverbs
In the books, Uncle Remus is a kindly old slave who is telling the stories to the children sitting around him. The story characters are animals, with the main character being Br’er (Brother) Rabbit, a likeable – though troublesome – trickster. Other major characters include Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. The first Uncle Remus story, The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mrs Fox as Told by Uncle Remus, was published in the Atlanta Constitution on July 20, 1879. Eventually the Uncle Remus stories would be compiled into three Uncle Remus books - Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880); Nights with Uncle Remus (1883); and Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905). The books achieved immense popularity in the United States and abroad.

In 1946 Disney created an animated production called Song of the South based on Uncle Remus. Disney was quoted as saying "The first books I ever read were the Uncle Remus stories. Ever since then, these stories have been my special favorites. I've just been waiting until I could develop the proper medium to bring them to the screen."

Within a decade of its release the civil rights movement of the 1950s – 1960s matured, and the portrayal of the heavy dialect used in the movie that was so evident in the South during the 19th century was viewed as a racist stance that was portraying subservience of the African Americans of the 20th century.

While Harris is best known for his Uncle Remus stories, he did publish other works. He published six children’s books, short stories, and novels – most of which were based on plantation life or life in antebellum Georgia.

Harris died of acute nephritis and cirrhosis of the liver on July 3, 1908, in the Westview Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.


Documenting the American South
Find A Grave
National Park Service
New Georgia Encyclopedia
The Wren’s Nest
University of North Carolina
University of Virginia


Portrait of Joel Chandler Harris, Wikipedia
Portrait of Joel Chandler Harris in 1873, Wikipedia
The Wren’s Nest, Inside Access
Uncle Remus from cover of 1881 Harris book, Wikipedia
Joel Chandler Harris standing, Find A Grave
Gravesite of Joel Chandler Harris, Find A Grave

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December 4: Lillian Russell, Master of the Comic Opera

She was known as one of the most beautiful of American women, had a tremendous personality that ruled the stage she played on, and was a flamboyant master of the popular comic opera stage plays that played in theaters throughout the nation. She dominated the American theater in the late 19th century.

Helen Louise Leonard was the fifth daughter of newspaper publisher Charles E. Leonard and his wife Cynthia Rowland Leonard. Both parents would exert an extensive influence on their daughter – her father through his background in reading and understanding of news and events, and her mother through her feminist views. Helen was born on December 4, 1861, in Clinton, Iowa, but would move to and grow up in Chicago, Illinois, where the family moved in 1864.

She would be remembered to history not as Helen Louise Leonard, but as Lillian Russell.

Lillian would receive her education from the age of seven to fifteen the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and the Park Institute, both in Chicago. It was during these years that she learned to play the tambourine and to dance, showing a natural talent in the school plays that foretold of her stage career. While in school she studied music under Miss. Scheremburg and was an active participant in the school choir. Her first stage appearance was in December 1877, when she was a participant in an amateur production of Time Tries All at Chickering Hall in Chicago.

In 1879, Mrs. Leonard left her husband and moved to New York with the children.

In New York Lillian studied singing under a German émigré, composer, and orchestra conductor – Leopold Damrosch. Her dreams were to have an operatic career. In 1879 she joined the chorus of a Brooklyn theatrical company that was presenting the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, HMS Pinafore. Two weeks after joining the troupe, she married the orchestra leader, Harry Braham. She had a baby boy by Braham, but he died in a tragic accident while still an infant.

The official transformation of Helen Leonard into Lillian Russell would take place on November 22, 1880, when she made her first appearance on Broadway at Tony Pastor’s Theater. She was billed as Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer, and would tour with Pastor’s company through the summer of 1881. Pastor paid her $40 a week and gave her the stage name Lillian Russell.

In June 1883, Lillian left her husband and went to England with composer Edward Solomon. Solomon, an English émigré who was the musical director of Pastor’s theater, would write Lillian into several of his compositions, including Billee Taylor, Polly, and Pocahontas. Lillian sailed with Solomon for England and a series of theatrical engagements. There two major personal events occurred: she became pregnant, giving birth to Lillian Dorothy on May 10, 1884; and the scandal of Lillian leaving her husband behind and living with Solomon “as his wife” reached the press – and turned theater managers against her. In 1885 they returned to the United States – and were informally boycotted by theater managers. Work finally appeared, and Lillian’s ability in comedic operettas and her singing voice carried the day. She began a comeback.

She worked hard to pacify the press and to keep scandals out of the press. When her husband won his divorce case, the newspapers were not informed for a week and a half – and by then Lillian had formally married Solomon. Soon, however, more scandal erupted. Lily Gray, a London actress, claimed that Solomon had married her in 1873 – and never divorced. Eventually, Lillian divorced Solomon. By the time she was twenty-five, Lillian had had two husbands, two children, and had performed on hundreds of stages in the United States and England.

By 1891 Lillian had overcome the earlier public disapproval of her life, and had made a comeback in the theater. She organized the Lillian Russell Opera Company, opening at the Garden Theater in New York. In 1894 she married a third time, to John Haly Augustin Chatterton – a tenor in her opera company. The separated in six months, and were divorced in 1898.

Lillian’s talent, singing voice, and stage success continued – and her popularity continue to rise as well. It was her voice that was first heard during the first long-distance telephone call on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention when she sang from New York, and was heard in Washington, D.C. and in Boston. The song was The Sabre Song.

In June 1912, Lillian – now fifty years old – married for the fourth and final time. Her husband was the publisher of the Pittsburgh Leader, Alexander P. Moore. That same year she made her last appearance on Broadway in a play titled Hokey Pokey. In 1915 she would appear in a motion picture with Lionel Barrymore which was titled Wildfire, and she would occasionally sing in vaudeville until 1919 when ill health made it necessary for her to stop.

Lillian would remain active – and in the public eye. She wrote newspaper columns, gave lectures, supported women’s suffrage, helped recruit for the Marines in World War I, and in 1921 was sent by President Warren G. Harding on a fact-finding tour of Europe to help formulate a new immigration policy in the United States. She came out in favor of restricting immigration and isolationism. Shortly after she submitted her report, she injured herself in a fall, and died ten days later – June 6, 1922 - of complications associated with the fall. She was interred in the Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Lillian’s own words provide the best memorial of her life and tell why she strove to be successful in the theater:
“I only want to play the roles allotted to me in comic opera better than anyone else who ever sang them, or better than anyone who was in the line with me.”
New York Times Obituary
University of Rochester


Russell advertisement (color), Library of Congress, ncdeaa D0005-14
Russell in Costume, 1882, University of Rochester
Playbill, Library of Congress,
Russell in Costume, Library of Congress, ncdeaa D0040
Russell and husband, Alexander Moore, Library of Congress, ichicdn n074416
Russell at her desk, 1922, Library of Congress, ichicdn n074414


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dec. 1: Oliver Wolcott: Soldier Statesman

His fore bearers had been leaders in their colony, and his children would continue that heritage. He was a man who provided political and military leadership during a time of international warfare and civil war. He risked his property and livelihood in politically backing American Independence while he risked his life in leading men in battle for that independence.

Oliver Wolcott was born on December 1, 1726, as the youngest son (and of fifteen children) of Roger and Sarah Wolcott. Wolcott’s father was a leading political figure in the colony of Connecticut, holding the post of governor from 1751 - 1754. The Wolcott family had been involved in the politics of New England since their arrival in 1630.

Young Wolcott attended Yale College, graduating at the top of his class at the age of twenty-one in 1747. He was appointed a captain in the Connecticut militia during King George’s War, and recruited a company to serve in the British expedition against the French in New France – an expedition that, as it turned out, was unsuccessful. His company then guarded against incursions into the northern parts of the British colonies.

After King George’s War ended in 1748, Wolcott returned home – to first study medicine with Dr. Alexander Wolcott - his brother. However, he never had the opportunity to practice medicine. He turned to the study of law when he was appointed the sheriff of newly created Litchfield county in 1751. Wolcott held the position of county sheriff for twenty years while simultaneously being a member of the lower house of the Connecticut colonial legislature in 1764, 1767-68, and 1770. He was a member of the upper house of the colonial and, later, state legislature from 1771 – 1786. He also held the job of both probate judge (1772 - 1781) and county judge (1774 - 1778).

In January 1759 Wolcott married Laura Collins, whose ancestors were among the first settlers of New England and Connecticut. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography stated that...
"She was a woman of almost masculine strength of mind, energetic and thrifty; and while Governor Wolcott was away from home, attended to the management of their farm, educated their younger children, and made it possible for her husband to devote his energies to his country."
Their marriage would last until her death in 1794, which was followed by his three years later. They had five children – three boys and two girls – though one of the boys died in infancy.

Wolcott found that having Laura as his wife freed him for his public interests. Yet he was compassionate enough to express concern for her. He would write to her from Philadelphia in 1776:
"MY DEAR--I feel much concerned for the Burden which necessarily devolves upon you. I hope you will make it as light as possible.... You may easily believe that the situation of publick Affairs is such that the critical Moment is near which will perhaps decide the Fate of the Country; and that the business of Congress is very interesting. Yet if any excuse can reasonably be allowed for my returning, I shall think myself justified in doing so. The circumstances of my affairs demand it."
Wolcott remained involved in the state militia, rising to the rank of colonel by 1774. It was, in part, because of this that the Connecticut legislature named him as a commissary for Connecticut troops and in 1775 the Continental Congress designated him as a commissioner of Indian affairs for the northern department. He worked with the Iroquois in New York to try and gain their neutrality in the escalating conflict with England. He also dealt with arbitrating land disputes between Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

In 1775 Wolcott was sent as a representative of Connecticut to the Continental Congress. Wolcott, a strong supporter for independence, would be absent at both the voting for independence and the formal signing of the Declaration in August. However, he added his signature sometime after his return to Congress in October 1776.

Wolcott devoted part of each year to militia duty, being promoted to Brigadier General in the New York campaigns of 1776-1777, which culminated with the surrender of British general John Burgoyne at Saratoga to Continental general Horatio Gates. In 1779 Major General Wolcott defended the Connecticut seacoast against raids led by the Royal Governor of New York, William Tryon.

After the war was over, Wolcott remained active on the national and state level. He helped to negotiate the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix, New York, in 1784. In that treaty the Iroquois ceded to the new United States some of the New York and Pennsylvania lands. He also negotiated a treaty where the Wyandottes gave up their lands in Ohio. On the state level Wolcott was elected annually as Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut from 1787 to 1796. In 1796 he was elected to the office of Governor. He would die prior to completing his term as governor.

He died on December 1, 1797 - his 71st birthday - and was buried in East Cemetery, Litchfield.


Colonial Hall
Connecticut Magazine
Connecticut Society SAR
Find A Grave
National Park Service


Portrait: Wikipedia
Portrait of Laura Collins Wolcott, by Ralph Earl
Gravesite, Find A Grave, by Eric Landers