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

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