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Revisiting Joel Chandler Harris

Portait of Joel Chandler Harris

Portait of Joel Chandler Harris

Biography

Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1845. His father abandoned the family at an early age, so Joel was raised by his mother with some financial help from a local doctor. During the War Between the States, Harris worked on the Turnwold Plantation. It was during these years that the young, red-headed man became familiar with the language and dialect of the black slaves, living on the plantation. During this time Harris spent 100s of hours in the cabins of the plantation slaves. It is from this background that Mr. Harris was able to recreate the rich and colorful dialogue that have made his “Uncle Remus” writings so popular.

Harris’s Trade

Harris was hired by the owner of the Turnwold Plantation for the position of printer’s devil. Despite the ominous implication, this job was nothing more than an apprenticeship for the printer’s trade. In fact, after the Civil War ended, Harris left the plantation and took on a similar job as typesetter with the Macon Telegraph. Incidentally, this line of work put Harris in close proximity to Samuel Clemens, who spent much of his youth working in his father’s print shop. Samuel Clemens went on to become Mark Twain and also turned into on of the biggest fans of Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit and the rest of the gang.

Typesetter Becomes a Writer

When the new nation celebrated it’s 100th birthday, Harris took on a job with the Atlanta Constitution as a writer. This turned out to be a position that he would hold for 26 years. It was during this time that Harris published his Uncle Remus stories. His reason for writing and publishing the stories were stated as to “preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future”.

Making Sense of  Harris’s Literary Career

Though still in print and mildly popular, the stories of Joel Chandler Harris have found their own little niche somewhere between literature and folklore. Some writers and literary critics have enjoyed and defended (Ralph Ellison, Robert Cochran and Toni Morrison) the storytelling effort, while others (H.L. Mencken and Alice Walker) have verbally torn Harris apart. Still, after all those years the tall tales of Uncle Remus still maintain a livelihood today.

Norman Rockwell depicts Uncle Remus

Norman Rockwell depicts Uncle Remus

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