The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 2. Facts of his Life

The life of Joel Chandler Harris was comparatively uneventful though it was an ideal preparation for the work that he was to do. He was born in Eatonton, Putnam County, Georgia, 9 December, 1848,—a date now celebrated annually in all Georgia schools. It is a remarkable fact that the middle counties of Georgia have produced the most representative humorists of the South. Among those who were born or who at some time lived in this part of Georgia may be mentioned A. B. Longstreet, the author of Georgia Scenes; Richard Malcolm Johnston, the author of The Dukesborough Tales; William Tappan Thompson, the author of Major Jones’s Courtship; and Harry Stillwell Edwards, the author of Two Runaways and Other Stories. In the same section were born the two poets Francis O. Ticknor, author of Little Giffen of Tennessee, and Sidney Lanier. Middle Georgia was also before the war the most democratic part of the slaveholding states, a circumstance not without its influence upon the development of Harris’s genius.

  • “The sons of the richest men,” he tells us, “were put in the fields to work side by side with the negroes, and were thus taught to understand the importance of individual effort that leads to personal independence. It thus happened that there was a cordial, and even an affectionate, understanding between the slaves and their owners, that perhaps had no parallel elsewhere. The poorer whites had no reason to hold their heads down because they had to work for their living. The richest slave owners did not feel themselves above those who had few negroes or none. When a man called his neighbor “Colonel,” or “Judge,” it was to show his respect, nothing more. For the rest, the humblest held their heads as high as the richest, and were as quick, perhaps quicker, in a quarrel.”
  • Young Harris owed little to the schools but much to a country printing office and to a large library in which it was his privilege to browse at will. At the age of twelve he read one morning the announcement that a new newspaper, The Countryman, was to be started a few miles from Eatonton. The editor, Joseph Addison Turner, the owner of a large plantation and many slaves, was a man of sound but old-fashioned literary taste and wished his paper to be modelled after The Spectator of Addison and Steele. This announcement kindled the ambition of young Harris, who was already familiar with the best literature of Queen Anne’s time and to whom the very name Spectator recalled days and nights of indescribable delight. He applied at once for the vacant position of office boy, received a favourable answer, and devoted the rest of his life to journalism in his native State. The duties of his new position were not onerous, and he found time, or took time, to hunt foxes, coons, opossums, and rabbits whenever he wished, and to make himself familiar with every nook and corner of the surrounding country.

    It was in these early years that Harris laid the foundation for his future work. There was not a negro myth or legend in which he was not interested; there was not a negro custom or peculiarity that he did not know; and there was not a sound or idiom of the negro language that he could not reproduce.

  • “No man who has ever written,” says Thomas Nelson Page, “has known one-tenth part about the negro that Mr. Harris knows, and for those who hereafter shall wish to find not merely the words but the real language of the negro of that section and the habits of mind of all American negroes of the old time, his works will prove the best thesaurus.”
  • In addition to his interest in the life about him Harris soon came to have an equal interest in Turner’s large library. Among his favourite books were the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, the essays of Addison and Steele, and later the Bible and Shakespeare. His best loved writer, however, from first to last, and the one whose genius was most like his own, was Goldsmith.
  • “The only way to describe my experience with The Vicar of Wakefield,” he said in his later years, “is to acknowledge that I am a crank. It touches me more deeply, it gives me the ‘all-overs’ more severely than all others. Its simplicity, its air of extreme wonderment, have touched and continue to touch me deeply.”
  • Among the writers of New England Harris seems to have cared least for Emerson and most for Lowell.

  • “Culture,” he once wrote, “is a very fine thing, indeed, but it is never of much account either in life or in literature, unless it is used as a cat uses a mouse, as a source of mirth and luxury. It is at its finest in this country when it is grafted on the sturdiness that has made the nation what it is, and when it is fortified by the strong common sense that has developed and preserved the republic. This is culture with a definite aim and purpose … and we feel the ardent spirit of it in pretty much everything Mr. Lowell has written.”
  • In the march through Georgia, General Sherman’s army devastated the Turner plantation, and The Countryman was of course discontinued. After various experiences with different newspapers Harris joined the staff of The Atlanta Constitution in 1876. At this time he was known chiefly as an essayist and poet, but he began almost immediately to publish some of the plantation legends that he had heard from the lips of the negroes before and during the war. The first volume of these stories, Uncle Remus: his Songs and his Sayings, the Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, was published in 1880. It contained thirty-four plantation legends or negro folk-tales, a few plantation proverbs, nine negro songs, a story of the war, and twenty-one sayings or opinions of Uncle Remus, all supposed to be sung or narrated by Uncle Remus himself. In 1883 appeared Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation. This contained sixty-nine new legends and was prefaced by an interesting Introduction. Among the new legends were a few told by Daddy Jack, a representative of the dialect spoken on the coastal rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. These two volumes represent the author’s best work in the domain of negro dialect and folk-lore, and were accorded instant recognition as opening a new and deeply interesting field both to literature and ethnology. Among the later works that continue the Uncle Remus tradition may be mentioned Uncle Remus and his Friends (1892), Mr. Rabbit at Home (1895), The Tar-Baby Story and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904), Told by Uncle Remus (1905), Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907), and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910). There were also numerous stories of the War and of the Reconstruction period.