Author of Uncle Remus tales Joel Chandler Harris – a look at his life, folklore collecting and classic writings.
“How Brer Coon Gets His Meat” is based on a short story called “Crazy Sue’s Story” collected by famed Georgia author, folklorist and journalist Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908). “Crazy Sue’s Story” appeared in a collection of stories entitled Daddy Jake the Runaway and Short Stories Told After Dark, published in 1889.
Harris is best known, of course, for the Uncle Remus tales featuring Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and other famous animal characters. Like the Uncle Remus tales, the stories found in Daddy Jake were African-American myth-legends that Harris heard from slaves while he was working on a plantation nearhis birthplace in Eatonton, Georgia. Harris had an extraordinarily sensitive ear and accurate memory, and wrote the stories as closely to the spoken versions as he could.
The cultural origins of the Daddy Jake stories are hard to trace. Folklorists argue that similar stories can be found in European and Native American cultures. Since these groups interacted with African-Americans during the United States’s early history, a sharing of these stories is entirely possible.
“Crazy Sue’s Story” is told by a fictional character named Crazy Sue, a runaway slave, to two white children named Lucien and Lillian Gaston. The Gaston children have left their father’s plantation to search for another runaway slave named Daddy Jake. As the story begins, the two children have found Daddy Jake sitting around a campfire with his friends, laughing and telling stories. The children are thrilled to find him, and fully expect him to return with them to the Gaston plantation.
While sitting around the fire, Lillian asks why the frogs in the swamp are making so much noise. The following is Crazy Sue’s response (dialect and text taken from the original story):
“I speck it’s kaze dey er mad wid Mr. Rabbit,” said Crazy Sue. “Dey ertryin’ der best ter drive ‘im out’n de swamp.”
“What are they mad with the Rabbit for?” asked Lucien, thinking there might be a story in the explanation.
“Hit’s one er dem ole-time fusses,” said Crazy Sue. “Hit’s most too oleter talk about.”
“Don’t you know what the fuss is about?” asked Lucien.
And so, the story begins…
The name Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) is not nearly as well known as that of the famous character he created, Uncle Remus. Many visitors to Harris’s home in Atlanta, Georgia have been surprised to find that the author of the beloved Uncle Remus stories was not a aged black man, but aportly and shy white journalist.
Harris was a progressive thinking Southerner with deep concerns about post-Civil War reconstruction in general and race relations in particular. Although he had literary ambitions, his greatest achievement was as a folklorist, when he collected and wrote down slave stories thathe heard while working on a plantation as a young boy. Harris never claimed that he was the author of these stories, but rather a “compiler” of voices that, at that time, were virtually ignored in white America -the black slaves of the Old South.
This literary giant was, in reality, a virtual recluse who rarely traveled outside his home. This shyness probably stemmed from his childhood in rural and placid Eatonton, Georgia. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was an infant, and Harris grew up a gawky, nervous and thin boy with red-hair and freckles.
By age 14, however, Harris became restless and mustered up enough courage to seek a job as a printer’s devil for Joseph Addison Turner. Turner was editor-publisher of The Countryman, a small country newspaper that he published out of his home at Turnwold Plantation. Turner not only introduced the young Harris to journalism, but also to literature through the books he kept in his well-stocked library.
Most importantly, Harris was exposed to the good and bad aspects of plantation life, which would later provide the setting and characters for his Uncle Remus tales.
Harris began his writing career contributing humorous pieces to The Countryman under the by-line, “The Countryman’s Devil.” When the paper eventually shut down after the Civil War, Harris moved on to papers in Macon, New Orleans, Monroe and Savannah, where he continued writing humorous pieces, as well as literary reviews. It was while working in Savannah from 1870-1873 that he met his future wife, Esther LaRose, an 18 year old Catholic girl of French Canadian descent.
Harris and his wife eventually had to flee Savannah when an epidemic of yellow fever broke out. By this time, Harris had gained a reputation as a humorist with other newspaper editors, since his amusing columns on local and national matters had been reprinted in various papers over the years. But in his heart, Harris was dissatisfied with journalism as a literary pursuit, and dreamed of publishing his own Southern literary magazine.
Harris’s reputation landed him a job as associate editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This job gave him a steady income and a comfortable life. In 1881, he moved his family into a small farmhouse in Atlanta’s West End called Snap-Bean Farm. He later renovated the farmhouse into a pretty, Queen Anne Victorian home, which he dubbed the“Wren’s Nest” after he found a nest of birds in their wooden mailbox. Here, Harris settled into a routine of taking a mule-driven streetcar to work during the day, followed by an evening of literary writing. He preferred to spend time at home, and rarely traveled.
Along with a humor column, Harris began writing “dialect sketches” for the Constitution when he first joined the staff. Harris’s observations were seen through the eyes of a fictional, humble black commentator named Uncle Remus. Through these columns, Harris explored African-American dialect throughout the state of Georgia. He had a distaste for what he called “the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage,” and painstakingly wrote his stories in authentic African-American dialect that he had absorbed as a boy. For someone who never recorded his encounters with slaves, Harris was surprisingly accurate as a self-taught linguist.
“The difference between real dialect and lingo,” he once said, “is that the first is preservative, while the latter is destructive, of language. Judged by this standard, the Negro dialect is as perfect as any the world ever saw.”
In 1879, Harris wrote a dialect column on the editorial page entitled “Negro Folk Lore.” It was here that one of the Uncle Remus tales, “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox,” appeared for the first time in print. This story and the ones that followed were a huge success with readers and editors, and were published in newspapers across the country. The next year, these stories were collected and published in a book entitled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, which was a national sensation. The man who had modestly dubbed himself a “cornfield journalist” and an “accidental author” was, seemingly overnight, a national celebrity.
The Uncle Remus tales brought Harris a lot of attention from learned men, who proclaimed him an expert on African-American folklore. One of his admirers was Mark Twain, who invited Harris to join him on a lucrative joint lecture tour. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt singled out Harris’s work as an important contribution to reuniting the country after the Civil War, and even invited him to the White House.
But Harris was never comfortable with his notoriety, and the continued pressure to speak publicly made him even more of a recluse. He continued to work for the newspaper until the turn of the century, but centered his attention more on his family and his literary writing. Harris was a common sight writing on the front porch of his home, wearing his trademark black felt hat and spitting into his enameled spittoon. In 1900, Harris left the grind of the newspaper world behind for good, and retired to the Wren’s Nest to concentrate on his literary efforts.
Harris finally realized his dream of publishing a Southern literary magazine when, in 1905, he and his son Julian published the first issueof Uncle Remus’s Magazine. Despite his desire to write other types ofstories, Harris agreed to name the magazine after Uncle Remus to capitalize on his fame. The magazine became another success for Harris, with over 200,000 subscribers.
But by this time, Harris was in poor health. Already dogged by constant illnesses and the tragic deaths of two of his grandchildren, Harris weakened under the strain of publishing a magazine. In 1908, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and died peacefully at his home shortly thereafter.
Harris would eventually write 30 books, and his Uncle Remus tales were translated into 27 different languages. The most popular tale, “The Wonderful Tar Baby,” was the focus of the Walt Disney movie Song of the South, which introduced Harris’s work to a new and younger audience.
Despite his considerable accomplishments, however, Harris would, in death, become a controversial figure in some quarters. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, depictions of Old South slaves in literature and in the mass media were shunned by a younger generation of African-Americans. The fact that Harris was a white man presenting the authentic (some would incorrectly call it “uneducated”) dialect of black slaves made the issue even more racially-sensitive. It is admittedly difficult to judge how much of the Uncle Remus material is a true record of African-American folklore, and how much is Harris’s creation.
But if Joel Chandler Harris didn’t record the dialect and stories of theslaves, and publish them for the masses at that time, who would have? Harris intended for his stories to bridge the gap between the races and heal the wounds of the Civil War. The continued popularity of his writings proves that Harris, in many ways, achieved these lofty goals.
Uncle Remus, the literary character who would eventually become a worldwide phenomenon, had a modest beginning in a small newspaper columnin Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1876, a humor columnist named Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) began contributing African-American dialect sketches to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. These columns were based on the stories and dialect he absorbed from slaves while working on a plantation near his boyhoodhome of Eatonton, Georgia. Harris wanted to promote an understanding between the races in the post-Civil War South, and to give white Americaa rare glimpse into African culture.
One of his first columns, “Jeems Rober’son’s Last Illness” (1876), featured an unnamed black man waiting on a train to Jonesboro, Georgia. The black man had to be coaxed to finish his story for the reading audience at the risk of missing his train. Weeks later, Harris came up with a name for this fictional narrator: Uncle Remus. Remus would comment on the current Atlanta scene and express his preference for plantation life in the Old South. In the columns that followed, Uncle Remus’ personal history on the plantation began to unfold.
Three years later, the first Uncle Remus tale, “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox,” appeared on the editorial page under the heading, “Negro Folk Lore.” The columns appeared intermittently in the Atlanta paper, and were an immediate success. Now, Uncle Remus was an aging slave who chose to remain on the plantation after the Civil War. He tells his stories to a little white boy who is the son of Miss Sally, a Southern woman, and John Huntingdon, a Union officer. Oddly enough, the audience later learned that Uncle Remus once wounded the Union soldier in defense of Miss Sally during the war, and stayed on the plantation out of obligation to both the original family and to the wounded officer.
Understandably, many readers found Uncle Remus’s positive attitude toward slavery to be distasteful. But at the time, Harris’s columns won widespread acceptance from guilt-ridden Southerners who wanted to believe that slave life in the antebellum South wasn’t so bad. They also introduced Northern audiences to a warm and homely side of plantation life that they had never experienced before.
Whether they were completely accurate from a historical perspective or not, the Uncle Remus tales, in some small way, helped foster racial healing when it was needed most. Unlike other accounts of plantation life at that time, the Uncle Remus tales moved the focus from the “big house”to the slave cabins, from white to black. Harris’s stories were amazingly detailed about everyday slave life, right down to how they made shoe pegs and baked yams and ashcakes. Harris painstakingly wrote his stories in authentic African-American dialect, with many words in Gullah.
Like Aesop’s Fables, the characters in the Uncle Remus tales were frequently “critters”: Brer Fox, Brer B’ar, Brer Wolf and so forth. The most popular, of course, was Brer Rabbit, a trickster whose occasionally amoral acts were not always approved of by Harris himself. But the Uncle Remus tales were meant to be entertaining, not moral lessons. Whenever Harris would intervene in his stories, he would tell his audience through Uncle Remus that the animals’ conduct shouldn’t always be considered proper conduct for human beings, and that their acts were frequently lessons in the art of survival. This is in keeping with African tradition, where overt moralizing is rare and stories can be amoral and grim.
As the Uncle Remus newspaper stories became a national phenomenon, Harris collected them and had them published in an anthology called Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). The book was an international hit, and Harris ended up producing nine more volumes of the stories, preserving 183 distinctive tales. Harris never claimed to be the author of these stories, but “only the compiler” of tales he’d heard from others. The Uncle Remus tales were eventually translated into 27 different languages.
The enormous popularity of the Uncle Remus tales dwarfed everything else Harris would write. To this day, his name is so synonymous with Uncle Remus that many people believe that he is Uncle Remus. Harris was never comfortable with his fame, and chose to stay at home with his family and his typewriter until his death in 1908.
A new and younger audience was introduced to the Uncle Remus tales in the 1940s, when Walt Disney used a tale called “The Wonderful Tar Baby” as the focus of their movie Song of the South. The movie’s centerpiece song,”Zip-a-Dee Doo Da,” won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1946. Walt Disney himself visited Harris’s home that year and donated a diorama built by the Disney studios. Song of the South continues to be a popular film all over the world, although it is one of the few Disney films to have never been released on home video in the United States.
You can buy this definitive book of Uncle Remus tales in our Bookshop. To learn more about Joel Chandler Harris and his writings, follow these links:
The Wren’s Nest
Harris’ home in Atlanta – not only a house museum, but a preservation center for African-American folklore through storytelling, tours and special events.
Web site with information on Harris and his Uncle Remus tales.
Song of the South
Everything you’d ever want to know about the movie is here.
Photos courtesy of The Wren’s Nest, Atlanta, GA
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