Learn why Joel Chandler Harris, through his Uncle Remus stories, was one of America’s most beloved yet controversial authors and folklorists.
The name Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) is not nearly as well known as the famous character he created, Uncle Remus. Many are surprised to learn the author of the beloved Uncle Remus stories was not an older black man, but a portly and shy white journalist.
Table of Contents
- Who Was Joel Chandler Harris?
- Was Uncle Remus a Real Person?
- Walt Disney and Song of the South
- A Complicated Legacy
- In Conclusion
Who Was Joel Chandler Harris?
Joel Chandler Harris was an acclaimed newspaper columnist, author and progressive Southerner with deep concerns about post-Civil War reconstruction and race relations. Arguably his greatest achievement was as a self-taught folklorist. He collected and wrote down slave stories he heard while working on a plantation as a young boy.
This latter day literary giant was, in reality, a virtual recluse who rarely traveled outside his home. This shyness probably stemmed from his troubled childhood in rural Eatonton, Georgia. His parents never married, and his father abandoned him and his mother when he was an infant. Harris grew up a gawky, nervous and thin boy with red-hair and freckles.
By age 14, however, Joel Chandler Harris had become restless. He mustered up enough courage to seek work as a “printer’s devil” (or apprentice) for Joseph Addison Turner. Turner was editor-publisher of The Countryman, a small newspaper he published out of his home at Turnwold Plantation. Turner not only introduced Harris to journalism, but also to literature through the books he kept in his well-stocked library.
Most importantly, Harris encountered all aspects of plantation life at Turnwold. This exposure would later inspire his Uncle Remus tales.
A Famed Humorist
Joel Chandler Harris began his writing career penning humor columns for The Countryman under the by-line, “The Countryman’s Devil.” When the paper shut down after the Civil War, Harris moved on to newspapers in Macon, New Orleans and Savannah. He continued writing humor columns on local and national affairs, as well as literary reviews.
While working in Savannah, Harris met his future wife, Esther LaRose, an 18-year-old Catholic girl of French Canadian descent. The couple eventually fled Savannah when an epidemic of yellow fever broke out.
Various newspapers reprinted Harris’s humor columns over the years, making him well known in newspaper circles. But in his heart, Harris was dissatisfied with journalism as a literary pursuit. He dreamed of publishing his own Southern literary magazine.
The Move to Atlanta
Joel Chandler 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. He dubbed it “The Wren’s Nest” after he found a bird nest 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.
Little did he know that a future series of newspaper columns would soon catapult him to international fame.
Was Uncle Remus a Real Person?
The character of Uncle Remus is believed to be an amalgam of slave descendants Harris befriended while working at Turnwold Plantation – most notably George Terrell, or “Uncle George.”
Uncle Remus was Joel Chandler Harris’s most famous literary creation. This fictional, humble black commentator originated in “dialect sketches” Harris wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he first joined the staff. These columns were based on stories a young Joel Chandler Harris absorbed from George Terrell and other slave descendants.
Harris wanted to use the stories he heard to promote an understanding between the races in the post-Civil War South. Therefore giving white America a rare glimpse into Black 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.
Writing in Dialect
Joel Chandler Harris’s stories were amazingly detailed about everyday slave life, right down to how they made shoe pegs, baked yams and ash cakes. Harris painstakingly wrote his stories in authentic Black dialect, with some words in Gullah.
Harris had a distaste for what he called “the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage.” For someone without the benefit of modern recording equipment, Harris was surprisingly accurate transcribing dialect as he heard it.
“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.”
The World Meets Brer Rabbit
The first Uncle Remus tale, “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox,” appeared in the editorial column under the heading, “Negro Folk Lore.” These columns appeared periodically, but were an immediate success.
The Uncle Remus character had become an aging slave who chose to remain on the plantation after the Civil War. He tells his stories to a little white boy – 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 officer in defense of Miss Sally during the war. Therefore, he stayed on the plantation out of obligation to both the original family and to the wounded officer.
Like Aesop’s Fables, the characters in Uncle Remus tales were frequently “critters”: Brer Fox, Brer Coon, Brer B’ar, Brer Wolf and so forth. The most popular, of course, was Brer Rabbit, a trickster. His occasionally amoral acts were not always approved of by the narrator.
But the Uncle Remus tales were meant to be entertaining, not moral lessons. Whenever Joel Chandler Harris intervened in his stories, he would tell his audience (through Uncle Remus) that the animals’ behavior shouldn’t always be considered proper human conduct. And the animals’ actions could be seen as lessons in the art of survival. This was in keeping with African folk tradition, where overt moralizing was rare and stories could be amoral and grim.
A Worldwide Phenomenon
Joel Chandler Harris’s stories found a receptive audience nationwide. Guilt-ridden Southerners wanted to believe slave life in the antebellum South wasn’t so bad. While Northern audiences were introduced to a warm and homely side of plantation life they had never experienced before.
As the Uncle Remus stories grew more popular, Harris collected and published them in an anthology called Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). The book was an international best seller. Joel Chandler Harris would produce nine more story volumes, preserving 183 distinctive folktales.
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 man who had modestly dubbed himself a “cornfield journalist” and an “accidental author” was, seemingly overnight, a national celebrity.
A Reluctant Celebrity
Joel Chandler Harris received much luminary attention as 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 post-Civil War reunification. Harris was even invited to the White House.
But Joel Chandler Harris was never comfortable with his notoriety. Indeed, 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 20th century. But his attention drifted more to his family and literary writing.
Harris was a common sight writing on the front porch of The Wren’s Nest, wearing his trademark black felt hat and spitting into his enameled spittoon. In 1900, Harris left the newspaper grind behind for good.
Uncle Remus’s Magazine and Harris’s Death
Harris finally realized his dream of publishing a Southern literary magazine. In 1905, he and his son Julian published the first issue of Uncle Remus’s Magazine. Despite his desire to write different stories, 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.
Joel Chandler Harris eventually wrote 30 books, but the enormous popularity of Uncle Remus dwarfed everything else he created. His name became so synonymous with Uncle Remus that many people thought he was Uncle Remus.
But by this time, Harris was in poor health. He was already dogged by constant illnesses and deep sadness over the tragic deaths of two of his grandchildren. But the strain of magazine publishing proved to be too much. In 1908, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and died peacefully at his home shortly thereafter.
Walt Disney and Song of the South
The Uncle Remus stories would find a new audience courtesy of Walt Disney’s animated movie Song of the South (1946). This box office smash brought Brer Rabbit into the Disney universe of beloved animated characters. The movie’s centerpiece song, “Zip-a-Dee Doo Dah,” won the Academy Award for Best Song. Walt Disney himself visited The Wren’s Nest that year, donating a diorama built by the Disney studios.
Being a mass market Disney cartoon, Song of the South watered down some of the source material’s darker, more adult themes. But it was the characterization of Uncle Remus himself as a so-called “happy slave,” common in movies of the time like Gone With The Wind, that would tarnish the film in later years.
Changing attitudes toward such stereotypes led Disney to largely disown Song of the South. As of this writing, the movie has been shelved indefinitely from home video or streaming release. Though that has not stopped fans from petitioning for its release, nor a thriving bootleg market for copies of the film. Many argue Song of the South could serve as a “historic artifact” with additional commentary to put it in context.
Oddly enough, Splash Mountain – a Disney theme park ride inspired by Song of the South – remained open well into the 21st century. Many credit the racial justice reckoning from the 2020 killing of George Floyd as motivating Disney to rebrand the ride.
A Complicated Legacy
Despite his accomplishments, Joel Chandler Harris would, in death, become an even more controversial figure.
After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a younger generation of African-Americans shunned outdated depictions of Old South slaves in popular culture. The fact that Harris was a white man writing in the dialect of black slaves made the issue even more racially-sensitive.
In 1981, Alice Walker, acclaimed author of The Color Purple (and also from Eatonton, Georgia), penned a searing essay on Harris entitled “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine.” Though much of her criticism centered on the Disney film, Walker’s accusations of cultural theft would stick.
At the same time, many prominent African American scholars recognized the Uncle Remus tales as important to the preservation of black folklore. Authors like Julius Lester rewrote the Uncle Remus stories for contemporary audiences, dropping the heavy dialect. In his book, Lester pointed out that Harris’s collection of Uncle Remus stories was similar to the acclaimed “slave narratives” collected by the 1930s Federal Writers Project.
The Wren’s Nest
Generations of African American authors and storytellers continue to retell the Uncle Remus stories – a fact that would likely please Joel Chandler Harris. And nowhere is such storytelling more readily on display than at Harris’s former home, The Wren’s Nest.
Opened in 1913 as a house museum, The Wren’s Nest was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. More importantly, the home became a cultural center in what is now a primarily African American neighborhood.
The center still hosts a weekly storytelling hour, with African American storytellers telling Uncle Remus tales to international visitors. The Wren’s Nest also sponsors a mentoring program for budding young writers from the surrounding schools.
As of 2021, Harris family members still serve on the board of directors and advisory council.
It is admittedly difficult to judge how much of the Uncle Remus material is a true record of African American oral tradition, and how much is Harris’s creation.
But one should ask – if Harris, without the benefit of modern recording technology, didn’t painstakingly collect these stories, then publish them for the masses, who would have? Would the Uncle Remus stories have been lost to time?
Joel Chandler 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.