Joel Chandler Harris (December 9, 1845 - July 3, 1908) was an American journalist, fiction writer, and folklorist best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories. Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where he served as an apprentice on a plantation during his teenage years. He spent the majority of his adult life in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution.
Harris led two significant professional lives. Editor and journalist Joe Harris ushered in the New South alongside Henry W. Grady, stressing regional and racial reconciliation during and after the Reconstruction era. Joel Chandler Harris, fiction writer and folklorist, recorded many Brer Rabbit stories from the African-American oral tradition and revolutionized children's literature in the process.
Controversy surrounding his southern plantation themes, narrative structure, collection of African-American folklore, use of dialect, and Uncle Remus character, however, has denigrated the significance of Harris' work, especially during the latter half of the 20th century.
Harris created the first iteration of the Uncle Remus character for the Atlanta Constitution in 1876 after inheriting a column written by Samuel W. Small, a colleague who had taken leave from the paper. In these character sketches Remus would visit the newspaper office to discuss the social and racial issues of the day. By 1877 Small had returned to the Constitution and resumed his column.
Harris had no intention to continue the Remus character. But when Small once again left the paper, Harris reprised Remus and this time realized the literary value of the stories of his youth from the slaves of Turnwold Plantation. Harris set out to record the stories and insisted that they be verified by two independent sources before he would set them into print. The pursuit proved more and more difficult given his professional duties, urban location, race and, eventually, fame.
On July 20, 1879, Harris published "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus" in the Atlanta Constitution. It was the first of 34 plantation fables that would comprise Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings in 1880. The stories, mostly collected directly from the African-American oral storytelling tradition, were revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personage, and serialized landscape.
Remus' stories featured a trickster hero called Br'er Rabbit ("Brother" Rabbit), who used his wits against adversity, though his efforts did not always succeed. Br'er Rabbit is a direct interpretation of Yoruba tales of Hare, though some others posit Native American influences as well. Scholar Stella Brewer Brookes asserts, "Never has the trickster been better exemplified than in the Br'er Rabbit of Harris. Br'er Rabbit was accompanied by friends and enemies alike, such as Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear, Br'er Terrapin, and Br'er Wolf. The stories represented a significant break from the romantic fairy tales of the Western tradition: instead of a singular event in a singular story, the critters on the plantation existed in an ongoing community saga, time immemorial.
The Uncle Remus stories garnered critical acclaim and achieved popular success well into the 20th century. Harris compiled eight books of Uncle Remus stories, including 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 tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few outside of the South had ever heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and no one had ever seen the dialect legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To the North and those abroad, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown."Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."
The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school..We found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life." The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.
James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced."
Early in his career at the Atlanta Constitution, Joe Harris laid out his editorial ideology and set the tone for an agenda that aimed to help reconcile issues of race, class, and region: "An editor must have a purpose. [...] What a legacy for one's conscience to know that one has been instrumental in mowing down the old prejudices that rattle in the wind like weeds."
Harris served as assistant editor and lead editorial writer at the Atlanta Constitution primarily between 1876 and 1900, and published articles intermittently until his death in 1908. While at the Constitution, Harris, "in thousands of signed and unsigned editorials over a twenty-four-year period, [...] set a national tone for reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War."
Throughout his career, Joe Harris actively promoted racial reconciliation as well as African-American education, suffrage, and equality. He regularly denounced racism among southern whites, condemned lynching as barbaric, and highlighted the importance of higher education for African Americans, frequently citing the work of W.E.B. DuBois in his editorials. In 1883, for example, editorials from the Atlanta Constitution challenged those of the New York Sun that alleged "educating the negro will merely increase his capacity for evil."
The Atlanta Constitution editorial countered, stating if "education of the negro is not the chief solution of the problem that confronts the white people of the South then there is no other conceivable solution and there is nothing ahead but political chaos and demoralization." Harris' editorials were often progressive in content and paternalistic in tone. Harris was unwavering in his commitment to the "dissipation of sectional jealousy and misunderstanding, as well as religious and racial intolerance", yet "never entirely freed himself of the idea that the [southern whites] would have to patronize the [southern blacks]."
Paradoxically, Harris also oversaw some of the Atlanta Constitution's most sensationalized coverage of racial issues, most notably regarding the 1899 torture and lynching of Sam Hose, an African-American farm worker. Harris resigned from the paper the following year, having lost patience for publishing both "his iconoclastic views on race" and "what was expected of him" at a major southern newspaper during a particularly vitriolic period.
In 1904 Harris wrote four important articles for the Saturday Evening Post in discussing the problem of race relations in the South that highlight his progressive yet paternalistic views. Of these, Booker T. Washington noted: "It has been a long time since I have read anything from the pen of any man which has given me such encouragement as your article has. [...] In a speech on Lincoln's Birthday which I am to deliver in New York, I am going to take the liberty to quote liberally from what you have said."
Two years later, Harris and his son Julian founded what would become Uncle Remus's Home Magazine. Harris wrote to Andrew Carnegie that its purpose would be to further "the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.?Circulation reached 240,000 within one year, making it one of the largest magazines in the country.
Harris wrote novels, narrative histories, translations of French folklore, children's literature, and collections of stories depicting rural life in Georgia. The short stories "Free Joe and the Rest of the World", "Mingo", and "At Teague Poteets" are the most influential of his non-Uncle Remus creative work. Many of his short stories delved into the changing social and economic values in the South during Reconstruction. Harris' turn as a local colorist gave voice to poor white characters and demonstrated his fluency with different African-American dialects and characters. ..