Review--On the Plantation

Old-Time Plantation Life

The readers of Mr. Joel Chandler Harris's former volumes will certainly welcome the new book which has come from him under the title of "On the Plantation," and those who chance to see this book without having already read "Uncle Remus" and the others, are very sure to go back and make their acquaintance also; for it is hard to take up one of these books without wanting to read all of them. There is nothing trite, nothing commonplace about Mr. Harris's writings. He not only has a sim- ple, direct, and attractive style, but he has also something to tell, and something well worth telling; and it is doubtful if anyone else would have performed this task so well. It is claimed by some that his negro dialeet is not always exactly correct; but the negro dialect varies so constantly with slight changes of locality, that it is quite probable an exact reproduction of it as it was learned by Joe Maxwell around Hills- borough in northern Georgia would not seem exactly correct to the ear of one who had heard it in Mississippi or South Carolina, or even in Southern Georgia.

However it may be about the dialect, it would be hard for anyone who knew the negro of that time even very imperfectly to believe that Mr. Harris does not faithfully portray the negro as he existed in the South at the time of the war. The old plantation negro and the old negro house-servant seem to live and talk again in his pages; and very interesting and attractive people they are, full of quaint good sense, full of affection, of good humor, and of natural courtesy. Why has the negro of to-day so completely lost the best traits that marked his race at that time ? The good nature and humor are gone and the courtesy is gone; and what good qualities have taken their place? The negro has become a voter, and in the effort to seem the peer of the whites he has copied many of the worst defects of unculti- vated white men, and has at the same time lost some characteristics of his own which once made his race attractive and lovable. It is a period of transition: let us hope that as it took a hundred years to transform the African savage into the gentle and lovable negro known on many a plantation before the war, so an- other hundred years may develop the negro of to-day into something much better than now seems probable. It is sad that the overthrow of a great wrong like slavery must smite, for the time being, the victims as well as the op- pressors.

"On the Plantation," unlike Mr. Harris's previous books, is evidently founded directly on the story and experiences of his own boyhood. Although the preface tries playfully to per- suade the reader that it would be a mistake to put any credence in the narrative as autobi- ographical, it is impossible not to believe that Joe Maxwell is really the young Joel (Chandler Harris. All the incidents of the book have that genuine and pleasing realism about them that convinces the reader that they happened, and were not imagined. Harris must have been the little boy who lived in the little town of Hillsborough in the days just before the war, and the little boy who on Tuesdays, when the Milledgeville papers arrived, could always be found at that quaint post-office, "curled up in the corner of the old green sofa, reading the Recorder and the Federal Union." He was only twelve years old, but the boy, while full of spirit, was thoughtful, and evidently precocious; and in those days, when the fate of the nation hung in the balance, everyone, young and old, was interested in political dis- cussion.

It so happened that those papers grew very inter- esting as days went by. The rumors of war had de- veloped into war itself. In the course of a few months two companies of volunteers had gone to Virginia fro Hillsborough, and the little town seemed lonelier and more deserted than ever. Joe Maxwell noticed, as he sat in the post-office, that only a very few old men and ladies came after the letters and papers, and he missed a great many faces that used to smile at him as he sat reading, and some of them he never saw again. He noticed, too, that when there had been a battle or a skirmish the ladies and the young girls came to the post-office more frequently. When the news was very important, one of the best known citizens would mount a chair or a dry-goods box and read the telegrams aloud to the waiting and anxious group of people, and some- times the hands and the voice of the reader trembled."

But the war was afar off, in Virginia and in Kentucky, and the healthy little boy of twelve went on making the best of everything and getting the healthy boy's usual amount of en- joyment out of his surroundings. The woods and fields were full of squirrels and rabbits not to speak of the coons and foxes; and an occasional run-away negro, and the deserters from the army who hung around in the woods trying to see and succor their famished and neglected families, lent mystery and romance to the boy's life.

At about the beginning of the war, a Mr Turner started the publication of The Countryman, a weekly paper "modeled after Mr. Addison's little paper, The Spectator, Mr. Goldsmith's little paper, The Bee, and Mr. Johnson's little paper, The Rambler. Mr. Turner wanted a boy to learn the printing business and to help on the paper. Joe Maxwell applied for the situation, gained it, and was installed " on the Plantation." It was a curious enterprise, the publication of this high-toned little newspaper, nine miles from a post-office, all devoted to the lofty discussion of politics and literature; but it was a success, from the start, and "at one time had a circulation of two thousand copies." The boy took kindly to his new home and his new business, and evi- dently found the life around him very enjoy- able.

"Joe Maxwell made two discoveries that he consid- ered very important. One was that there was a big library of the best books at his command, and the other was that there was a pack of well-trained harriers on the plantation. He loved books and he loved dogs, and if he had been asked to choose between the library and the harriers he would have hesitated a long time. The books were more numerous--—there were nearly two thou- sand of them, while there were only five harriers —but in a good many respects the dogs were the liveliest. Fortu- nately, Joe was not called on to make any choice. He had the dogs to himself in the late afternoon and the books at night, and he made the most of both. More than this, he had the benefit of the culture of the editor of The Countryman and of the worldly experience of Mr. Snelson, the printer."

But we cannot follow the interesting story. Life was very active down on that remote plantation in the dark days of the war. The little paper was never neglected, but neither were the squirrels and the rabbits, nor the coons and the foxes. Joe and the dogs became fast friends, and found a wonderful amount of ex- ercise and adventure. The shadows of the war had little effcet either on Joe or the dogs or the negroes. The last especially kept up their gai- ety and high spirits; and there are many charm- ing glimpses of them and of the old patriarchal life of which they were so important a part. There is a bit of talk between two old house negroes and the little children of Mr. Turner, in one of the cabins, the night before Christmas:

"'Dey tells me,' said Aunt Crissy, in a subdued tone, dat de cows know when Chris'mas come, an' many's de time I year my mammy say dat when twelve o'clock come on Chris'mas-eve night, de cows gits down on der knees in de lot an' stays dat-away some little time. Ef anybody else had er tole me dat I'd a des hooted at um, but, mammy, she say she done seed um do it. I ain't never seed um do it myse'f, but mammy say she seed um.'

"'I bin year talk er dat myse'f,' said Harbert, rev- erently, 'an' dey tells me dat de cattle gits down an' prays bekase dat's de time when de Lord an' Saviour wuz born'd.'

"'Now, don't dat beat all!' exclaimed Aunt Crissy. 'Ef de dumb creeturs kin say der pra'rs, I dunner what folks ought ter be doin'.'

"'An' da'rs de chickens,' Harbert went on--'Look like dey know der's sump'n up. Dis ve'y night I year de roosters crowin' fo' sev'n o'clock. I year tell dat dey crows so soon in sign dat Peter made deniance un his Lord an' Marster.'

"'I speck dats so,' said Aunt Crissy.
"'Hit bleedze ter be so,' responded the old man with the emphasis that comes from conviction."

Christmas morning--—a great morning on the plantation--—dawned bright and fine

"Before sunrise the plantation was in a stir. The negroes, rigged out in their Sunday clothes, were laugh- ing, singing, wrestling and playing. . . . Big Sam was even fuller of laughter and good-humor than his comrades, and while the negroes were waiting, his eyes glistening and his white teeth shining, he struck up the melody of a plantation play-song. In a few minutes the dusky crowd had arranged itself in groups, each and all joining in the song. No musical director ever had a more melodious chorus than that which followed the leadership of Big Sam. It was not a trained cho- rus, to be sure, but the melody that it gave to the winds of the morning was freighted with a quality indesrib- ably touching and tender.

"In the midst of the song Mr. Turner appeared on the back piazza, and instantly a shout went up:

"'Chris'mas gif', marster! Chris'mas gif'! ' and then, a moment later, there was a cry of 'Chris'mas gif', mistiss! '

"'Where is Harbert ? ' inquired Mr. Turner, waving his hand and smiling.

"'Here me, marster! ' exclaimed Harbert, coming forward from one of the groups.

"'Why, you haven't been playing, have you ?'

"'I bin tryin' my han', suh, an' I monst'us glad you come out, kaze I ain't nimble like I useter wuz. Dey got me in de middle er dat ring dar, an' I couldn't git out nohow.'

"'Here are the store-room keys. Go and open the door, and I will be there directly.'

"It was a lively crowd that gathered around the wide door of the store-room. For each of the older ones there was a stiff dram apiece, and for all, both old and young, there was a present of some kind. . . . In spite of the war, it was a happy time, and Joe Maxwell was as happy as any of the rest."

But the bright days passed, as bright days will do, and the heavy and black shadows of the war began to spread over the region round about the plantation. The deserters were more numerous, their families were suffering greater and greater hardships, and the battle clouds were drawing closer and closer. Atlanta had fallen (not, as Mr. Harris says," in July," but on the first of September), the mysterious ne- gro telegraph line was at work, and Harbert, the old servant, told Joe that the Federal army would soon be marching through that region.

"'Who told you ? ' asked Joe.

"'De word done come,' replied Harbert. "Hits bleedze to be so, kase all de niggers done hear talk un it. We-all will wake up some er dese odd-come-shorts an' fin' de Yankees des a-swarmin' all roun' here.'

"'What are going to do?' Joe enquired, laughing.

"'Oh, you kin laugh, Marse Joe, but deyer comin'. What I gwine do? Well, suh, I'm gwine ter git up an' look at um, an' maybe tip my hat at some er de big-bugs mungst um, an' den I'm gwine on 'bout my business. I dont speck deyer gwine ter bodder folks what dont bodder dem, is dey ? "'

The brave little Countryman somehow kept on, only to die soon after the close of the war. We do not learn that it was once suspended, but whether it had to condescend to be printed on wall-paper, as was the ease with more am- bitious sheets, we are not told. A complete file of the quaint little paper —to whch, by the way, Joe Maxwell sometimes contributed —wouldcertainly be a curiosity now-a-days. It would be a voice from a state of society that has forever passed away.

At the close of the book, those who marched with General Sherman through that devoted region have a chance to know how they looked to the small Confederate urchins who watched them pass. Joe had seated himself on a fence beside the road, and began to whittle on a rail.

"Before he knew it the troops were upon him. He kept his seat, and the Twentieth Army Corps, com- manded by General Slocum, passed in review before him. It was an imposing array as to numbers, but not as to appearance. For once and for all, so far as Joe was concerned, the glamour and romance of war were dispelled. The skies were heavy with clouds, and a fine irritating mist sifted down. The road was more than ankle-deep in mud, and even the fields were boggy. There was nothing gay about this vast procession, with its tramping soldiers, its clattering horsemen, and its lumbering wagons, except the temper of the men. They splashed through the mud, cracking their jokes and singing snatches of songs.

"Joe Maxwell, sitting on the fence, was the subject of many a jest, as the good-humored men marched by.

"'Hello, Johnny ? Where's your parasol ? '
"Jump down, Johnny, and let me kiss you good-by!'
"'Johnny, if you are tired, get up behind and ride ! '
"'Run and get your trunk, Johnny, and get aboard !
' "'He's a bushwhacker, boys. If he bats his eyes I'm a-goin' to dodge.'
"'Where's the rest of your regiment, Johnny ?'
"'If there was another one of 'em a-settin' on the fence, on t' other side, I'd say we was surrounded.'
"These and hundreds of other comments, exclama- tions, and questions, Joe was made the target of; and if he stood the fire of them with unusual calmness, it was because this huge panorama seemed to him to be the outcome of some wild dream. That the Federal army should be be going through that peaceful region;- after all he had seen in the newspapers about Confed erate victories, seemed to him to be an impossibility. The voices of the men and their laughter, sounded vague and insubstantial. It was surely a dream that had stripped war of its glittering trappings and its fly- ing banners. It was surely the distortion of a dream that tacked onto this procession of armed men droves of cows, horses, and mules, and wagon-loads of bat- teaux ! "

What a commentary on the "pride, pomp. and circumstance of glorious war"! Mud stained and soiled, through rain and mist, some times hatless, sometimes shoeless, but seeing through the rain and mist the nearing end of that great wrong that had kept them so long from home and friends, the victorious veterans strode by, and it is no wonder the little Con- federate boy who had been nurtured on the editorials of the plantation Countryman was blind to the sense of duty, the willing self-sac- rifice, the tireless toiling in a sacred cause, that rendered this weather-stained host " all glori- ous within," and gave them, dilapidated as they were, a noble and a martial bearing never more justly won. They could afford to be muddy and weather-stained, and to abandon themselves to the hilarious enjoyment of their rough jokes and songs. They had saved their country, and with it the old plantation and the little boy who sat upon the fence.

The army of General Sherman was the har- binger of a new order of things. It was the rough final blow that laid low the giant re- bellion and finally brought peace and "the lifting up of a section from ruin and poverty to prosperity; the molding of the beauty, the courage, the energy, and the strength of the old civilization into the new, the gradual up- lifting of a lowly race.... A larger world beckoned to Joe Maxwell, and he went out into it; . . . but the old plantation days still live in his dreams."

It is a pity that in this day of many books there is so little room for such a fresh and genuine one as this. Such books are covered up and lost sight of under scores of new publications that never ought to have been issued. In the multitude, little discrimination is observed. Al- most all are praised moderately; few strongly: and still fewer are condemned. Readers are be- wildered, and spend their time over absolutely worthless hooks, while " books that are books," like this, are lost sight of and neglected. Oh, for a higher standard among publishers, read- ers, and reviewers! A hundred volumes of to-day might well fail and disappear, to make room for one fresh, wholesome, genuine book like "On the Plantation"; full as it is of the wonders of the woods and fields, full of kindly picturesque sketches of simple and un- conventional people, both white and black, full of truth and nature, but with no over- strained and degrading realism, no sensational murking up of effects. It is a pleasure to read this book, and a greater pleasure to accord it this honest praise.

Alexander C. McClurg



Links:

  • Directory of reviews
  • Preceding review (1881)
  • Next review (1919)
  • Table of Contents