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
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-
"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-
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-
"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
"'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
"'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',
"'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
"'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
"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
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