Biography of Joel Chandler Harris

Excerpted from The Harper Anthology of American Literature: Volume Two

Well in advance of the twentieth-century development of folklore studies and cultural anthropology as academic disciplines, Joel Chandler Harris gathered the dialect tales he had heard in his childhood told by slaves. He placed them within a narrati ve context that made them available to a large white audience, sharpening the effects of their regional details and the age-old wisdom by which the enslaved secretly outwit their masters. Through his work with the Uncle Remus tales, he would introduce Ame ricans to the basic patterns and rhythms of southern African-American speech. Because of Harris' accomplishments, American mainstrean literature featured a memorable new character, Uncle Remus, as well as a new literary tradition.

the way had been hard for Harris as a child in Georgia. His day-laborer father deserted his mother just before his birth. Helped by the local people of Putnam County, the mother and the child made do until young Harris went to work for a newspaper at fourteen. Harris soon contributed humorous pieces to several Georgia papers, and he quickly gained a reputation in the newspaper world. In 1876 he joined the Atlanta Constitution in the city that became his permanent home. During this perio d Harris divided his time between editorial writing (urging southerners to "reconstruct" their habits and to rise above the conflicts of their past) and the dialect tales, which began to appear in print under the guise of Uncle Remus, the old slave.

His first collection of folk poems and proverbs was published in 1881 as Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. Further collections included Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), and Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1905). As the titles suggest, relationships are important; they develop between the wide-eyed audience (likened to a little white boy from the main plantation household) and the narrator who acts as "best friend"-whiling away the hours w ith a seemingly endless supply of tales. The lasting impression of the Remus stories on readers of all ages and from many countries (there were translations into twenty-seven languages) stems from the force of their slave lore.

Harris insisted that his sources were genuine and that his documentation of the plot and dialect was accurate. In this way, Uncle Remus goes back in time to African models, as well as to the animal tales of Aesop and Chaucer. Harris helped inspir e other writers in the vernacular through his adroit use of narrative forms, his excellent ear for the subtleties of dialect, and his ability to emphasize the universal nature of these classic standoffs between the weak and the powerful.


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