HomeArts & LitThe Ironic Life of Joel Chandler Harris

The Ironic Life of Joel Chandler Harris

Happy Birthday to the storyteller who preserved a piece of Southern folklore forever. 
by Hunter Murphy

Joel Chandler Harris’s legacy is complicated. He left us with Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit and a host of other African American characters but, unfortunately, his portrayal of these characters was racist. He was a Southern writer and something of a prodigy. Had he not been so pejorative, we may even call him a genius.

Ironically, Harris was born the illegitimate child of an Irish laborer in Eatonton (near Atlanta, where he eventually was buried). During his lifetime, he was considered second only to Mark Twain as a Southern humorist, and even children today know about Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus, thanks in part to Disney.

One thing that is fascinating about Harris is how hard he himself had to work for a living. As a teenager, he took a job on a plantation called Turnwold. However, while Harris was at Turnwold, he became absorbed in the community and the folklore of African Americans. He learned the trade of printing. He apprenticed for a man named Joseph Addison Turner, who saw Harris’s propensity for language and literature and storytelling. Turner loaned the young Harris library books and gave him his first shot at publication. Harris found his career path as a journalist through his work on the plantation (pictured below). Turnwold is located 9 miles from Harris’s birthplace, and this is where he got the inspiration for Uncle Remus and other stories.

After fleeing Turnwold during General Sherman’s raid, Harris landed in Macon and then in New Orleans, working on several papers. In Savannah, he met and married his wife and they would have stayed near the coast had yellow fever not run them out of town. The family finally settled in Atlanta, which allowed Harris to work for The Atlanta Constitution (pictured below), where he would remain for nearly a quarter century, writing sketches, book reviews, fiction and political commentary.

Harris moved into a glorious Queen Anne-style home in Atlanta in the 1880s. When his children were young, they found a wren’s nest in the mailbox, and since then the house has been affectionately nicknamed “The Wren’s Nest” (pictured below). The home plays host to all types of storytelling events and concerts throughout the year and is curated by Harris’s great-great-great grandson. Fans are even invited to celebrate Harris’s birthday at a free Victorian Holiday Open House at the home on December 9.

The Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, Georgia, a building constructed from two former slave cabins, is another spot to learn more about Harris and his characters.

Harris shared an important characteristic with his good friend and admirer Mark Twain: He used satire to subvert the prevailing culture. Brer Rabbit was and is a subversive character, who generally outwits those who would suppress him.

Most ironic about what Harris did for black folklore is that he provided a written record of it for generations. Many scholars credit him with unintentionally preserving African American folklore during this terrible time in American and Southern history. In some cases, African American writers and folklorists have used his stories to reconfigure the cultural narrative, removing the stereotypes and the racist dialect.

Harris was debilitatingly shy. He had wild red-hair and a painfully impoverished childhood. Even as an adult, he remained reserved. He did not relish the acclaim his writing brought him. It was only after much prodding that he agreed to President Roosevelt’s invitation to the White House.

Harris wasn’t a bad man, but his legacy is certainly complicated. Most of us would consider him something of a relic now, with his views on race and the antebellum South as almost paleolithic, but his place in Southern letters is as certain as any of the writers in our canon.

Here are a few quotations Harris penned:

“When you’ve got a thing to say,
Say it! Don’t take half a day.
When your tale’s got little in it
Crowd the whole thing in a minute!
Life is short -a fleeting vapor –
Don’t you fill the whole blamed paper
With a tale which, at a pinch,
Could be cornered in an inch!
Boil her down until she simmers,
Polish her until she glimmers.”

– Joel Chandler Harris

Watch out when you’re getting all you want. Fattening hogs ain’t in luck.
You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.

– from Uncle Remus


Find out more about Joel Chandler Harris and the sites associated with him in the Deep South Literary Trail App.

Hunter Murphy has written two novels for which he’s currently seeking representation. He is a Southerner who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his partner of many years, his mother-in-law (a feisty senior citizen who continues to tell him tall tales), and an English bulldog, who is a tough critic. Find out more about Hunter in our “Contributors” section or email him at hmurphy1976 (at) gmail.com.

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  • T / February 18, 2018

    You should be embarrassed of yourself for writing this article. And Deep South Magazine should be embarrassed to print it.

    “He left us with Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit and a host of other African American characters but, unfortunately, his portrayal of these characters was racist.”

    Do you have the slightest idea what you are talking about?

    “African American writers and folklorists have used his stories to reconfigure the cultural narrative, removing the stereotypes and the racist dialect.”

    Obviously not. Allow me to educate you.

    JCH did not write “racist characters,” with “racist dialect.” He recorded the way slave stories, mostly ones from children, were told. He recorded the dialect of the slaves, telling American evolutions of African stories from their motherland, or new stories meant to convey powerful messages to the children. He wrote and recorded these stories phonetically, so that anyone reading them would take on the accent (as JCH could best convey it) of the actual storyteller. His books are a treasure trove of linguistic, phonetic, cultural and historical data that is constantly being unlocked by experts in all those fields.
    More to the point, the specificity with which he recorded those stories is what makes them so powerful, since the Slave storytellers, in a long line of tradition back to Africa and it’s oral histories, told stories a particular way. It was a skill. And elements of that skill can be deduced from studying the stories.
    One example: In the famous “Bre’er Rabbit and Tar Baby Story,” the end is NOT Bre’er Rabbit (himself an obvious children’s composition of High John the Conquerer- an epic cultural mythical hero related to the Lwa Elegua in West African Vodou) popping out of the Brier patch laughing and bragging that he was born in a brier patch. He says,

    “Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox–bred en bawn in a brier-patch!’

    Not only can we see the importance of the spelling to determine the pronunciation and rhythm of the line, we see the REPETITION. Repetition, as you may have heard, is pretty important in oral culture. Also- the statement itself is out of tone with the rest of the story and the character. And why is he repeating himself to Brer Fox anyway?
    Because he isn’t. This is when the storyteller breaks the fourth wall, looks at the slave children and says, “THIS IS THE MORAL. THIS IS THE POINT.”

    The point of this story is that the children have been born into a rough, thorny, dark place, where larger and more powerful beings (white people) can basically toss them around and hurt them with relative impunity.
    But they can survive. They can survive and indeed even thrive, because they are smarter than their aggressor- craftier… and most importantly, stronger. Because they were Bred and Bawn in a brier patch. What the masters look at and know would kill them, is these kids’ home. It’s a powerful story of strength and hope delivered from the African motherland to the children there in the heart of slavery by an ages old storytelling tradition, and you just called it racist because a white man dared to record it the way it was told.


  • PB / March 8, 2018

    Not only was Joel Chandler Harris NOT racist, he was part of the New South progressive movement which fought (in his case through journalism and books) to erase racism and poverty in the South.

    Here’s an excerpt from the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which is very careful with fact-finding and being politically correct:

    “Harris retired from the Atlanta Constitution in 1900, free at last of what he termed the “newspaper grind” but leaving an influential legacy as a “progressive conservative”—a New South journalist who actively promoted socioeconomic, sectional, and racial reconciliation. In addition to publishing the final volumes of Uncle Remus stories, children’s books, and adult fiction, he founded Uncle Remus’s Magazine, was honored by President Theodore Roosevelt in Atlanta and at the White House, and was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”


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