Joel Chandler Harris

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 narrative 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 Americans to the basic patterns and rhythms of southern black American speech. Because of Harris' accomplishments, American mainstream 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 period Harris divided his time between editorial writing 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 with 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 inspire 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.

Selected Bibliography

Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880)- This first volume of tales told by Uncle Remus, includes his most famous tale, "The Wonderful Tar Baby," plus 32 other folktales, several "Plantation Proverbs," plantation songs and numerous sketches of life in Atlanta.

Nights with Uncle Remus (1883)- The second volume introduces three other storytellers, Aunt Tempy, a cook in the Big House; 'Tildy (short for Matilda), a young house maid in the Big House; and Daddy Jack, a Gullah black from the Sea Islands of Georgia whose tales are intriguing in their complexity.

Short Stories

"Free Joe and the Rest of the World" (1887)- Based on a real Free Joe whom Harris knew, this story explores the sad fate of a freed black man before Emancipation who is scorned by both the black slaves still in bondage and by the poor whites, who realize that Free Joe will work for lower wages than they will-thus taking menial labor jobs from them.

"Mingo"
(1884)-This is an excellent story narrated primarily by Mingo, a loyal black man and a former slave and carriage driver for the high class Wornum family. After the war, Mingo has shifted his loyalties and has become the protective and attentive family servant to a poor white woman, Feratia Bivins. Feratia's family is virtually poor white, and her biases and jealousies about the higher classes keep surfacing in this story.

"At Teague Poteet's" (1884)
-A Georgia moonshiner tale, with some serious consequences. Fiercely independent North Georgia Hog Mountain families, led by Teague Poteet, spurn the secessionist movement and resort to violence to keep federal revenue agents away. Mark Twain incorporated a whole section of this story into a chapter of Huckleberry Finn.

Longer Narratives

The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann (1899)-Strong-tempered and proud of her African origin, Minervy Ann works to shape up the black Republican Legislature, runs her bakery business aggressively, and keeps lower-class white folk on their toes. But, like Uncle Remus, she's also intensely loyal to certain whites.