Authors: Joel Chandler Harris

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American short-story writer

December 9, 1848

Eatonton, Georgia

July 3, 1908

Atlanta, Georgia


Joel Chandler Harris was the first writer to create a regional literature of lasting interest out of the oral tradition of African American dialect stories told in the South in the nineteenth century. Although he wrote many newspaper articles, children’s stories, and novels about African Americans and mountaineers, he is remembered chiefly for his Uncle Remus stories. Born near Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia, Harris was educated in a local private school and encouraged to write by his mother. At the age of fourteen, he became a printer’s devil on The Countryman, but in 1864 the approach of Union troops forced him to leave the area. After working as a reporter on newspapers in New Orleans and Macon, Georgia, he returned to Eatonton and wrote humor pieces for the Savannah Morning News. In 1876, he became a staff writer for the Atlanta Constitution, where he remained for twenty-four years. {$I[AN]9810001460} {$I[A]Harris, Joel Chandler} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Harris, Joel Chandler} {$I[tim]1848;Harris, Joel Chandler}

Joel Chandler Harris

(Library of Congress)

One of Harris’s assignments at the Constitution was to write humorous sketches. For this, he began a study of African American folklore and dialect and attempted to reproduce the oral tales realistically in writing. The pieces that resulted were so successful when they appeared in newspapers in the North and the South that a selection was published in 1880 as Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. The stories are fables, related to one another by the dialect and personality of the narrator, Uncle Remus, who, not unlike Harris, was kindly and even-tempered yet shrewd. It was Remus’s delight in the methods used by the underdog members of his bestiary—especially Brer Rabbit—that so enthralled the readers of these tales. Prompted by reader demand, Harris produced hundreds of Uncle Remus tales, and from 1907 until his death he edited Uncle Remus’s Magazine.

Author Works Short Fiction: Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, 1880 Nights with Uncle Remus, 1883 Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White, 1884 Free Joe, and Other Georgian Sketches, 1887 Daddy Jake the Runaway, 1889 Balaam and His Master, and Other Stories and Sketches, 1891 Uncle Remus and His Friends, 1892 Tales of Home Folks in Peace and War, 1898 Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation, 1905 The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, 1955 (Richard Chase, editor) Long Fiction: Sister Jane, 1896 The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann, 1899 On the Wing of Occasions, 1900 Gabriel Tolliver, 1902 A Little Union Scout, 1904 The Shadow Between His Shoulder-Blades, 1909 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Little Mr. Thimblefinger, 1894 Mr. Rabbit at Home, 1895 The Story of Aaron, 1896 Aaron in the Wildwoods, 1897 Plantation Pageants, 1899 Wally Wanderoon and His Story-Telling Machine, 1903 Nonfiction: Dearest Chums and Partners: Joel Chandler Harris’s Letters to His Children, 1993 (Hugh T. Keenan, editor) Bibliography Baer, Florence E. Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarium Fennica, 1980. Essential to anyone trying to study the Brer Rabbit stories. For each tale, Baer gives a summary, the tale type number from The Types of the Folk-Tale (1928), motif numbers from Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1955–58), and a discussion of possible sources. She also includes an excellent essay discussing Harris’s legitimacy as a collector of folktales. Baker, Margaret P. “The Rabbit as Trickster.” Journal of Popular Culture 28 (Fall, 1994): 149–58. Discusses the image of the rabbit as trickster in popular culture; concludes that, although some of the traditional folk images of the trickster have changed, twentieth century trickster figures help people deal with paradox and irony and show their audiences that they are neither totally victims nor victors but can capitalize on their own weaknesses to build strengths for coping with life. Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A full-length study, including chapters on the major as well as the later Uncle Remus tales, and Harris’s other short fiction. Includes a brief, useful annotated bibliography. Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr. Joel Chandler Harris: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1977–1996. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A good reference for students of Harris. Bickley, R. Bruce, Jr., comp. Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Traces the critical heritage about Harris, including contemporary reviews. Of particular importance is an article by Bernard Wolfe, which was printed in Commentary in 1949. Brasch, Walter M. Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the “Cornfield Journalist”: The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000. A balanced examination of Harris and his stories—part biography, part analysis—aimed at an audience from whom, as children, the Uncle Remus tales had been withheld in deference to the sensitive racial issues encumbering the stories. Cousins, Paul. Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968. A biography that the author worked on intermittently for more than thirty years and that includes material from interviews with friends of Harris. Not a reliable source for critical evaluations of Harris’s work. Harris, Joel Chandler. Dearest Chums and Partners: Joel Chandler Harris’s Letters to His Children, a Domestic Biography. Edited by Hugh T. Keenan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. Reveals aspects of Harris’s life through his correspondence with family members. Hemenway, Robert. Introduction to Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, edited by Robert Hemenway. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Hemenway’s introduction is very clear and informative, one of the better all around essays on the Brer Rabbit stories. Contains a brief bibliography. Keenan, Hugh T. “Twisted Tales: Propaganda in the Tar-Baby Stories.” The Southern Quarterly 22, no. 2 (Winter, 1984): 54–69. This essay updates some arguments that Bernard Wolfe put forth in his Commentary article (included in R. Bruce Bickley’s entry above). Better researched than Wolfe’s article and more even in tone. Lester, Julius. “The Storyteller’s Voice: Reflections on the Rewriting of Uncle Remus.” In The Voice of the Narrator in Children’s Literature, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Lester discusses the problems he had with his editor when he was trying to get his retelling of the Uncle Remus stories published; argues that voice is the heart of the story and that he could not be unfaithful to the original folktales.

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