December 9, 2010

Birth of Joel Chandler Harris

Joel Chandler Harris was born on December 9, 1848 in Eatonton, Georgia. His father, whose identity remains unknown, was never married to Harris's mother and abandoned them both shortly after. A prominent local doctor took pity on the young mother and offered a small cottage for her and her son on his own estate. She supported her son by sewing and gardening — and by encouraging him to read.

Harris joined the world of publishing at age 16 as a printing compositor for a plantation-based newspaper named The Countryman. He soon began writing book reviews, poetry, and humorous prose, the latter under the name "The Countryman's Devil." It was here, working at a plantation, that Harris began listening to the stories told by  African slaves. Those stories were the basis of his own works of fiction, folk tales featuring the character "Uncle Remus." The stories were widely republished, making Harris a household name (or, at least, his characters — including Brer Rabbit).

Later in his life, in 1892, he published a mostly-fictionalized autobiographical novel, On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures during the War. In his introductory note, he warns "that which is fiction pure and simple in these pages bears to me the stamp of truth, and that which is true reads like a clumsy invention." Harris then asks his readers to "sift the fact from the fiction" as it suits him. True or not, the protagonist of the book, Joe Maxwell, finds himself working for The Countryman on a plantation in Georgia, just like Harris (and soon shares a positive interaction with a slave). Here's how he describes his office:

The printing-office... was a very small affair; the type was old and worn, and the hand-press... had seen considerable service. But it was all new to Joe, and the fact that he was to become a part of the machinery aroused in his mind the most delightful sensations...

The one queer feature about The Countryman was the fact that it was the only plantation newspaper that has ever been published... It might be supposed that such a newspaper would be a failure; but The Countryman was a success from the start, and at one time it reached a circulation of nearly two thousand copies.

*Recommended reading: The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit as well as Joel Chandler Harris: A Biography and Critical Study (2008) by R. Bruce Bickley, Jr.

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