Joel Chandler Harris: Contribution to American Journalism

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      Joel Chandler Harris was born at Eatonton, in the center of Georgia in 1848. He alludes to himself laughingly as "an uncultured Georgia cracker." At the age of twelve, he was setting type for a country newspaper and living upon the plantation of the wealthy owner of this paper, enjoying the freedom of his well-selected library, hunting coons, possums, and rabbits with his dogs, and listening to the stories told by his slaves. The boy thus became well acquainted with many of the animal fables known to the negroes of Georgia. Later in life, he heard a great many more of these tales, while traveling through the cotton states, swapping yarns with the negroes after he had gained their confidence.

Joel Chandler Harris Literary Contribution to American Journalism
Joel Chandler Harris

      Harris knowledge of their hesitancy about telling a story and his sympathy with them made it possible for him to hear rare tales when another would probably have found only silence. Sometimes, while waiting for a train, he would saunter up to a group of negroes and start to tell a story himself and soon have them on tiptoe to tell him one that he did not already know. In many ways he became the possessor of a large part of the negro folklore. He loved a story and he early commenced to write down these fables, making of them such delightful works of art that all America is his debtor, not only for thus preserving the folklore of a primitive people in their American environment, but also for the genuine pleasure derived from the stories themselves. They are related with such humor, skill, and poetic spirit that they almost challenge comparison with Kipling's tales of the jungle. The hero is the poor, meek, timid rabbit, but in the tales he becomes the witty, sly, resourceful, bold adventurer, who acts "sassy" and talks big. Harris says that "it needs no scientific investigation to show why he [the negro] selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness." Sometimes, as is shown in The Wonderful Tar Baby Story, a trick of the fox causes serious trouble to the rabbit; but the rabbit usually invents most of the pranks himself. The absurdly incongruous attitude of the rabbit toward the other animals is shown in the following conversation, which occurs in the story of Brother Rabbit and Brother Tiger, published in Uncle Remus and His Friends:—

 "Brer Tiger 'low, 'How come you ain't skeer'd er me, Brer Rabbit? All de   yuther creeturs run when dey hear me comin'.'  "Brer Rabbit say, 'How come de fleas on you ain't skeer'd un you? Dey er   lots littler dan what I is.'  "Brer Tiger 'low, 'Hit's mighty good fer you dat I done had my dinner,   kaze ef I'd a-been hongry I'd a-snapped you up back dar at de creek.'  "Brer Rabbit say, 'Ef you'd done dat, you'd er had mo' sense in yo' hide   dan what you got now.'  "Brer Tiger 'low, 'I gwine ter let you off dis time, but nex' time I see   you, watch out!'  "Brer Rabbit say, 'Bein's you so monst'us perlite, I'll let you off too,   but keep yo' eye open nex' time you see me, kaze I'll git you sho.'"  [Illustration: BRER RABBIT AND THE TAR BABY (Courtesy of D. Appleton & Co.)]

      The glee of the negro in the rabbit's nonchalant bearing is humorously given in this paragraph:—

      "Well, I wish ter goodness you could er seed 'im 'bout dat time. He went 'long thoo de woods ez gay ez a colt in a barley-patch. He wunk at de trees, he shuck his fisties at de stumps, he make like he wuz quoilin' wid 'is shadder kaze it foller 'long atter 'im so close; en he went on scan'lous, mon!"

      The three books that contain the most remarkable of these tales are: Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1881), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892). In the volume, Told by Uncle Remus (1905), the same negro relates more stories to the son of the "little boy," who had many years before listened to the earlier tales. The one thing in these books that is absolutely the creation of Harris is the character of Uncle Remus. He is a patriarchal ex-slave, who seems to be a storehouse of knowledge concerning Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer B'ar, and indeed all the animals of those bygone days when animals talked and lived in houses. He understands child nature as well as he knows the animals, and from the corner of his eye he keeps a sharp watch upon his tiny auditor to see how the story affects him. No figure more living, original, and lovable than Uncle Remus appears in southern fiction. In him Harris has created, not a burlesque or a sentimental impossibility, but an imperishable type, the type of the true plantation negro.

      Harris also writes entertainingly of the slaves and their masters on the plantation and of the poor free negroes, in such stories as Mingo and Other Sketches (1884) and Free Joe (1887). He further presents a vivid picture of the Georgia "crackers" and "moonshiners"; but his inimitable animal stories, and Uncle Remus who tells them, have overshadowed all his other work, and remain his most distinctive and original contribution to American literature. These tales bid fair to have something of the immortality of those myths which succeeding generations have for thousands of years enjoyed.

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