Joel Chandler Harris
This Famous Person Game - February 2013
by Mike McLeod
Joel Chandler Harris was correctly identified by David Whelchel of Stockbridge, Ga., Frank Walsh, and David Moreland of Atlanta, Ga.
Joel Chandler Harris is better known as “Uncle Remus,” the teller of Southern folklore and Br’er Rabbit’s tales. Harris wrote 185 stories, 35 books (during his lifetime, four were published after his passing) 1, thousands of editorials as a journalist and numerous short stories and articles.
Joel Chandler Harris was born with red hair to his unmarried mother Mary Ann Harris in Eatonton, Ga. (about 85 miles southeast of Atlanta), on Dec. 9, 1845, 1846 or 1848. There are differences of opinion about the year, including those stated by Harris himself. Census Record list his age as “3” in October of 1850, “14” in 1860, and possibly 13 in the 1870 census.2
Harris was shy and self-conscious for much of his life because of his red hair, a stammer and being born illegitimate. His mother read to him often, and he became a dedicated reader, but he was not a good student in school. Like Br'er Rabbit, he often preferred to play pranks.
At the age of 16 or 17, he was hired by a plantation owner who was publishing a newspaper, The Countryman, to work as his printer’s devil, basically, the gopher for a printer. Harris learned to set type there, and he was allowed to write and publish his own poems, observations and humorous stories. This set him on the path of his future career.
During his off hours at the plantation, Harris often visited the slaves’ cabins and the kitchen, listening to their stories and absorbing the language and the culture.
After Sherman’s troops arrived and stole livestock and property from the plantation, the owner shut the newspaper down. Harris went on to work at various newspapers in the South, including the Savannah Morning News where he sharpened his editorial and humor-writing skills. He also met his future wife, Esther Rose, a French Canadian, where he boarded in Savannah. They married in April of 1873 and had two children while in Savannah, but a yellow fever epidemic fortuitously forced them to move to Atlanta.
There, Harris was hired by the Atlanta Constitution where he became an assistant editor and editorial writer. He remained there for 24 years until he retired in 1900. His editorial stance at the newspapers where he worked over the years was always to promote harmony among the races, suffrage and education.
Joel Chandler Harris is famous for his Uncle Remus stories and tales of the South, and he received several honorary degrees and awards for his writing, as well as being honored by President Theodore Roosevelt. Although a homebody who almost never traveled to receive awards, he did accept an invitation to the White House. There are at least nine letters from Pres. Roosevelt to Chandler on record, and they are friendly in tone, so the two could be considered friends.
In addition to these accolades, Harris had a great influence on many other writers. Mark Twain wanted Harris to go on speaking circuit around the country to do readings with him. The lure of lucrative speaking assignments was not sufficient to overcome his dislike of traveling, and he declined. Even so, Twain took some of Harris’ stories with him and “…reported later that the tar baby story was always one of his most popular stage-readings.” 1
Joel Chandler Harris is credited with influencing the writing of many other authors, including: Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Flannery O’Connor and others. The Uncle Remus stories have been translated into 40+ languages, and many future writers around the world have listened to his stories being read to them by their parents. Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, “…illustrated eight scenes from the Uncle Remus stories between 1893 and 1896, coinciding with her first drawings of Peter Rabbit.” 3
I assume everyone has heard the critics who say Harris merely repeated stories he’d heard from slaves. Assuredly, some were repeated, but Harris also drew from stories he heard from the Creek Indian culture in Georgia.4 Despite the controversy, Harris should be lauded for preserving these stories and dialects for future generations; it is highly likely that they would have been lost without him.
Joel Chandler Harris was not the first storyteller to make animals talk, of course. Aesop and others have used animals as the main characters in their stories for ages. Harris became a sensation by telling humorous stories with morals in a manner unheard of by the reading public at that time. Today, he seems to be largely forgotten or overlooked. It took some searching to find Joel Chandler Harris included on a list of important authors. When one was found for classic children’s literature, the list was more than 20 years old.
In Oct. 1905, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt said this at the Piedmont Club in Atlanta: “Presidents may come and Presidents may go; but Uncle Remus ‘stays put.’ Georgia has done a great many things for the Union; but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature.”5
Joel Chandler Harris died on July 3, 1908 in Atlanta and was buried there. His home, the Wren’s Nest, is open to the public for tours. It is located at 1050 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. in Atlanta, and the website is www.wrensnestonline.com.
1 Bruce Bickley, Jr., “Joel Chandler Harris,” New Georgia Encyclopedia,
2 Walter M. Brasch, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the ‘Cornfield Journalist’:
The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris.
3 Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, p. 131.
4 The Joel Chandler Harris Museum, Eatonton, Ga., “The Legacy of Joel Chandler
5 “At the Luncheon of the Piedmont Club, Atlanta, Georgia,”
about more Famous People