A Review of Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris

By Byron Snapp
October 01, 2003

Renowned in his life, yet virtually unknown today, the life of Joel Chandler Harris needs to be recalled because of his contributions to Southern literature. He penned folklore that originated in Africa and was brought to America by the slaves. By publishing these stories, he gave Blacks a prominent place in literature.

A Georgian, Harris was born illegitimately in the mid 1840s. His mother devoted her life to raising him. His youth was marred because he was the target of jokes and pranks. His mother's love for print media gave her son an interest in reading and writing. As a teenager, he was employed in a print shop on a plantation. Providentially, this job opened new vistas for Harris's future vocation and subsequent fame. He learned much about printing. He also began to publish essays and other writings. More importantly, he listened attentively to the folktales the slaves recounted. He was particularly interested in these because the focus of many of them was on the apparently weak overcoming the seemingly stronger. Looking back on his own life, he could readily identify with the weak. Job followed job prior to his marriage in 1873.

Three years later he and his family fled Savannah and moved to Atlanta because of a yellow fever epidemic. He was employed by the Atlanta Constitution where he would spend twenty-four years serving as a chief editorial writer and associate editor. From time to time he would include some of the stories he had heard on the plantation. These columns were popular among the newspaper's subscribers. When the New York Post reprinted a number of the tales, greater attention was focused on Harris. This popularity led to the Uncle Remus tales being collected and published in book form.

Throughout, the author shows that Harris was painfully shy. His friend Mark Twain attempted to set up a public reading of his works after Harris had gained fame for the Uncle Remus stories. Harris, however, refused any part in the spotlight.

During his adult years Harris constantly had to fight the fear that his work was not worthy of publication. Although he had a number of fictional works published, none achieved the fame that the Uncle Remus books enjoyed.

Culturally, he was a man ahead of his times. He was opposed to racism but supported segregation. He believed in educating Blacks and aiding them in every way. He did not believe that Blacks were genetically inferior. His Uncle Remus stories reflected the wisdom of Black folklore. Many of his other works promoted tolerance.

The author makes no mention of the part, if any, that religion played in his life other than to note that he was baptized into Catholicism two weeks prior to his death on July 3, 1908. Earlier Brasch noted that Harris believed Christianity would be the basis for the eradication of racial prejudice.

The author has done an excellent job of introducing the reader to the life and culture of Joel Chandler Harris. Additionally, he provides a brief account of his children's adult years and pursuits, as well as the demise of interest in the folklore that Harris worked so hard to preserve. Many pictures add an interesting dimension to the enjoyment of this biography.

This volume will provide insights to readers interested in the development of Southern literature, to those interested in Southern literature, to those interested in Southern history, as well as to those who enjoy reading an account of a man who became famous by doing what he loved to do.

Topics: American History, Biology, Culture

Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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