See his life and letters (ed. by J. C. Harris, 1918); biographies by P. M. Cousins (1968) and R. B. Bickley, Jr. (1987); study by R. B. Bickley, Jr. (1981).
(born Dec. 9, 1848, Eatonton, Ga., U.S.—died July 3, 1908, Atlanta, Ga.) U.S. writer. He became known as a humorist in his pieces for various newspapers, including (1876–1900) the Atlanta Constitution. He created a vogue for a distinct type of dialect literature with “Tar-Baby” (1879) and later stories that drew on folklore and featured the character Uncle Remus, a wise, genial old black man who weaves his philosophy of life into tales about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and other animals.
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The stories, based on the African-American oral storytelling tradition, were revolutionary in their use of dialect. They featured a trickster hero called Br'er Rabbit ("Brother" Rabbit), who used his wits against adversity, though his efforts did not always succeed. Br'er Rabbit is a direct interpretation of Yoruba tales of Hare, though some others posit Native American influences as well.
Harris began publishing his stories in the Atlanta Constitution in 1879 at a time of great interest in the South and in freedmen. They became popular among both black and white readers in the North and South, not least because they presented an idealized view of race relations soon after the Civil War.
Paul Reuben wrote, “Joel Chandler Harris was a white man, born of poor parents, who at thirteen left home and became an apprentice to Joseph Addison Turner, a newspaper publisher and plantation owner. It is at this plantation, Turnwold, that Harris first heard the black folktales that were to make him famous.” In fact Harris went to work for Turner when he was sixteen, as he was born in 1845. It was an influential apprenticeship.
In Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson described Harris as a “painfully shy newsman” who had a pronounced stammer and was very self-conscious about his illegitimate birth.
The contemporary critic H. L. Mencken held a less than favorable view of Harris. He wrote: "Once upon a time a Georgian printed a couple of books that attracted notice, but immediately it turned out that he was little more than an amanuensis for the local blacks--that his works were really the products, not of white Georgia, but of black Georgia. Writing afterward as a white man, he swiftly subsided into the fifth rank.
Late 20th century Black American writers looked at Harris from different points of view. Alice Walker accused Harris of "stealing a good part of my heritage" in a searing essay called "Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine". Toni Morrison wrote a novel called "Tar Baby" based on the folktale recorded by Harris. In interviews, she claimed she learned the story from her family and owed no debt to Harris. Black folklorist Julius Lester holds a somewhat kinder view of Harris. He sees the Uncle Remus stories as important records of black folklore. He has rewritten many of the Harris stories in an effort to elevate the subversive elements over the racist ones.
Apart from Uncle Remus, Harris wrote several other collections of stories depicting rural life in Georgia including Free Joe and the Rest of the World.
In 1946, the Walt Disney Company produced a film based on Harris's work, called Song of the South. While critically and commercially successful during its original release and re-releases, the company has not released it on home video.