Joel Chandler Harris
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN an article published by The Book-man not very long ago Mr. James Lane Allen remarked that Uncle Re-mus was one of the two names in American fiction which have attained anything like universality of acceptance, the other name being, of course, Uncle Tom. And yet fame was thrust upon Mr. Joel Chandler Harris.
It happened in this wise. Mr. Harris went to work for the Atlanta Constitution as an editorial writer in 1876, succeeding Mr. Samuel W. Small, who has since pre-1 fixed to his name the title of Reverend. Mr. Small had made a success with sketches dealing with a character called Uncle Si, and Capt. Evan P. Howell, the editor of the Constitution, desired to have the success maintained in some form. So he approached Mr. Harris with the suggestion that he should try his hand at negro sketches. The young writer was diffident. He pleaded inexperience, incapability; but Captain Howell would n't listen to the excuses. In a good-natured way he pursued his associate, requesting, begging, entreating, encouraging. If Mr. Harris would only put into black-and-white those plantation stories with which he was accustomed to entertain the staff! If he would only get his courage up! Finally, the young man yielded and put some of the memories of his boyhood in Putnam County, Georgia, into the mouth of a negro named Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus he has been ever since the publication of the first sketch — Uncle Remus, famous and beloved throughout the land.
Captain Howell is said to have gone to the editors' room the morning of the first appearance of Uncle Remus and shouted :
Well, Harris, you're a trump ! If you just keep up that lick your fortune is made. Everybody is talking about Uncle Remus, so give us another story." It was given willingly.
Mr. Harris was born in 1848 in what used to be known as Middle Georgia. Like many another of our well-established authors, he received a good part of his education at the printer's case in a country newspaper office. It was at the case — just as in the story of Howells and of Mark Twain that the Georgian acquired his love of journalism —a love which often very naturally develops into a love for higher and more durable literature. He joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution at the age of eighteen. For a time he served as dramatic critic, in addition to his other service ; but he soon found that he had no taste for the theatre. It must be that it was his hard lot to fall among poor actors, for it was not long before he gave up the work and formed a determination to visit the theatre as seldom as possible. There-after, he was virtually permitted by the editor of the Constitution to follow his own bent.
But the story is moving along a little too fast. It should be said that Mr. Harris was fortunate in his birthplace. Eatonton, the capital of Putnam County, was not a lively spot, in a mercantile sense, in the days before the war, but it could boast of an excellent school, Eatonton Academy.
Speaking of Eatonton, the Baltimore American, some thirteen or fourteen years ago, printed this strange biography of Mr. Harris under the title of " A Humorist's Sad Romance " :
" Joel C. Harris, the famous humorist, of the Atlanta (Ga.) Constitution, has had a strangely romantic career. His father was a missionary, and it was at the small town of Boog-hia, on the southern coast of Africa, that Joel was born. He was educated by his father, and is a profound Sanscrit scholar, besides being thoroughly versed in Hebraic and Buddhist literature. Just before the Civil War he emigrated to America, and taught school in a village near Lake Teeteelootchkee, Fla. There he fell in love with Sallie O. Curtis, daughter of a wealthy planter, and soon was engaged by Colonel Curtis as a private tutor. The parents made no objection to their daughter's choice of a husband, but the war came on before the marriage could take place, and so Colonel Curtis and Mr. Harris went away to the war. The Colonel lost all his property during the strife, and at the battle of Columbia, S. C., a grape shot tore his leg into shreds. When the war closed Miss Sallie died of yellow fever, and Mr. Harris became the support and comfort of the maimed sire of his dead sweetheart. The two yet live together in a vine-covered cottage near Atlanta. Mr. Harris is hardly forty years of age, but his snow-white hair tells the sorrow of his life. He is noted for his generosity, his amiability and his tenderness."
The fact is that from the time of his birth until General Sherman swept toward the sea after burning Atlanta, Mr. Harris lived in Eatonton. When he was six years old he could read, and it is said that a stray copy of " The Vicar of Wakefield," met in his juvenile days, did much to develop his taste for good literature. Joel attended Eatonton Academy for a few terms, and at the age of twelve went to work for Colonel Turner, the publisher of a weekly called The Countryman.
It was the boy's own enterprise and ambition which brought this about. It was Joel himself who heard that Colonel Turner was in need of a boy with " willing hands " to learn the printer's trade, and who went unbidden and unendorsed to apply for a job. The publisher and the youngster took a liking to each other on sight, and young Harris was put to work forthwith.
Those were unquestionably among the happiest days of the humorist's life. This is not saying, of course, that his cup of happiness is not brimming over today; but those were days of new contentment. The young printer's work was not burden-some ; but the happiest fact of all is that his employer, Colonel Turner, had a rich library, in which his youngest workman was free to browse in leisure moments. The acorn of taste for good books which the boy had cultivated at home here developed into an oak; and the soil in which the acorn took root was fertile, and there was ample room for the spread of every growing limb and bough.
At first the lad delved among the Elizabethans. Sir Thomas Browne, too, became one of his favorite authors —nowadays Mr. Harris leans toward Thackeray, Stevenson, Scott, Kipling and James Whitcomb Riley — a good catholic taste. Few boys ever enjoyed a more advantageous course of reading. Gradually the juvenile printer drifted from his books into writing, just as a student one day quits the gallery and starts to paint some work of his own. Colonel Turner responded to the ambition of his protégé most generously. He praised the little works judiciously, and before long young Harris was prompted to doff his anonymity and stand up to be judged by himself. Thereafter he became a regular contributor to The Countryman — which was truly rustic in scope as well as in title — and the name of Harris began to be spoken throughout Georgia.
This pleasant existence was interrupted by the war, which to the editor and his assistant was indeed the fulfilment of an ancient threat. When Sherman left Atlanta to march to the sea, he shaped his course through Eatonton, and before him fled the loyal Southerners. Among the last to leave the town was the proprietor of The Countryman. Young Harris remained be-hind to look after the property. Little damage was done in Eatonton, but the budding author, finding the state of affairs chaotic, started, when the war was over, to make his fortune elsewhere. He found employment on various newspapers, first in Macon, then in New Orleans, then in Forsyth, and then in Savannah. In Savannah he secured an editorial position on the Morning News, of which W. T. Thompson, the author of " Major Jones's Court-ship," and other once popular humorous writings, was then the general manager. In Savannah, the vagrant Eatontonian married Miss La Rose, and there he lived, with ever-increasing success, until 1876, when yellow fever swept through the town. Then he moved to Atlanta and went to work for the Constitution. And here we shall take up the original thread of this article.
In 1880, four years after the beginning of Mr. Harris's connection with the Constitution, the Uncle Remus sketches, which meantime had won much praise through-out the country, were numerous enough to make a book of, and "Uncle Remus : His Songs and Sayings " was published by the Appletons. The book solidified the author's fame. It had the good fortune to be reprinted in England. Even then, more than twenty years ago, it was reason-able to say that Uncle Remus was one of the foremost characters in American fiction. In 1883, " Nights with Uncle Remus," was published; the following year "Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White "; in 1887, "Free Joe and Other Georgian Sketches." Up to date, Harris's books number at least sixteen.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that all the time the successful story-teller kept up his editorial work on the paper to whose fame he was contributing so materially. Indeed, until his retirement from newspaper work, in 1900, his chief title was that of a hard-working journalist."
It was his habit until within recent years to give his mornings and afternoons to the Constitution work, and his evenings to miscellaneous literary work. He was able to maintain this arduous program for so long a time because of his apparently inexhaustible good nature and his simple manner of life ; and, moreover, attention to duties at hand soon became second nature in him. In recent years, however, he gave only his mornings to his editorial labors. " His habit," says an Atlanta correspondent, " was to come down to the office at nine o'clock in the morning, get his editorial assignments for the day, and then go home and do his work, sending his copy down early in the afternoon. Such was his spirit of independence that if the editor chanced to be late in coming down to the office he would not waste time in waiting for him, but would pick up his bundle of newspapers and start for home. Nevertheless, he would send in his copy without fail. On making his morning visit to the office Mr. Harris was never out of sorts. His good humor was perennial, and he never failed to impart it to his co-workers. Though it was his lot to write editorials on political topics, he never enjoyed the rancor of partisan politics, and he managed to put into his editorials enough of humor to make the work pleasant to himself as well as to others.
At the same time, the idol of the Constitution staff, it is said, never took a hearty interest in politics ; he simply bowed to the fact that as an editorial writer he could hardly eschew politics entirely. But he felt that he owed much to the Constitution for the opportunity it had given him to make his reputation ; and he al-lowed this circumstance to outweigh his personal inclinations until the time came when he found that he would either have to give up his editorial work or neglect his literary contracts. So, finally, on Sept. 6, 1900, he departed from the office of the Constitution for good, taking with him the tearful love of all his associates. As a sort of legacy, he left two sons on the paper, Julian, the managing news editor, and Evelyn, the city editor.
And then, almost at the end of his fifty-second year, the dearest Georgian of them all entered upon an unembarrassed literary career, with every promise of doing more work and better work than ever. But even if this promise should rest unfulfilled —which seems almost out of question — we have with us Uncle Remus and Aunt Minervy Ann, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, creations unsurpassed in originality and in delightfulness.
Mr. Harris's work is done at his home in West End, one of the suburbs of Atlanta, and few visitors are permitted to interrupt him. Not that he is gruff ; he is simply retiring. He prefers to be known by his books. They who know him intimately — and they are not many — say that he is remarkably kind and hospitable. We respect his desire for privacy. We will not even knock on the door and beg one glimpse of his private life. With the whole reading public we shall be content to note his boundless cheerfulness and rare enjoyableness as a story-teller.