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Joel Chandler Harris

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Joel Chandler Harris, Editor and Essayist. Edited by Julia Collier Harris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $4.00.

Once, at a banquet held in Atlanta in his honor, Theodore Roosevelt spoke a patent truth: “Presidents may come,” he said, “and Presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays put.”

Joel Chandler Harris, seated there, was acutely uncomfortable, Admiring modesty more than any other trait a man might have, he exemplified his ideal with a sometimes distressing thoroughness. This quality of his seems to have come down to Julia Collier Harris. She remembers always her own deep affection for her father-in-law, and takes care not to be coaxed by that affection into an undiscriminating endorsement of him as an author and a prophet. At the end, her opinion of him is quite definitely high—and very justly so. It might be wished, then (to name once and for all the sole culpable element of her new book), that she had not concerned herself to identify her man, as it were, by. testimonials from people less important than the man himself.

In general, the book is admirable. The material is interesting, and Mrs. Harris has edited it with a clarity that, for all its detachment, leaves the reader sure of her sympathetic comprehension of her subject. As biography there is little here not already considered in Mrs. Harris’s “Life and Letters” of 1918, but much that was before only implied is here given fully. Besides, the book is rich in its indication of what intelligent people in the South were thinking about and wishing for through those curious years between 1865 and 1914.

It records, for instance, over and over, the suspicion with which Harris and in fact most of the South had come to regard all politicians. Whatever their intentions, it was these people who had failed to prevent the Civil War—and that surely was no good turn; after the war alien politicians had done the section a turn that was plainly worse. It was wise, Harris thought, to associate oneself with the minority party, but to take no very partisan interest in it, since “neither political party can go very far in the direction of wrong doing without being called to account by the people.”

Another characteristic trait of Harris’s was his tendency to turn humorous even in moments that usually demand unbroken soberness. Here more than anywhere else he was a thoroughgoing Georgian. For this intractable humor is a disposition rather exceptionally general among his compatriots—sometimes shocking to the uninitiated, but understood and loved by citizens bred and born in that particular briar patch, and practiced by them, it seems, inevitably—; if ineffectiveness is often one of its corollaries, so also is agreeableness.

Uncle Remus, per se, is scarcely mentioned in this book. There are sections devoted to Harris’s work (1) as a newspaper man, (2) as a magazine writer, chiefly for the Saturday Evening Post, in connection with the Negro problem, (3) as a dialect (not Negro, but Georgia rustic) commentator on current events, and (4) as an editorial essayist for Uncle Remus’s Magazine—preoccupied with quite cosmic matters.

In his youth and early manhood Harris proved himself a most competent journalist, looking with humorous but sympathetic candor upon his world. He believed that people were basically right and that the great trouble with them all was their failure to see beyond their prejudices the really clean motives of other people whom they, had grown to fear and hate. What was most needed was intelligence, sweetness, light, a sort of neighbor-knowledge. Often the North had behaved itself reprehensibly, but the South was not blameless either; both were human, and each displayed weakness in permitting itself to be irritated by the missteps of the other. So with the Negro business. Love, love, love—the world was finding out at last that that only would serve, and soon things would be better. Alas, for that generation. It was in 1908 that Harris died. Only six years ahead lay the Great Confusion.

But not that far ahead—not ahead, indeed, at all, but obvious then, to the discerning—loomed another confusion, less spectacular but as deadly. Harris was terrified. Ignorance and prejudice and obscurantism were indeed waning, but replacing them everywhere was a devotion to materialism and to “progress.” The neighbor-knowledge he had furthered between section and section, between race and race, was proving effective. One heard no longer in the South, except from discredited sources, violent denunciations of either Yankee or Nigger. Could it be that indifference rather than sympathy had wrought the change? One observed that the old neighbor-knowledge between man and man no longer, somehow, worked. It was each man for himself, now, and the Devil take whom he could—or hardly the Devil, either. His name was no longer so simple, or so heroic—his name now, it seemed, was Natural-Result-of-Inefficiency.

Only a year or so before his death, when Uncle Remus’s Magazine was being promulgated, Harris wanted it named The Optimist—he had been an optimist always and he was still. Yet in much of his later writing, except when he wrote of impossible romanticists like birds or superannuated colonels, there is a new and ominous weariness, a verbosity, He saw, or thought he saw, that Things were securely in the saddle and that mankind, the poor beast, was in for a most hard riding. It was all a pitiable spectacle, he declared, so pitiable that one was glad to turn from its contemplation and shake hands with the old Colonel, “a most conspicuous failure” who, “if he had had no heart and fewer brains would have taken his place among the distinguished captains of industry,” but who, having heart and brains, was obliged to satisfy himself with a life distinguished only by beauty and charm, and as broad as human sympathy could make it. So much from one optimist.

What, one wonders, would another, Henry Grady, have said of it all—that rural soul—if he had lived to see his South swift and powerful again. What, one asks, did Walter Page say, living?

For Harris there was one recourse—the birds. One could write of them still at sixty as one had written at twenty and every year between—out of a mind filled with the minutest knowledge, and filled invariably, when he watched them or when he wrote of them, with ecstasy.

There was another recourse. Two weeks before his death he was baptized into the Catholic Church. So much, again, for a hard-bitten optimist in Atlanta, Georgia, at the dawn of this important century. If he had had no heart and fewer brains—but those are Harris’s words, when he was talking about the old Colonel.


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