When Was Joel Chandler Harris Born?: Some New Evidence

Article excerpt

When Uncle Remus (1880) made Joel Chandler Harris famous, the author found that people were curious about his life. In 1886 the always shy and reticent Harris wrote a short autobiographical sketch stating that he had been born in Eatonton, Georgia, on December 9, 1848. The author also mentioned boyhood poverty and said that his literary interests were first stimulated by his mother's reading aloud Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield. Although several later biographers accepted this story literally, Harris was likely making a joke: one theme in Goldsmith's novel concerns a young woman ruined, like Harris's mother, through seduction. Harris called this brief article "An Accidental Author," a title suggestive of the author's illegitimacy. (1) Harris possibly also gave the birthdate as a joke. Subsequent accounts of Harris's life accept the 1848 date, but no concrete proof exists for it, while six independent sources suggest an earlier birthdate, perhaps as early as 1844.

The manuscript of the U.S. census taken October 30, 1850, lists Joel's age as three. (2) It is unlikely that a twenty-two-month-old infant would be mistaken for a three-year-old. The manuscript census taken June 5, 1860, lists Joel's age as fourteen. (3) According to the December 9, 1848 birthdate, Joel was eleven-and-a-half-years-old. In October 1864 Joel's employer certified to Confederate draft officials that Joel was a nineteen-year-old printer eligible for an occupational deferment. (4) Had Joel been born December 9, 1848, he would have been under sixteen, not subject to the draft, and not reported.

Charles D. Leonard, a boyhood friend, told Julia Harris, Harris's daughter-in-law and authorized biographer, that he had met Joel when his family moved to Eatonton. Leonard said that at the time he was six and Joel was seven. Julia used this statement and the late 1848 birthdate for Harris to conclude that the Leonards had arrived in Eatonton in 1855. Leonard, however, told biographer Robert Wiggins that his family had moved to Eatonton in 1853. In the manuscript census for 1860 Leonard was twelve, which indicates that he was born in 1847 or 1848. (5) If Harris was a year older, then Harris was born in 1846 or 1847.

On August 7, 1866, Macon Typographical Union No. 64 issued Harris a journeyman's traveling card. Such cards were given only to printers over twenty-one. Furthermore, the card called Harris "Mister," a title unlikely to be bestowed upon a youth under eighteen. (6) This evidence suggests an 1845 birthdate. On March 3, 1868, J.T. Manly entered the Forsyth shop where Harris worked as a printer. Harris instructed the new apprentice, and the two became friends. Manry said that when the two met, Harris was twenty. (7) This evidence suggests that Harris was born in late 1847 or early 1848.

When, then, was Harris born? We can only guess. A person's reported age is usually the age at the last birthday, but a person within six months of a new birthday might round up his age; there is, therefore, an eighteen-month period that is the most likely time for a person reporting a given age to attain that age. The 1850 census suggests birth between late 1846 and early 1848; the 1860 census between mid-1845 and late 1846; the 1864 certification between late 1844 and early 1846. Leonard's recollections suggest 1846 or 1847; the journeyman's traveling card, 1845; and Manry's account, late 1847 or early 1848. The most probable year of birth is 1846.

The 1848 birthdate came from Harris's 1886 autobiographical sketch. The same source stated that Harris was born in the town of Eatonton, although several residents of Putnam County claimed that Harris was born elsewhere in the county. (8) Joel's mother was a poor, uneducated woman who may have cared little about the exactness of a birthday, and Joel was an illegitimate child who probably did not learn much about his origins from his mother. (9) Family legend reports that Joel's father was an Irishman who seduced Mary Harris and then deserted her, but early published biographies reported falsely that Joel's father had died when Joel was an infant, (10) When Julia Harris tried to learn more about Joel's origins, she discovered that few people in Putnam County cared to talk. …