The First Meeting of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris

By Tucker, Edward L. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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The First Meeting of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris

Tucker, Edward L., The Mississippi Quarterly

AMONG THE PAGE FAMILY PAPERS, recently acquired by the Virginia Historical Society, is a letter from Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) to his wife of only two years, Anne Seddon Bruce Page (1867-1888), in which he describes his first meeting with Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908).

At a time when the Chautauqua Movement was at its height in the United States, the youthful and energetic editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Henry Woodfin Grady (1850-1889), proposed for the Atlanta area a Piedmont Chautauqua to be excelled by no other in the country. With this plan in mind, he enlisted the aid of the wealthiest citizens and most prominent designers of Georgia. The site chosen for the Piedmont Chautauqua, to be held in July and August of 1888, was a splendid summer hotel at Salt Springs, Georgia (now Powder Springs), twenty miles west of Atlanta, and the lecturers would include the outstanding artists and writers of the day.(1)

Grady's letter to Page explaining the details of this Chautauqua has been previously published.(2) In it he expressed the hope of securing the services of six of the best-known Southern writers of the time: Amelie Rives (1863-1945), Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922), Robert Burns Wilson (1850-1916), George Washington Cable (1844-1925), Harris, and Page. Page accepted the invitation, and in a letter to his wife, published here for the first time, he described his trip to Salt Springs.(3) Among the interesting details, perhaps the most memorable is Page's first meeting with Joel Chandler Harris.

By August 2, 1888, the date of the letter, both Page and Harris had achieved some fame. Page's most famous story, "Marse Chan" (1884), had been published, and Harris had already received much recognition for his acclaimed Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880).

The letter is as follows:

Salt Springs, Ga. August 2 1888

My Dearest Love:

Here I am in the morning & could be perfectly happy if I had you along. Everything has been quite delightful since I left Richmond, and I have thought a thousand times how you would enjoy it all. The ride to Danville was as hot & dusty as ever. The only incident was the sickness of a poor young negro who was going home to Scottsburg.(4) When I first noticed him he had slipped down into [the bottom] of his seat. He said he had chills & had eaten nothing for three days. I tried to cheer him up & told him to make his family get him some good chicken broth. He looked awfully ill & I doubt not was.

Early in the morning I made the acquaintance of a young fellow from Atlanta named Knowles.(5) He and a friend got the Atlanta Constitution whilst we were in the sleeper smoker, and he read aloud a very complimentary editorial mention of "The Distinguished young Virginian Author Thomas Nelson Page" &c.(6) I was reading it myself & tried to appear unconcerned of course, a proceeding of which there was as much probability of success as of my flying. He and his companion who was a leading lawyer both announced their purpose to go out & "hear Page read." Presently he enquired if I was going to be in Atlanta. I told him yes. Then said he, "You also will have an opportunity to hear him." This was too much for me and I laughed.

Well, we immediately became chummy and he insisted that in case Grady did not meet me I should let him take charge of your husband and show him Atlanta, an offer I gladly acceded to as I had grave doubts whether the Danville operator had transmitted my telegram. In fact he had not done so in time, so I surrendered myself to Knowles--who introduced me at the Club, gave me a dinner at his beautiful house--introduced me around and gave me a drive in a splendid drag, after which he brought me to Chautauqua & turned me over to Grady.

Knowles is a man about my own age, is the head of the Southern Department of the same Insurance Co which our friend Mr Alfriend(7) represents.

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