Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Complexity of Joel Chandler Harris

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Complexity of Joel Chandler Harris

Article excerpt

R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., Joel Chandler Harris (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987). 178 pages. $9.95 paper.

For the last twenty years or so, Joel Chandler Harris has been taking his lumps, largely because many critics believe that his black characters perpetuate offensive stereotypes. Over this same period, however, an increasing appreciation of Harris's complexity as man and as writer has also been emerging. More than perhaps anyone else, R. Bruce Bickley, Jr., deserves the credit for promoting the rise of this sympathetic yet far from uncritical interest in Harris and his writings. Bickley's compilation, Joel Chandler Harris: A Reference Guide (1978), and his collection of pieces by various hands, Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris (1981), are indispensable to the serious student of Harris's life and work.

Anyone interested in southern literature should be grateful for the reissue of Joel Chandler Harris, initially published nearly ten years ago in the Twayne United States Authors Series. Within the confines of the format of that series, which demands brevity, Bickley has done an admirable job of bringing "the whole Joel Chandler Harris into view" (p. 11). Two of the book's seven chapters are biographical, and the remaining five are critical. Of those five, two treat the Uncle Remus books and stories for children; one deals with Harris's short stories; another examines his novels and interconnected stories, such as The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann; a brief assessment of Harris's achievement completes the text. Hardly any of Harris's works go undiscussed, although space limits doubtless foreshortened some analyses. While one can argue with some of Bickley's choices of which of Harris's works should be stressed and which merely skimmed, the writing is brisk throughout, and the interpretations are almost always sound. Bickley is especially good at weaving summaries of Harris scholarship into the narrative, at marking the differences among the various Uncle Remus volumes, at arguing for the worth of many of Harris's unjustly neglected short stories, at pointing out that his portrayals of blacks and poor whites anticipate Faulkner's depictions, and at showing how the insecure, pathologically shy Harris tried to come to grips with his tormented psyche in his fiction. …

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