Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Geographic Context and Ethnic Context: Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Geographic Context and Ethnic Context: Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker

Article excerpt

ALICE WALKER (BORN IN 1944) AND JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS (BORN IN 1845) are both from Putnam County, Georgia, whose county seat is the town of Eatonton. When Harris was a teenager, he was hired as a printer's apprentice on Joseph Turner's plantation, located about a mile from Walker's childhood home in the northeastern part of the county where her parents were sharecroppers. The authors thus come out of the same geographic context and a similar local social context; both people their fiction with characters who speak in the African American vernacular of Putnam County. And, with the exceptions of the short-lived social upheavals during Reconstruction and the current influx of urbanites in the area around Lake Oconee, relations between blacks and whites in Putnam County sometimes seem little different today from the way they were when Harris was born. African Americans do have voting rights and increased opportunity for education. However, blacks in Eatonton rarely have opportunities to work in jobs other than those involving manual labor and low pay (Rural Clearinghouse), the median value of houses owned by blacks is about one-third the value of homes owned by whites (City-data.com), and blacks still often maintain a humble demeanor around whites. The consequences of being "uppity" or "not knowing their place" are not as severe as when lynching was practiced but the old habits of interaction remain, especially among older people.

As a linguist, I want to propose a linguistic comparison of Walker and Harris of the sort defined by Cynthia Bernstein as concerned with "the relation between the language of a text and its social and discursive contexts" (7), acknowledging that "literature is always already implicated and interfering in the social" (Nelson 21). I have shown elsewhere that both authors use authentic techniques of dialect spelling that differ more in quantity than quality (Johnson and Chastain). They share a geographic and linguistic context, but it is their ethnic contexts (1) that have produced opposing responses to their work both in the local community and in the literary world. Walker grew up poor in the African American community near Eatonton; she has written to reflect her own experience as an African American woman from this setting. Harris also came out of a life of poverty there but his perception of the African American experience was colored by his white vantage point as a presumed socially superior outsider. By deconstructing Harris's whiteness and what it contributed to the creation of his best-known character, Uncle Remus, I hope to provide a key to understanding the conflicting reactions to Harris's and Walker's writing.

I began this research to see whether and how Walker's and Harris's differing experiences of the county are reflected in how they represent the dialect. They do remember their hometown in very different ways. Walker says of Eatonton:

   Ever since I was a child, I had been aware of the high rate of
   domestic violence in our town, among our people; wives shot or
   stabbed to death, children sometimes abused and beaten. Miserable
   men who seemed unable not to ruin their lives; who seemed born with
   the prison door stretched wide before them. (Same River 170)

She was keenly aware of the injustice and misery there and made them important themes in some of her books, using settings like those where she grew up as the daughter of sharecroppers.

Harris, on the other hand, romanticized his boyhood home. He also drew upon his experiences there in his writing but he remembers it as a pleasant place, despite the poverty and social stigma he endured as the illegitimate child of a seamstress. By virtue of his birth, he was denied entrance to plantation society. He glorified it nevertheless in his contributions to the mythology of the Lost Cause, the weltanschauung described so well by Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin in The Making of a Southerner. …

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