Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Joel Chandler Harris, Catholic

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Joel Chandler Harris, Catholic

Article excerpt

  He would have felt about as awkward in proclaiming himself a   pattern of piety as he would in proclaiming himself a pattern in   literature.    DR. J.W. LEE    on Harris's religiosity 

JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS needs reintroduction: he was a meliorist, a staunch critic of the South--and a Catholic. Most would assume that the full-blooded Georgian was a consummate Southerner in his politics and worldview, since, in our time, Harris is generally (if controversially) remembered as the author of the best-known collection of black folk tales ever to be printed. In fact, he was a retiring man who became an unlikely spokesman for the New South and racial reconciliation. As the creator of the Uncle Remus tales and the associate editor of the nationally renowned Atlanta Constitution, Harris put a benevolent face to Henry Grady's vision of New South politics and brought that vision to the nation in his homespun Southern Uncle Remus magazine. Yet Harris remained something of a Southern outsider until the end of his days. If his stories are taken as a whole, the intensely shy man offered a relentless (if necessarily muted) critique of his region's racial politics. He kept company with others who did the same, including Mark Twain and George Washington Cable, both of whom were largely ostracized from the region after writing critically about it.

Joel Chandler Harris never went so far, instead framing the Remus tales as parables to subvert the sectional censorship. Harris acknowledged the limitations of his freedom as a writer in the South, where the political climate dictated that the writer might not "draw an impartial picture of Southern civilization, its lights and shadows." (1) W. E. B. DuBois sought out Harris in the wake of the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose, but DuBois abandoned the idea as a half measure in the face of imminent violence in Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution sensationalized the lynching and predicted that it would happen. Too often frustrated in his conciliatory agenda, Harris found his position as editor more and more untenable, and resigned the following year. Late in life, he explained the difficulty of his position:

  It seems that there are things we cannot deal with   familiarly--things that we cannot touch without our fingertips   drawing a blood-blister on the unseemly forehead of politics;   and when our writers take their pen in hand, and begin to   set forth in fiction the things with which they are familiar,    they unconsciously feel that they are under some sort of   pledge not to offend the abnormal sensitiveness of their   neighbors--that they are bound to glass over certain conditions   and circumstances that are a very definite part of their   surroundings. (2) 

Harris's role as a lifetime critic of the South has been utterly eclipsed by the popular if inaccurate notion that he is the dean of racial paternalism. But his greatest instance of apostasy from the Southern fold is, oddly enough, perhaps the least noted: his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Biographers usually described him as a spiritual man, but not conventionally religious, apparently on the strength of these facts: he attended church irregularly, if at all, and he received no particular religious instruction in his childhood, save what fell to him by way of circuit riders, camp meetings, and his Methodist mother's desultory Bible readings. Even so, the writer also held deep moral convictions, expressing them frequently in his way; and those who knew him, especially his family, remembered him for his deeply lived, unvarnished loving kindness. Few writers from the period seem to have been so singularly compelled by Kurt Vonnegut's maxim, spoken bluntly by Mr. Rosewater--"Goddammit, you've got to be kind"--and Harris's astonishing kindness is especially apparent in the letters he wrote to his children. As an orphan, and perhaps as an alcoholic, Harris had seen his portion of adversity and struggled to keep the shadows of depression at bay. …

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