Br'er Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris
Inscoe, John C., South Carolina Historical Magazine
Br'er Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. By Walter M. Brausch. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000. Pp. xxxii, 399; $35.00, cloth.)
Joel Chandler Harris has never lacked for scholarly attention. One of late nineteenth-century America's most beloved authors (second only to Mark Twain in popularity), the Georgia journalist, folklorist, and fiction writer and his work have been subjected to major critical assessments from biographers, historians, and literary critics. Now Walter Brausch, a professor of journalism and mass communication at Bloomsburg University, has provided an engaging new study of Harris that crosses these disciplines and genres, offering a full biography of the man, a close assessment of his literary output, and a cultural analysis of the impact of Uncle Remus on his own times and since. Biographically, Brausch offers perhaps fewer new insights than he does in the other areas. His coverage of Harris's life (1846? - 1908) is thorough but familiar: Born to an Eatonton, Georgia woman already abandoned by her Irish laborer lover, he came of age as a young typesetter for a newspaper produced on Turnwold, a nearby plantation during the Civil War. Under the tutelage of Joseph Addison Turner, Harris not only learned to be a writer and newspaperman; he also came to know Turner's slaves, who would become the inspiration for his most famous literary characters and the source of many of the stories he would recreate in their words and voices. After the war, Harris worked for newspapers in Macon and Savannah until 1876, when he began a twenty-four year stint as editor of the Atlanta Constitution. It provided the first outlet for his Uncle Remus stories, which would soon thereafter catapult him to national prominence and to his extraordinary second career as an author.
Brausch seems to take at face-value Harris's claims of Turner's benevolence toward his slaves and of the idyllic plantation existence they enjoyed at Turnwold. He is also unabashed in his admiration of Harris himself, praising his non-biased, liberal views of blacks, even when he has to qualify them. He admits that Harris was a segregationist, but in the same sentence insists that he "fought for racial equality, justice, and integration" (p. xxi). Harris certainly was more moderate than most southern whites in his racial views, but hardly as enlightened as he sometimes comes across here.
In analyzing Harris's work, Brausch provides a more nuanced sense of his racial views. In a welcome, chapter-long treatment of his non-Remus fiction, Brausch acknowledges that Harris's black characters fit molds not unlike those of other white authors of the times: they were, as Albion Tourgee pointed out in 1888, either "the devoted slave who serves and sacrifices for his master and mistress," or "the poor 'nigger' to whom liberty has brought only misfortune" (pp. 104-105). Nevertheless, no other southern author made African Americans central characters as often as did Harris, or made them as sympathetic in their plights both before and after emancipation as he did in stories of Free Joe, Daddy Jake, Mingo, and other fictional creations. …