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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   

8. Regional

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Charles W.
- Kate Chopin
- Charles
- Mary E. Wilkins
- Joel Chandler
- Bret Harte
- Sarah Orne
- Alexander Posey
- Mark Twain
- Zitkala-Sa
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908)

Family of Slaves
[1207] George Harper Houghton, Family of slaves at the Gaines' house (1861), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4575].

Joel Chandler Harris Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Most famous for his creation of the black folk figure Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris was also a journalist, humorist, and novelist. Born in rural Georgia to a single mother, Harris suffered poverty and social ostracism in his childhood. Many of his biographers suggest that his early insecurities led to lifelong shyness, which he compensated for by writing humorous stories and playing practical jokes. At thirteen, Harris was taken on as an apprentice typesetter at The Countryman, a weekly newspaper run by Joseph Addison Turner on his large plantation, called Turnwold. There, Harris received training in printing as well as what he later termed "a liberal education," enjoying the benefits of the extensive Turnwold library and receiving informal instruction from Turner. He also spent a great deal of time learning from the slaves on the Turnwold plantation, absorbing their stories, songs, and myths. Later, Harris drew on these experiences to compose his sketches and stories of African American life.

In 1864, Turnwold was attacked and destroyed by the advancing Union army, and by 1866, with his finances in ruins, Joseph Turner was forced to dismiss his young typesetter and close The Countryman. Harris found employment in Georgia cities, working as a typesetter, journalist, humorist, and editor for a variety of newspapers. In the late 1870s Harris began publishing a series of sketches written in African American dialect for the Atlanta Constitution, eventually using this forum to develop the character of Uncle Remus. A black slave who tells African American legends and folktales to a young white listener, Uncle Remus quickly achieved popularity with readers in the South as well as the North, where Harris's columns were syndicated in urban newspapers. Admirers praised the "accuracy" and "authenticity" of Harris's rendering of African American dialect and recounting of traditional African animal fables about trickster characters such as Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Building on the popularity of his newspaper columns, Harris published a book-length collection of Uncle Remus stories in 1880, titled Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. The book sold out three printings in its initial months of publication, and, as late as 1904, Harris reported that it continued to sell four thousand copies yearly. Capitalizing on his success, Harris followed Songs and Sayings with several additional collections of Uncle Remus's animal fables. He also wrote local-color stories and novels focusing mainly on life among southern blacks and impoverished whites, but these works never attained the success and popularity of the Remus stories.

Harris also continued to work as a journalist until 1902, becoming a self-styled champion of reconciliation between the North and the South and between blacks and whites. In some respects, his ideas about race were enlightened for his time: Harris was a proponent of black education and argued that individuals should be judged according to their personal qualities rather than their race. At the same time, however, he perpetuated racial stereotypes in his writings. Literary critics have frequently pointed out the latent racism of the Uncle Remus tales, especially Harris's stereotyped portrait of Remus himself as a "contented darky" with nothing but happy memories of his life as a plantation slave. On the other hand, the trickster tales that Uncle Remus narrates--with their subversive focus on the triumph of seemingly weak characters over their aggressors--are characterized by poetic irony and a subtle critique of oppression and prejudice (a critique that Harris may never have fully appreciated). Whatever his intentions, Harris's work is undeniably important as a record of traditional African American folktales that might otherwise have been lost to history.

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