Sunday, October 2, 2011
Joel Chandler Harris
A native of Eatonton, Joel Chandler Harris gained fame a century ago as the writer of children's stories told in dialect by Uncle Remus, a slave who entertained a young white boy with American folktales. While scholars debate Harris's actual birth year, 1845 or 1848, the young boy born December 9 in Billy Barne's Tavern to the unwed Mary Harris suffered the pangs of illegitimacy by stammering in public and being self-effacing. Obviously bright, Harris received the attention of Andrew Reid who paid his tuition at Union Academy. He befriended elderly slaves George Terrell and Old Harbert who entertained him with trickster tales about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and the other critters in the Briar Patch. In 1862 Harris left Eatonton to work as a printer's devil on The Countryman published by Joseph Addison Turner on his Putnam County plantation, Turnworld. Here he studied the trade of the journalist under Turner's watchful eye and from a fence post at Turnwold witnessed Sherman's March to the Sea, an event he captured in his tribute to Turner, the 1892 memoir On the Pantation. With defeat, Harris left Putnam County for newspaper jobs in New Orleans and Savannah before landing at the Atlanta Constitution in 1879. The next year appeared the collection Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings and in 1883, Nights with Uncle Remus. The animated exposure of Walt Disney's 1946 "Song of the South" has obscured the true Uncle Remus tales that are more complex than presented in the movie and represent only part of Harris's corpus of work. Unlike the moonlight and magnolias of the popular southern fiction of his day, Harris wove complicated stories filled with humor and pathos. In Mingo, and Other Sketches in Black and White, published in 1884, Free Joe, published in 1887, and Daddy Jake the Runaway, published in 1889, Harris presented a darker side to slavery than had previously appeared in the Uncle Remus tales. These stories epitomized the tragedy and realism of the age. Like his contemporary and friend, Mark Twain, Harris composed a national literaturethat used localism to describe the universal. This shy red-headed and freckled man understood more of humanity and the world because of personal circumstances which enables him to relate to those society deemed less fortunate. He died at his Atlanta home, the Wren's Nest.
The Wren's Nest from the cover of Rich's Menu
Joel Chandler Harris House
HABS photo from 1985
Joel Chandler Harris House, also known as The Wren's Nest or Snap Bean Farm, is a Queen Anne style farmhouse in Atlanta, Georgia built in 1870. It was home to Joel Chandler Harris, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and author of the Uncle Remus Tales, from 1881 until his death in 1908. He is most known as author of the "Uncle Remus" tales, based upon stories he heard slaves tell during his youth.
The home still contains furnishings owned by Harris and utilizes the original paint colors. The house became known as Wren's Nest in 1900 after the Harris children found a wren had built a nest in the mail box; the family built a new mailbox in order to leave the nest undisturbed. The structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962.
The organization that maintains the Wren's Nest offers tours and sponsors a storytelling festival but struggles to raise its $120,000 annual budget due in large part to the negative perception of Harris's portrayals of the old South.
The Wren's Nest in 2009
It is located at 1050 Ralph D. Abernathy Blvd., SW, formerly named 1050 Gordon Street., SW.