“A Confirmed (Holiday) Toper!”
When I started working at The Wren’s Nest, one of the first things I did was read through his daughter-in-law’s biography of the author and journalist, The Life and Letter of Joel Chandler Harris. I hoped it would at least provide with the basic facts I needed to understand him. However, I did not anticipate how many of his letters were preserved nor did I expect that I would become so familiar with his sense of humor.
I’d often heard he was a jokester (hence his position as a humorist for The Atlanta Constitution for some many years), but in his letters to his daughters, Mildred and Lillian, I really began to understand his unique, sometimes-sarcastic, sometimes-hyperbolic, usually-silly sense of humor.
One shining example of this to me is in a letter he wrote to his daughters around the holidays (copied in part below), conspiratorially confiding a great secret about his wife’s traditional, holiday fruit-cake:
I don’t know, dear gals, how in the world I am to finish this letter. Finish it! I don’t know how I’m to begin it. I’ve made an awful discovery just simply awful. You could n’t guess – no, not if – not if each of you was eight inches tall and weighed twenty pounds heavier; not if you were to guess until your tongues were tired and your heads aching with the same ache. It’s just simply too terrible to think of; but I must tell it; I never could keep a secret, especially from my dear gals. Then listen: that fruit-cake I wrote you of – it’s old and wrinkled already, and no wonder! – the fruit-cake is a confirmed toper, a wretched inebriate, a habitual sot. I never would have found it out if I were any less cunning than I am – if I were less shrewd than old man Tallow Rand used to be.
Mamma [Esther LaRose Harris] says to me, says she, “Cephas, have you any whiskey?” At once I began to suspect something, but not a muscle betrayed my agitation.
“Well,” says I, “as likely as not there may be a thimbleful or two in the bottle. But who’s ill?”
“Nobody; I just wanted some for cooking purposes,” says she.
“Aha!” says I to myself, “I smell a rag burning somewhere”; but not a quiver of an eyelid betrayed me. “Then we are to have mince-pie for dinner, or the stuff you call Trifle?” says I.
“If you have no whiskey, Cephas, say so, and I’ll order a bottle through the grocer,” says she.
“I’ll bet you a quarter you want it for that fruit-cake,” says I, not dreaming that my suspicions were correct.
“I do,” says she. “It must be kept moist and soft, till Christmas, and whiskey is the thing to keep it so.”
So the secret was out! Every week or two the fruit-cake must have its dram, and it drinks so heartily you can almost hear it hiccough. It may happen that we’ll have to send the cake to the Keeley Institute, the place where they reform poets and other geniuses. I says to mamma, says I, “you need n’t accuse anybody of nibbling at that cake if you find it broken. A tipsy cake can’t walk any straighter than a drunken man, and if it gets up from that box it is sure to fall back and break.”
And mamma says, says she, “Cephas, if you had married any other woman” (“Heaven forbid”’ says I) “you would n’t go on with that kind nonsense.”
Happy Holidays Everyone!