Category: Joel Chandler Harris

Branching Out with an Interactive Harris Family Tree

When you visit The Wren’s Nest, you’re likely there because of Joel Chandler Harris. And it makes sense. He was a famous journalist and author during his time, rivaling Mark Twain in popularity. His books were basically international best sellers so it’s natural that his fans rallied together after his death to make his home a museum. Without him, who knows what would have become of The Wren’s Nest? For all we know, the house may have disappeared.

Yes, there’s no denying that Joel Chandler Harris is the reason The Wren’s Nest exists as a historic house museum today.

But he was not the only resident in the house. And he is certainly not the only Harris family member to have to have made a mark on the world. We wanted to highlight all of the Harris family members, not just Joel. So, with the help of a generous grant from Georgia Humanities, we are excited to announce the launch of the first phase of a new digital education tool: an interactive version of the Harris family tree!

As you can clearly see, the Harris family is quite extensive, so we’re launching the interactive in phases. In this first phase, you can find out more about Joel Chandler Harris’s immediate family – his wife and his nine children. Discover which children followed in their father’s footsteps and pursued a career in journalism; which child’s birth Harris considered to be a sign of good luck; and which child Harris dedicated a book to.

One thing I love about historic houses is that they are so intimate. They are literally a historical person’s home; where they sought refuge from the world and where they were just a husband or wife or a son or daughter. Creating this tool has brought the intimacy to a new level for me. I read through Harris’s letters to his family – which are incredibly well documented by the way! – seeing his personal communications. I also worked with his living descendants, Linda Harris and Annette Shakespeare, to gather as much information as possible from family stories and scrapbooks. I feel like I’ve gotten another window into the Harris family’s life.

I’m very grateful for Linda and Annette’s help and that they allowed me – and now all of us – into yet another intimate family space.

You can explore the family tree here!

Of Madness and Rabbits

Our second online book talk, at 4 p.m. this Sunday, showcases a book with an unusual title: Jesus Goes to Hollywood: A Memoir of Madness.

Please let us explain.

The author, Tom Matte (right) of suburban Atlanta, tells a cautionary tale of what can happen when a normal-seeming life collides with substance abuse and mental illness. Tom was a successful marketing man — that’s his clever Instagram meme with Brer Rabbit at far right. A few years ago, his recreational use of cocaine spun out of control and started rewiring his brain. He grew paranoid, tried to burn down his house, left his wife and two children, and went on a three-continent spending spree that cleaned out their savings and left him penniless and sleeping on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier in California. At one point, he was so crazy he imagined he was Jesus –– hence the title.

Tom ended up serving time in two Georgia jails and then slowly climbed his way back from the abyss. The last section of the book is about his mental healing and his arduous efforts to reconnect with his family. After all he did to them, it wasn’t easy.

Tom’s memoir is horrifying, but it’s also darkly humorous in places. Mixing the two is a technique as old as storytelling. We certainly recognize it here at the Wren’s Nest because the fellow who used to live here, Joel Chandler Harris, mixed them quite often in the Uncle Remus stories. In “The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf,” to name one example, Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Wolf into being boiled alive, and then calls his friends over for a celebratory feast. The last we see of Brer Wolf is a pelt hanging on the back porch.

We can assure you that no animals were harmed in Tom’s memoir. His mental well-being was another matter.

To attend the book talk, register at Eventbrite and you’ll receive an email with a link to join the meeting on Zoom. It’s free, and books will be available for sale. Hope to see you Sunday.


Another troubled time

A Paris publication’s depiction of the riot

The disturbances in Atlanta and other cities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police made us think of another time, more than a century ago, when civil unrest came to the steps of the Wren’s Nest.

The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was the most notorious outbreak of racial violence in the city’s history. For days, local newspapers ran sensationalistic, unsubstantiated reports about black men assaulting white women. On the evening of Sept. 22 — a Saturday — tensions ignited downtown, where the streets teemed with people in town for the weekend. White mobs attacked black people indiscriminately, pulling them off streetcars, smashing windows, firing guns. The disturbances spread to other parts of the city over the next few days.

Joel Chandler Harris, six years retired from his post as an editorial writer at The Atlanta Constitution, was unaware of the unrest until the sound of gunshots woke him in the predawn hours that Sunday. It was a citizens patrol chasing a black man through West End, according to Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906, a history by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein. One of the shots shattered a window in the Wren’s Nest.

During the disturbances, the Harrises sheltered several African American servants and their family members at the house. Describing the riot in letters that fall, Harris wrote: “Pandemonium turned loose, and it is a wonder that the loss of life was not greater.”

It was bad enough as it was. No one knows exactly how many people were killed during the rioting, but historians estimate that it was anywhere from two dozen to more than 40.

Harris was known as a progressive man for his time. While he tended to romanticize the plantation life he had known as a boy in middle Georgia, he also supported education and fair treatment for blacks. A few months after the riot, he summarized his feelings in a letter to one of his famous fans, Andrew Carnegie, soliciting capital for a magazine he wanted to start with his son Julian. “I am sure that I shall be able to smooth over and soothe, and finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races. At my time of life I have no higher ambition.”

Still, when it came to making sense of the violence that swept through his hometown, Harris reflected an attitude typical of Atlanta’s white leadership. He saw it in terms of class and blamed the disturbances, in one letter, on “the lower element of whites.”

We can only guess what Joel Chandler Harris would think of our current troubles. He would certainly recognize them. And he might be disappointed that our society hasn’t made more progress.


Our first Zoom book talk

At 4 p.m. this Sunday, May 17, the Wren’s Nest will host its first online book talk. Jonah McDonald, an entertaining Atlanta writer and tour guide, will talk about his new book, Secret Atlanta: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. It contains a short chapter about the Wren’s Nest … which made us curious.

We’re assuming that since our historic house is not truly obscure, we are either wonderful or a little weird. We wouldn’t disagree with either. Jonah focuses on Akbar Imhotep, who has been performing Uncle Remus tales at the Wren’s Nest for 35 years. Good storytellers have a way of finding each other.

That was certainly the case in 1882, when Mark Twain, an admirer of the Uncle Remus stories, invited Joel Chandler Harris to New Orleans to give a book reading at the home of author George Washington Cable. Twain told Harris that he could make more money on the lecture circuit than he could selling books. But when it was time for him to stand up and read, Harris, a lifelong stutterer, couldn’t bring himself to do it. Twain tells the story in his 1883 collection, Life on the Mississippi:

“Mr. Cable and I read from books of ours, to show him what an easy trick it was; but his immortal shyness was proof against even this sagacious strategy; so we had to read about Brer Rabbit ourselves.”

We can assure you that Jonah McDonald has no such apprehensions. Too bad they didn’t have Zoom book talks in 1882. Joel Chandler Harris might not have minded public appearances as much if he had been able to do them sitting in a rocker on his porch peering into a laptop.

To attend the talk: Register at Eventbrite and you’ll receive an email with a link to join the meeting on Zoom. It’s free, and books will be available for sale. Hope to see you Sunday — virtually, that is.



“The Success of the Book Will Depend Upon These Illustrations”

(Want to try your own hand at a Brer Rabbit illustration? Check out our new drawing challenge here!)

When you think of Brer Rabbit, chances are the first image that pops into your head looks something like this:

Brer Rabbit from Disneys Song of the South, animated by Wilfred Jackson

Or possibly just this:

Splash Mountain Ride in Disney World

This is understandable given that this is the way animator Wilfred Jackson depicted Brer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South and Disney is pretty pervasive in every part of pop culture today. It’s the way he’s shown on the Splash Mountain ride, in the former comic strip, and on all types of merchandising. 

But before Jackson/Disney’s interpretation of the character, depictions of the tricky rabbit were a little less cartoon-ish and a little more dapper.

All of the above illustrations were done by Arthur Burdett Frost (or A.B. Frost).

Portrait of illustrator Arthur Burdett Frost by Thomas Eakins

Frost was born in 1851 in Philadelphia, PA. He was a largely self-taught artist, working mostly with pen and ink but also dabbling in watercolors and engravings. Initially working as an engraver’s apprentice at the age of 15, he was told that he “had no talent for drawing.” Fortunately, he didn’t take this criticism to heart and in 1874, he illustrated Max Adler’s anthology, Out of the Hurly-Burly as a favor to a friend. The surprisingly popular book helped launch Frost’s career as an illustrator. He illustrated for numerous magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Punch as well as Lewis Caroll’s poetry book, Rhyme? and Reason? Frost is also credited with helping to create the American comic strip style of illustration that we are familiar with today. His talent was well-established when Harris enlisted him to illustrate his book.

But Frost was not the original illustrator.

In a letter to the editors of the Evening Post (who had been publishing Harris’s Uncle Remus columns), Harris asked them to advertise the first volume, declaring that it would be published by “Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.” and that Mr. Frederick S. Church would be doing the illustrations.

Portrait of Illustrator Frederick S. Church

Church was also an established illustrator with Harper’s Weekly and Harris felt that Church could“[catch] and [express] the humor that lies between what is perfectly decorous in appearance and what is wildly extravagant in suggestion.” 

Despite Harris’s claim in one of his letters to Church that he was “a compiler merely” of the illustrations for his book, he took them very seriously. In fact, he also told (and cautioned) Church, “The success of the book will depend upon these illustrations, and I trust, therefore, that you will not enter upon it as a task, merely, or allow yourself to be hurried.”

Church and another illustrator named James H. Moser created the images for Harris’s first book, Unlce Remus His Songs and His Sayings. Unfortunately, the drawings ultimately did not live up to what Harris had in mind. Harris “appreciated their fanciful charms,” but felt Church’s “animal delineations fell short” and “the spirit was good, but the art crude” for Moser’s depictions of Uncle Remus. So he moved on to a new illustrator. Enter Frost.

And Harris was definitely excited about Frost’s drawings of Brer Rabbit! After receiving Frost’s illustrations of the trickster and his nemesis Brer Fox, Harris wrote,

“You have breathed the breath of life into these amiable brethren of wood and field… The book was mine but you have made it yours, both sap and pith.”

Pretty high praise there! 

We can’t help but wonder what Harris would have thought of Disney’s Brer Rabbit… 

Sadly, he had passed away decades before the movie’s release, so we’ll never know. But perhaps we can help revive Frost’s contribution to making Brer Rabbit come to life for audiences!


The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris by Julia Collier Harris

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