Tag: Joel Chandler Harris

Unpublished Letter to the Editor of TIME

In April TIME Magazine ran a feature on slavery and the Civil War by noted journalist David Von Drehle. It was pretty good, but I took issue with a paragraph about Southern coping mechanisms during Reconstruction:

“But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool’s errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.”

As soon as I read the article I wrote and sent in a letter to the editor. They didn’t publish it, so here you go.

David Von Drehle truly grasped of the influence of storytelling in “150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War,” his piece about slavery’s role in the Civil War. That’s why it’s shocking he could so casually dismiss the gravity of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales.

Harris’s depiction of plantation life is a far cry from “happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause,” as Von Drehle writes. The figure of Uncle Remus in particular is a subversive, developed character who tricks his audience—both the little white boy in the stories and the reader of the stories themselves—into witnessing nuanced lessons of cultural understanding and empathy. Fittingly, Uncle Remus introduced the world to Br’er Rabbit, one of literature’s greatest trickster heroes.

Harris first heard these stories while he grew up working amongst slaves on a Georgia plantation during the Civil War. Just a few years after the Jim Crow laws were enacted, he celebrated and preserved African-American culture and folklore that was widely derided and may have otherwise been lost. In doing so, he also satirized the very “plantation school” writers that Von Drehle lumps him in with.

If Von Drehle bothered to study the Uncle Remus tales, as I suspect he has not, I think he’d be delighted to find “Americanism at its best”—literature that tears down borders.

Lain Shakespeare
Executive Director
The Wren’s Nest House Museum
Historic Home of Joel Chandler Harris

For a more detailed look at this particular issue, take a look at “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong.”


International Museum Day — 90.1 WABE's City Cafe Interviews Lain Shakespeare

John Lemley, the famed voice of WABE’s City Cafe, stopped by the Wren’s Nest the other day to talk about memory in museums.

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit Carved out of Wood

Because, as we surely all know by now, “memory” is the theme of this year’s International Museum Day. City Cafe is doing it up right — all this week they’ll interview plenty of other folks about memory in Atlanta’s museums.

John and I talked about my favorite artifact in the Wren’s Nest, pictured above and below. Brer Fox escorts Brer Rabbit to jail for stealing vegetables, and Brer Rabbit drops the evidence along the way. It’s an intricate Bavarian wood carving from the early 1880s. Plus, their heads pop off to better use as a humidor for tobacco.

The piece illustrates just how revolutionary these African American folktales really were. It was the first time animals walked, talked, dressed, and sassed like humans in American literature. Uncle Remus was like Aesop 2.0.

These stories were also the first serialized narrative in children’s fiction, where the animals exist in a kind of alternate universe. There’s no beginning, middle or end to the story. Brer Rabbit was like jumping from Turner and Hooch to The Wire overnight. It’s no wonder Harris had received this gift from Bavaria about 18 months after Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings debuted.

I’ll spare you more. That’s where City Cafe’s “A Visit to the Wren’s Nest” comes in.

Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox Headless

Joel Chandler Harris Signed Photograph Up for Auction

Do you have $7,000? Great! Let’s spend it.

Joel Chandler Harris

This signed Joel Chandler Harris photograph is up for auction over on eBay. The starting bid is a mere $6,999.

The date of the photograph isn’t given, but I’d reckon it was taken in the mid-1890s during Harris’s pomade period.

If you’re feeling miserly, feel free to skip the signed photograph and go straight for the Joel Chandler Harris Anniversary Christmas Tree Balls:

Joel Chandler Harris Christmas Balls

At $19.99 these unused Balls are a steal, if a little fuzzy.

Now In Print: Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong

I’ve wanted the Wren’s Nest to put out a newspaper for a few years now.

Joel Chandler Harris cut his teeth as a printer’s devil for a newspaper before making a name for himself at the Savannah Morning News and the Atlanta Constitution. Newsprint seemed like an appropriate marketing gimmick, but that was about as far as we got.

When Huey + Partners surprised us with these awesome print advertisements, it was clear we had to use them somehow.

While we sat on our hands, Noisy Decent Graphics and McSweeney’s created their own delightful, short-run newspapers.

Then earlier this year Lauren over at Lampe-Farley read “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong” and was all like, “Hey idiot! This is your newspaper right here.” And you know what? She was right, for a few of reasons.

• Amelia‘s mom had already said the same thing.
• Some folks have no idea who Uncle Remus is.
• Some folks are uncomfortable talking about Uncle Remus.
• Some folks think Uncle Remus is NOT OK.
• The essay’s been popular online, but many readers drop out after Part 1.

It seemed like a great way to marry marketing and mission, so we put Lauren to work. A few weeks later, our newspaper was born:

[youtube 2BuyROejFSU]

Thanks to Greg at Lampe-Farley for the video.

The whole paper looks great, but I’m especially happy that Zach from Crafty Mice let us use his Brer Rabbit poster to serve as the centerfold. This photograph doesn’t do it justice, but I’m gonna show it to you anyway.

We had our newspapers printed just in time for the Decatur Book Festival. Naturally, we’re bringing in a scrappy team of newsies to distribute the thing.

[youtube ABo2MlYdsdU]

If you can’t make it to the festival, send your address to lain@wrensnestonline.com, and I’ll mail you a copy.

What do y’all think? Will people pick this up? Or will I be making a lot of hats and boats all winter?

Joel Chandler Harris, Soap Collector

Yesterday in one of our bookcases I stumbled across a limited-edition retrospective on Joel Chandler Harris. The book was put together by some of Harris’s friends shortly after his death and includes a sunny biography, a few anecdotes, and the eulogy given at his funeral.

I liked this story, recounted by Forrest Adair:

Though Mr. Harris himself seldom went away from home, his family occasionally took a long summer outing, leaving “Uncle Remus” to hold the fort.

Mr. Harris was alone in his house working on an editorial, when a ring at the door disturbed him. He answered the bell, and a rather genteel-looking, middle-aged man saluted him, offering toilet soap for sale at “ten cents a cake, or three cakes for a quarter.” Annoyed by the interruption, Harris said rather brusquely that he did not need any soap.

“But I am on the verge of starvation,” said the man.

“The idea!” laughed Mr. Harris.  “Why, man, you are wearing a better coat than I have!”

“You would not talk so,” he replied in a tremulous voice, “if you had seen how hard my poor wife rubbed and brushed my coat this morning so that I would present a respectable appearance.”

Harris then saw that the coat was old, almost threadbare, but exceedingly clean and neat.  He glanced again at the man’s face.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I was very busy when you came, and spoke thoughtlessly. Now that I think of it, I do need some soap. Fact is, I am completely out.”

“Thank you,” interrupted the man. “Here are three cakes for a quarter.”

“Nonsense!” said Harris. “Here is a five-dollar bill. I will take it all in soap. Got to have it—couldn’t do without it—always buy it in five-dollar lots.”

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