This is a part of a series called Literary South, which highlights important literary landmarks and the writers and authors who made them known.
Joel Chandler Harris was born to an unwed mother in 1845. She returned to Eatonton, where her maternal grandmother hailed from, where she was taken in by a local doctor and allowed to live in a small cottage behind his mansion.
The red-haired and freckled young boy grew up playing with the slaves on the plantation, where he heard their folktales and stories that would later influence his writing. The doctor paid for him to go to the local school, but he was constantly teased for his appearance, family, and stutter.
He was very interested in books and reading, so he later got a job with Joseph Addison Turner, a wealthy plantation and newspaper owner, setting type. The Civil War put his career on hold, but he eventually got typesetting jobs in Macon, Forsyth, and Savannah.
While in Savannah, he met his future wife Esther LaRose, a French-Canadian daughter of a captain who ran boats between New York and Savannah. When a yellow fever epidemic hit the coastal city, Harris, his new wife and children moved to Atlanta. It was there that he met Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady, who would later offer him a job.
It was at the Atlanta Constitution that he first published his Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit stories that would become so well known. Harris’ time at Turnwold Plantation with his employer Turner introduced him to George Terrell, which was one of the inspirations for Uncle Remus.
What made Harris’ stories so controversial at the time was that they were written in dialect, for example, using “brer” in place of “briar.” You can read most of his works for free via Project Gutenberg.
In 1946, Disney produced the film Song of the South, which was based on many of Harris’s stories. It received acclaim for the songs written for it, most notably “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The film premiered at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, where Walt Disney was present.
Joel Chandler Harris Landmarks in Georgia
Uncle Remus Museum, Eatonton
The Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton showcases Harris’ early life, especially the time on Turnwold Plantation and his mentor Turner. It is housed in a restored slave cabin that belonged to the “Little Boy” of his stories, Joseph Sidney Turner. The museum has rare first editions of Harris’ books and copies translated into different languages.
The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, closed for lunch from 12 to 1 pm, and on Sunday from 2 to 5 pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students, $3 for children and free for children under 5. Parking is free for guests. Photography is not allowed inside the museum.
The Wren’s Nest, Atlanta
Originally a small farmhouse, Joel Chandler Harris bought the Reconstruction-era home in 1881 and turned it into a Queen Anne Victorian Eastlake style home. He called it Snap Bean Farm for the vegetables he grew on the property, but locals started to call it The Wren’s Nest for the birds that nested in the mailbox.
Harris and his family lived in the house from 1881 until it was turned into a museum in 1913. It’s been restored to how it was when the family lived there and most of the furnishings belonged to them. Harris’s room has been left entirely how it was from when he died.
The Wren’s Nest is the oldest house museum in Atlanta and celebrated 100 years as a museum in 2013. It’s open for tours Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 2:30 pm and hosts professional storytellers every Saturday that bring Harris’ folklore to life.
Entry is $8 for adults, $7 for students and seniors and $5 for children. Parking is available on site and the museum is five blocks west of the West End MARTA Station.
Westview Cemetery, Atlanta
Joel Chandler Harris died on July 3, 1908, of acute nephritis and complications of cirrhosis and was buried in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery. The cemetery was built in 1884 and is the final resting place of many of Atlanta’s most notable residents.
Also buried in the cemetery are golfer J. Douglas Edgar, Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler, and former Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield. In 1943, they constructed the mausoleum, a European-inspired design, with stained glass and religious murals.
The sprawling grounds feature so much green space that it resembles a park as much as a cemetery. It’s free to visit Westview Cemetery. The grounds are open from 8 am to 5:30 pm. From I-20, take the Langhorn Street exit and turn right at the end of the ramp.
Turn right again under the overpass and turn right at the stop sign at Westview Drive. The road will end in front of the cemetery. It’s best to drive around the cemetery, as the closest MARTA station is still a few miles away.