Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1848 to Mary Ann Harris, an Irish immigrant. His father, whose identity remains unknown, abandoned Mary Ann and the infant shortly after his birth. The parents had never married; the boy was named Joel after his mother's attending physician, Dr. Joel Branham. Chandler was the name of his mother's uncle. Harris remained self-conscious of his illegitimate birth throughout his life.
A prominent physician, Dr. Andrew Reid, gave the Harris family a small cottage to use behind his mansion. Mary Harris worked as a seamstress and helped neighbors with their gardening to support herself and her son. She was an avid reader and instilled in her son a love of language: "My desire to write—to give expression to my thoughts—grew out of hearing my mother read The Vicar of Wakefield."
Dr. Reid also paid for Harris' school tuition for several years. In 1856, Joe Harris briefly attended Kate Davidson's School for Boys and Girls, but transferred to Eatonton School for Boys later that year. He had an undistinguished academic record and a habit of truancy. Harris excelled in reading and writing, but was mostly known for his pranks, mischief, and sense of humor. Practical jokes helped Harris cloak his shyness and insecurities about his red hair, Irish ancestry, and illegitimacy, leading to both trouble and a reputation as a leader among the older boys.
Turnwold Plantation: 1862–1866
Harris quit school to work. In March 1862, Joseph Addison Turner, owner of Turnwold Plantation nine miles east of Eatonton, hired the 16-year-old to work as a printer's devil for his newspaper The Countryman. Harris worked for clothing, room, and board. The newspaper reached subscribers throughout the Confederacy during the American Civil War; it was considered one of the larger newspapers in the South, with a circulation of about 2,000. Harris learned to set type for the paper, and Turner allowed him to publish his own poems, book reviews, and humorous paragraphs.
Turner's instruction and technical expertise exerted a profound influence on Harris. During his four-year tenure at Turnwold Plantation, Joe Harris consumed the literature in Turner's library. He had access to Chaucer, Dickens, Sir Thomas Browne, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Thackeray, and Edgar Allan Poe. Turner, a fiercely independent Southern loyalist and eccentric intellectual, emphasized the work of southern writers, yet stressed that Harris read widely. In The Countryman Turner insisted that Harris not shy away from including humor in his journalism.
While at Turnwold Plantation, Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during time off. He was less self-conscious there and felt his humble background as an illegitimate, red-headed son of an Irish immigrant helped foster an intimate connection with the slaves. He absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of people like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy. The African-American animal tales they shared later became the foundation and inspiration for Harris's Uncle Remus tales. George Terrell and Old Harbert in particular became models for Uncle Remus, as well as role models for Harris.
Savannah and the South: 1866–1876
Joseph Addison Turner shut down The Countryman in May 1866. Joe Harris left the plantation with useless Confederate money and very few possessions.
The Macon Telegraph hired Harris as a typesetter later that year. Harris found the work unsatisfactory and himself the butt of jokes around the office, in no small part due to his red hair. Within five months, he accepted a job working for the New Orleans Crescent Monthly, a literary journal. Just six months after that, homesick, he returned to Georgia, but with another opportunity at the Monroe Advertiser, a weekly paper published in Forsyth, Georgia.
At the Advertiser Harris found a regional audience with his column "Affairs of Georgia." Newspapers across the state reprinted his humorous paragraphs and political barbs. Harris' reputation earned him the position of associate editor at the Savannah Morning News, the largest circulation newspaper in Georgia. Though he relished his position in Forsyth, Joe Harris accepted the $40-a-week job, a significant pay increase, and quickly established himself as Georgia's leading humor columnist while at the Morning News.
In 1872 Harris met Mary Esther LaRose, a seventeen-year-old French-Canadian from Quebec. After a year of courtship, Harris and LaRose married in April 1873. LaRose was 18 and Harris, 27 (though publicly admitting to 24). Over the next three years, the couple had two children. Their life in Savannah came to an abrupt halt, however, when they fled to Atlanta to avoid a yellow fever epidemic.
In 1876 Harris was hired by Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution, where he would remain for the next 24 years. He worked with other journalists including Frank Lebby Stanton, who was in turn an associate of James Whitcomb Riley. Chandler supported the racial reconciliation envisioned by Grady. He often took the mule-drawn trolley to work, picked up his assignments, and brought them home to complete. He wrote for the Constitution until 1900.
In addition, he published local-color stories in magazines such as Scribner's, Harper's, and The Century.
Uncle Remus stories and later years
Not long after taking the newspaper job, Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future." The tales were reprinted across the United States, and Harris was approached by publisher D. Appleton and Company to compile them for a book.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings was published near the end of 1880. Hundreds of newspapers reviewed the best-seller, and Harris received national attention. Of the press and attention Walter Hines Page noted, "Joe Harris does not appreciate Joel Chandler Harris."
Royalties from the book were modest, but allowed Harris to rent a six-room house in West End, an unincorporated village on the outskirts of Atlanta, to accommodate his growing family. Two years later Harris bought the house and hired the architect George Humphries to transform the farmhouse into a Queen Anne Victorian in the Eastlake style. The home, soon thereafter called The Wren's Nest, was where Harris spent most of his time.
Harris preferred to write at the Wren's Nest. He published prodigiously throughout the 1880s and 1890s, trying his hand at novels, children's literature, and a translation of French folklore. Yet he rarely strayed from home and work during this time. He chose to stay close to his family and his gardening. Harris and his wife Essie had seven more children in Atlanta, with a total of six (out of nine) surviving past childhood.
By the late 1890s, Harris was tired of the newspaper grind and suffered from health problems, likely stemming from alcoholism. At the same time, he grew more comfortable with his creative persona.
Harris retired from the Constitution in 1900. He continued experimenting with novels and wrote articles for outlets such as The Saturday Evening Post. Still, he remained close to home, refusing to travel to accept honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Emory College. In 1905 Harris was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Harris traveled to accept an invitation to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. Two years earlier, Roosevelt had said, "Presidents may come and presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature."
On July 3, 1908, Joel Chandler Harris died of acute nephritis and complications from cirrhosis of the liver. In his obituary, the New York Times Book Review echoed Roosevelt's sentiment, stating: “Uncle Remus cannot die. Joel Chandler Harris has departed this life at the age of 60 [...] but his best creation, [Uncle Remus] with his fund of folk-lore, will live in literature."