Joel Chandler Harris was already an experienced Atlanta newspaper editor with a growing reputation when he was tapped for a temporary position filling in for the paper’s writer of highly popular dialect stories. Recalling stories he’d heard directly from slaves in his youth, he invented a storyteller named Uncle Remus whose tales of a distinctly mythical concept of life on slave plantations immediately struck a nerve with readers. A few years later, his temporary position had produced enough to fill a book and with the publication in 1880 of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—the Folklore of the Old Plantation, Harris was off and running on a literary career that would eventually situate only Mark Twain as his rival for the affection of his era's American readers.
In 1888, he and Twain became charter members of the American Folklore Society. Just one year before, he’d published his second collection of short stories as opposed to the folk tales of his multiple volumes of Uncle Remus stories. That collection was titled after one of the stories contained within which had been originally published with the title “Free Joe and the Rest of the World.” That story and all the rest take place in his Harris’ home state and thus the full title of the collection would become Free Joe and Other Georgian Stories.
The title is somewhat misleading, however. While all the stories do, in fact, take place in Georgia, the natural assumption that this is the major unifying element tying all the otherwise unconnected stories together is misplaced. Two very clear themes dominate all the stories but one; that one exception notably being the tale of Free Joe. Although not entirely alienated thematically, the title story most assuredly integrates better into the theme of setting than it does the more important themes of attempted reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War or economic rehabilitation of the post-war South being dependent upon financial interest of those from the North.
Despite the noteworthy dislocation of “Free Joe” from the smoothly operating thematic integration of the succeeding stories, that is the selection included in this volume which has most strongly stood on its own. “Free Joe and the Rest of the World” (typically shorted to just “Free Joe”) is almost certainly the most well-known story by Harris outside his Uncle Remus canon. In addition, it has become the most anthologized and the most studied. The extraordinarily high regard for this story the pathos of a freed slave caught in a limbo existence between free white society and black slave society in the years following publication has since been eclipsed by a re-interpretation from a critical perspective. Readers today are, naturally, much less personally enamored of Harris (once eulogized as the “most beloved man in America) and much more finely attuned to the story’s subtle perpetuations of the plantation myth that slaves who’d been emancipated were not as happy or well-treated as those remaining in bondage.