Historical Society holds first meeting of year

Published 7:29 pm Monday, January 28, 2019

VALLEY — At the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society’s first quarterly meeting of the new year, held Sunday afternoon at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library, guest speaker Dr. Julie Hedgepeth Williams talked about three guys named Joe and the impact they had on Southern literature. Williams is a journalism professor at Samford University and the author of “Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit and the Founding of Southern Literature.”

The first of the three Joes would be Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an English essayist, poet, playwright and politician. He is perhaps best known for his longtime friendship with Richard Steele and the newspaper The Tatler and magazine “The Spectator” they collaborated on.

The Tatler wasn’t the first newspaper and “The Spectator” wasn’t the first magazine in eighteenth century England, but they were immensely popular with the public. Dr. Williams said that most publications of the day were on arcane subjects such as British politics and were of little interest to average people. “The Tatler was spicy,” she said, “and everyone loved it.”

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The Spectator was especially popular with women.

“They loved its humor, and its morality stories,” Williams said. “They found it screamingly funny.”

The writing of Joseph Addison was well known in the British colonies in America. Eighteenth century America wasn’t a widely literate society, but among those who did read were fond of Addison & Steele. A young boy growing up in the Middle Georgia of that time period was especially fond of Addison; in fact, he was named after him. Joseph Addison Turner grew up on a plantation near Eatonton, Georgia.

Young Joseph developed a passion for reading out of a fear he was falling behind other kids his age in terms of schooling. He had a rare bone disease that kept him from attending school, and he tried to learn on his own. He eventually could walk but would always get about with a limp. “At 19, he wanted to go to college,” Williams said. “He lasted one semester at Oxford College (now Emory University). One of his professors assigned him an essay. It was so good he read it to the class and put it on the same scale as The Arabian Nights.”

Though college may not have been for him, he found that writing was. He went back to Eatonton determined to be a writer.

“He thought that Southern stories weren’t being told the way they should have been and started Turner’s Monthly,” Williams said.

It wasn’t successful, neither were some other publications he attempted.

“He was running a plantation, but wanted to be running a press and to have an outlet for Southern literature. Wanting to follow the example of Addison & Steele he stared a weekly newspaper called The Countryman. It had essays, news, humor, events of daily life and people loved it. It was the most widely circulated newspaper in Confederacy. He had to turn away 90 percent of the submissions.”

When the South lost the Civil War and went through the hard times of the Reconstruction period, the newspaper folded.

Williams noted that the most lasting influence of “The Countryman” may have been the contributions of a young boy from Eatonton who started out as a printer’s devil and went on to become a famous writer. His name was Joel Chandler Harris, and he became well known for the Uncle Remus stories that first appeared in The Atlanta Constitution.

Young Joel didn’t have a lot going from him.

“He was the illegitimate son of a seamstress,” Williams said. “His mom lived on charity and struggled to make ends meet. Joel had a lifelong problem with stuttering, but loved to read. One day he was reading The Countryman and saw an ad for a printer’s assistant. He thought his life would forever be changed if he got that job, and he did.”

Joe Turner was most impressed with his letter of application and was ready to hire him on the spot when he showed up. Turner became a father figure for him. He helped him with his writing and taught him how to run the press. The Countryman folded when the South lost the war, but Joel Chandler Harris had found his purpose in life.

Young Harris could remember stories he’d heard when he was growing up on his father’s plantation. These stories had been handed down in oral tradition and some of them were based on Native American folk tales.

His colorful tales, particularly the Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Fox stories, became widely known and loved. In 1880, a New York publisher put them in book form as Uncle Remus stories.