By Michael Thomason
Many Southerners debate the origins of “Southern literature,” none more so than Mobilians who fondly recall Madame Octavia Le Vert and other local writers over the decades.
Indeed, the city had one of the antebellum South’s most famous printers, H. Goetzel & Co., which published “The Discovery of Sir John Franklin” in 1857 by Joseph Addison Turner (1826-1868), but it was drowned by critical reviews in Mobile, New Orleans and elsewhere. Turner had been working to establish a “Southern” literary style, inspired by his namesake, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an English author and wit who had published a successful newspaper, The Spectator, more than a century before.
Turner was the son of a well-educated plantation owner in Eatonton, Georgia. His father’s extensive library and careful education of his young son enabled the boy, and later the man, to advocate and appreciate good, straightforward writing, but Joe’s book did not reflect the lessons of his English namesake and was a failure.
Joseph Addison (J.A.) Turner was never poor, but his early literary efforts were not especially successful. He submitted many articles on Southern topics, few of which saw publication.
While he worked away, he ran one or more plantations in Putnam County, Georgia, practiced law, tried politics and got married. In all but marriage he failed to make much of a mark until the Civil War, when he published a newspaper from his plantation called The Countryman. It was modeled on The Spectator with articles on culture, plantation life, poetry and little about the war.
J.A., seriously crippled since early childhood, could not serve in the Confederacy’s armed forces though he patriotically wished to do so. He had opposed secession, and advocated unusually fair treatment of slaves. He believed the institution of slavery caused the war, in part because few in the north understood it. He believed his approach to owning slaves was far more widespread than it actually was, so the institution he defended saw the slaves as human beings whose lives were to be respected. He believed slaves could learn to read if they wished to do so, but drew back from favoring formal education for them.
He practiced a form of paternalism when few other slave owners did.
Turner published his newspaper from a building on his plantation, Turnwold. It had a remarkable readership of 2,000 copies and became one of the widest-circulating newspapers in the Confederacy. It was faithful to Addison’s standards of brevity and clarity. Only defeat in the war ended it, as the Union troops destroyed the old press. Sadly, in 1868 J.A. died of a lung infection, aged 41.
Despite his efforts he failed to lay the foundations of Southern literature, or so he thought. He underestimated the “printer’s devil” he hired to help produce The Countryman in the midst of war in 1862, a shy, redheaded local bastard boy who stuttered. The boy’s name was Joel Chandler Harris, aged about 15.
Harris went to live with the Turner family, sharing a room with one of the sons. It was a life-changing experience. He learned the printer’s trade very quickly and began writing articles for the newspaper within a few months. He also accompanied Turner’s older children down to the slave quarters where “Uncle” George Terrell, an older slave, told stories that fascinated the children.
In these stories animals took on human personalities and played tricks on one another. Each of the stories had a lesson told in the slave vernacular, which Harris would later capture on the pages of The Atlanta Constitution and in subsequent books. He was a bestselling author worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Readers applauded the stories and Chandler’s retelling of them in dialect.
Williams argues this was the beginning of a distinctive Southern literature that crossed regional, racial and national boundaries. The stories, which were attributed to the slaves, were African in origin and are still told in West Africa, but that connection was not stressed by readers at the time — or by Julie Hedgepeth Williams in “Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature.” Her focus is on Addison, Turner and Harris for their shaping of a literary form. She also points out that all three men believed that newspaper articles, not ponderous books, were the nursery of literature — a view not endorsed by many academics and other modern writers!
Joel Chandler Harris wrote his stories in Plantation dialect, which we shy away from today, thereby missing the contribution of slaves to these stories. Williams also avoids what we now call “the N-word,” which was commonly used in the South until recently with various overtones depending on the speaker. We have thereby sanitized and thus partially destroyed the stories Harris heard in the Turner family slave quarters. Williams is very careful to explain this.
“Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes” is not a long book, but it is very well researched and written. The people in it are quite believably human, even when their views about slavery and race are historic artifacts. There is gentleness in Williams’ touch: there were good masters and slaves who remained with them after emancipation, perhaps only a minority, but enough to give birth to this book and Southern literature in general.
Professor Julie Hedgepeth Williams is a professor of Media History and Journalism at Samford University and has published many books and articles about Alabama and the South.
Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature, (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, Al 2018.) ISBN 978-1-58838-323-5; 224pp $23.95.
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