On the Plantation
On the Plantation: A Story of a Georgia Boy's Adventures during the War (1892), written by famed New South journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, is a fictionalized memoir of Harris's adolescence during the Civil War (1861-65). It is both an idealized portrait of plantation life on Turnwold, the estate of Joseph Addison Turner in Eatonton (Putnam County), and a sanitized treatment of the war. Purchased by publisher S. S. McClure in New York for $2,500, the narrative was first serialized in several national newspapers, beginning in 1891. A year later On the Plantation appeared as a book published by D. Appleton and Company, the same firm that had published Harris's first volume of Uncle Remus stories. On the Plantation never achieved the popularity or critical acclaim of the Uncle Remus folktales, however, and most scholars subsequently ignored it.
Born in Eatonton in 1845, Harris was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Harris and an Irish immigrant laborer. In March 1862 Harris found employment as a typesetter—or printer's devil—for Turner's The Countryman, a widely read Confederate newspaper. In return for his services, he received lodging on Turner's plantation. He remained there for the duration of the war, leaving in June 1866 to pursue a career in journalism. In his capacity as a journalist, Harris gained considerable recognition, especially in his efforts to foster reconciliation between the North and the South, but it was his stories—largely inspired by his experiences at Turnwold—that made him a cultural icon. While there, Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters. Much of his self-consciousness about his own origins receded during that time, and his humble background enabled him to form a bond with the slaves, which in turn gave him opportunity to learn their stories, language, and inflections. He later incorporated much of what he had absorbed during this time into his literary works, including On the Plantation.
On the Plantation closely parallels Harris's adolescence on Turnwold Plantation between 1862 and 1866. In this semiautobiographical work of fiction, the Civil War years provide the narrative framework; the towns of Eatonton and Hillsborough, as well as the Turnwold Plantation, serve as the primary locales; and, in many instances, the names of Turner and of Harris's slave acquaintances remain unchanged. Harris did, however, replace his own name with that of Joe Maxwell. The first chapters detail Maxwell's childhood in Eatonton, including the circumstances that led him to Turnwold; descriptions of the adjustments to his new job and setting; and colorful sketches of plantation acquaintances, both black and white. The reader is made especially aware of a romanticized portrayal of slavery. On Harris's fictionalized plantation, the slaves are happy, loyal, and well behaved, and they purportedly enjoy comfortable lives, never considering desertion or rebellion. The remaining chapters detail how Turnwold and its residents internalize and adapt to the realities and aftermath of the Civil War.
The ways in which Harris chose to remember his Civil War experience and, in turn, to fictionalize it often do not conform to reality. Many salient aspects of Harris's life on the home front are omitted and/or significantly downplayed, creating an account that does not accord with the memories of most middle Georgians who lived through similar experiences. Although On the Plantation chronicles life on Turnwold during the Civil War years, Harris does not introduce details of the conflict until well into his work, and when he does, they receive cursory treatment. Particularly surprising, considering the magnitude of the event for both whites and blacks, is Harris's scant attention to Union general William T. Sherman's march to the sea. The left wing of Sherman's army—led by General Henry Slocum—did, in fact, raid areas of Putnam County in November 1864. Turnwold was invaded on November 20-21, 1864, and Union soldiers stole horses and other valuables from the plantation. Neighboring properties suffered more extensive damage; however, Harris, through Joe Maxwell, characterizes these invaders as good-natured and sometimes even benevolent. Few, if any, Georgians would have concurred with Harris's depiction of Sherman's troops, and the reader has little sense of the hardships and deprivations that Georgians suffered during the war.
In the final chapters of On the Plantation, after Sherman vacates middle Georgia, Turner frees his slaves. However, in Harris's version of events, most of the Turnwold slaves choose to remain with their master, where "peace and quiet reigned on the plantation." In point of fact, "peace and quiet" most probably never typified Turnwold prior to hostilities and certainly did not typify it afterward; financially ruined by the Civil War, Turner lost his plantation and died in 1868 at the age of forty-one.
While writing On the Plantation and numerous other stories, Harris doubled as an associate editor for the Atlanta Constitution. Along with Henry W. Grady, his close colleague and friend, Harris was a significant voice for the New South. Together, as highly placed journalists, Harris and Grady promoted racial and especially regional reconciliation, hoping to soften northern animosities toward the South. Harris's arguably sanitized portrayal of the Civil War in On the Plantation may have helped to foster some harmony between the North and South at a time when it was most needed.