On the surface, the new book by Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes, is the story of the long and winding genesis of literary culture in the post-Civil War American South. One of the “not-so-ordinary Joes” referred to in the title is, after all, Joel Chandler Harris (whose childhood nickname was Joe), author of the Uncle Remus stories that sold astoundingly well both in postwar America and around the world and influenced an entire generation of writers, playing a large role in creating a distinctive Southern literary tradition.
But in addition to that surface story, there's also a deeper narrative thread winding its way through "Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes," a narrative about the unpredictable, often byzantine connections that thread their way from one literary generation to another. In this case, Williams quite delightfully traces this thread through the same name, linking two generations of 19th-century American Southerners with a namesake from 18th-century England, a man who never knew anything about either of them or about the American South itself.
That 18th-century figure is the most famous of the book's trio: Joseph Addison, the essayist and playwright who in 1711 founded The Spectator magazine with his long-time friend and collaborator Richard Steele and quickly began establishing it as a high-water standard of witty and incisive English prose, a revelation of daily style and interest whose ambition was matched and ultimately exceeded by its reach in the literary world. About the ambition, Williams is as charmingly informal when dealing with this legendary figure in English letters as she is with her two other subjects. “Addison was ready to turn the tables and take over as the genius behind the new paper, which he named The Spectator,” she writes. “Dick [Steele] would still be involved, and it would take both of them – the ambition of it! – because whereas The Tatler had been published three times a week, The Spectator would come out daily.” It takes a good deal of quiet confidence in your ability as a storyteller to throw in an exclamation like that “the ambition of it!” – and that ability is in evidence on every page of the book.
The literary reach of Addison and Steele's The Spectator may never be fully mapped, but the journal's reputation was strong enough to prompt a Georgia plantation owner named William “Honest Billy” Turner to name his son Joseph Addison Turner. And despite the three-part arrangement of Williams's book, the heart of the whole story is the life of this middle Joe.
JA Turner was small, wiry, and intensely confident even from his days at school, which he entered only after a protracted childhood illness. According to Williams, he “could never quite see that he was rather conceited about his academic prowess – he was just plain too proud that he had made up for all that lost time from school as a boy." When the South began to secede from the Union and attempt to create its own country, Turner was fired up with, of all things, the literary possibilities. “The Confederacy would be crude and unacceptable to the world until the new nation established itself as a creative power,” he thought. “A nation had to be known for something more than military might. It had to have arts. It needed its own literature.” He decided to help midwife that literature into existence by starting his own newspaper, The Countryman, in a converted outbuilding of his family's Georgia plantation of Turnwold.
Turner's dreams never came true in quite the way he hoped, but in one sense he was more successful than he could have dreamed: When he took in a young “printer's devil,” a boy named Joel Chandler Harris, the boy worked hard, absorbed everything about the literary and printing world (and about the writings of Joseph Addison) that Turner could share, and spent many of his off-hours in Turnwold's slave quarters, listening to the stories the slaves told – strange admixtures of folklore and invention that lodged in Harris's mind and would later become the basis for the Uncle Remus stories that would, in their turn, help to lay a foundation for a kind of Southern literature that could be embraced by North and South alike. As Williams puts it, this was Joel Chandler Harris's “diplomatic mission to an alienated enemy that desperately needed to forget that it had ever been an enemy at all.”
In a way and to an extent now totally forgotten by the reading world, Harris and his Uncle Remus stories were embraced as a “balm for the painful sores still rubbing raw between the two halves of the country.” Despite the delicate and often problematic nature of 21st-century concerns like cultural appropriation and sensitivity, "Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes" will make many readers want to find an unbowdlerized, unsanitized edition of Uncle Remus.
And more than that: Williams's book will make them appreciate all over again how fascinating and unpredictable a course literary inspiration can take. An essay written in a bitter London winter is adoringly read in a steamy-humid Georgia bedroom a century later, and the two give rise to a classic children's book that was read all over the world for another century. We can never know which seeds will take, or where they'll flower.