These works, beloved at the time, have also been maligned as a result of controversy about the racial implications of his works. To this day the term ‘tar baby,’ a character in one of Harris’ most popular tales, has negative connotations.
The Wren’s Nest, the Atlanta museum that houses the Harris legacy, didn’t allow black patrons until it was forced by federal court order in the 1970s. (At the time, the proprietors contended that their policy was not racially discriminatory but that everyone was screened and could be denied entrance to the museum.)
Harris insisted that his sources were genuine and that his documentation of the plot and dialect was accurate. In this way, Uncle Remus goes back in time to African models, as well as to the animal tales of Aesop and Chaucer. Harris helped inspire other writers in the vernacular such as Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain.
Harris also had an impact on other major literary figures to come. Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison all responded to the legacy of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby that Harris had helped popularize. Fellow Eatonton writer Alice Walker protested, however, that Harris had stolen her African-American folklore heritage and had made it a white man’s publishing commodity.
Although Harris disavowed regionalism in art, (he has been quoted as saying “My idea is that truth is more important than sectionalism, and that literature that can be labeled Northern, Southern, Western, or Eastern, is not worth labeling at all”) his writings are unsurpassed in reflecting the Southern environment. His short stories are born of the Georgia soil, his novels echo the strains of the Civil War South, his editorials for the Constitution deal with Southern social and political issues, and, of course, his famed Uncle Remus tales capture the diction and dialect of the plantation blacks while presenting genuine folk legends.
Harris died on July 3, 1908, of acute nephritis and was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta’s West End. Obituary writers called him a Southern voice with a national range.
In 2000 Harris was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.