Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature

Julie Hedgepeth Williams, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature

One of the more eccentric figures in the antebellum South was Joseph Addison Turner, born to the plantation and trained to run one. All he really wanted to do, though, was to be a famous writer―and to be the founder of Southern literature. When the Civil War broke out, he no longer had access to New York publishers, and in his frustration it dawned on him that he could throw a newspaper press into an outbuilding on his Georgia plantation. His newspaper would be modeled on The Spectator, the literary newspaper of the early 1700s by Joseph Addison, for whom Turner was named. The Spectator in its day, and 150 years later in Turner’s day, was considered high literature. Turner carefully copied Addison’s style and philosophy―and it worked his newspaper, The Countryman―the only newspaper ever published on a plantation―was one of the most widely read in the Confederacy.

The Civil War, however, didn’t go as Turner had hoped. Sherman’s army marched through and took Turner’s world with it. His newspaper collapsed. He died a few years after the war ended, thinking he had failed to start Southern literature. 

However, he was wrong. The Countryman’s teenage printer’s devil was Joel Chandler Harris, who grew up to write the first wildly popular Southern literature, the Uncle Remus tales. Turner had taken in the illegitimate, ill-educated Harris and had turned him into a writer. And while Harris worked for the plantation newspaper, he joined Turner’s children at dusk in the slave cabins, listening to the fantastical animal stories the enslaved peoples told. Young Harris recognized the tales’ subversive theme of the downtrodden outwitting the powerful. Years later as a newspaperman, he was asked to write a column in the enslaved vernacular, and he reached back to his days at The Countryman for the slaves’ narratives. The stories not only enthralled readers in the South―but also in the North, particularly Theodore Roosevelt. The Uncle Remus stories were hailed as the reconciler between North and South, and they directly influenced Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Beatrix Potter. Most importantly, Uncle Remus knocked New England off its perch as the focus of American belles-lettres and made Southern literature the primary national focus.   

So, ultimately, Joseph Addison Turner really did found Southern literature―with the help of two other not-so-ordinary Joes, Joseph Addison and Joel Chandler Harris. Julie Hedgepeth Williams tells their story.  

Julie Hedgepeth Williams is a media historian who always favored the media of America’s colonial era until she stumbled across issues of The Countryman in the Samford University archives. Thus began the research that led to the writing of Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes. Williams is the author of two other books, the award-winning A Rare Titanic Family, about her great-uncle who survived the famous shipwreck, and Wings of Opportunity, about the founding of our country's first civilian flying school in Montgomery, Alabama, by the Wright Brothers, both published by NewSouth Books. Williams has published many academic works on the colonial American press. Williams lives in Birmingham and teaches journalism at Samford University. She is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association.  

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