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Yard sales yield treasures held between the pages of books

Yard sales yield treasures held between the pages of books

Posted: Friday, September 5, 2008 9:17 pm
By: By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter

If you are a hopeless romantic, if you are offended by cruelties, if you are an animal lover, you may want to read the short story, “Free Joe and the Rest of the World.” It’s one of the best ever I read. The last sentence in the poignant narrative evokes a permanent image in my head: “A passerby, glancing at him, could have no idea that so humble a creature had been summoned as a witness before the Lord God of Hosts.” Equally as potent is the last scene. Free Joe — so called because he was once a slave — is seated at the base of a tree in a forest near a Georgia plantation. Author Joel Chandler Harris paints a powerful word picture: “He was dead. His hat was off, his head was bent and a smile was on his face. It was as if he had bowed and smiled when death stood before him, humble to the last. His clothes were ragged … he was shabby in the extreme.” The story is one of 24 that Harris wrote during a 30-year period when he was associated with The Atlanta Constitution. Harris (1848-1908) began his journalism career at age 13 at Turnwold plantation near Eatonton, Ga., where he apprenticed himself to plantation owner and newspaper publisher J.A. Turner. Turner’s weekly, “The Countryman,” is the only newspaper known to have been published on a plantation. Folklore tales told by African slaves on the plantation provided Harris with a rich lore for his many stories, some of which are “Uncle Remus: His Sayings and Songs,” “Tales of the Home Folks in Peace and War” and “The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann.” What are the circumstances that resulted in Free Joe’s death at the big tree? Harris gives us four principal characters — Free Joe; his wife, Lucinda; their little dog, Dan; and evil overseer Spite Calderwood. Free Joe and Lucinda grew up on the plantation, fell in love and ultimately stepped over the broom to become man and wife. Both were still slaves when they married. The plantation owner died. In accordance with his wishes, his man-slave, Joe, was given his freedom. Lucinda remained a slave. The overseer ordered Joe, now known as Free Joe, off the plantation, never to return. Free Joe and Lucinda devised a plan. They would meet in secret. Free Joe would go to a certain poplar tree and wait while Dan went onto the plantation to find Lucinda. The dog’s appearance was the signal that her husband was waiting for her. As soon as she could, she’d slip away and join him for a few hours of happiness. The plan was a good plan. It worked … for a while. Then one day, Lucinda did not come. Nor did she come on many other days when Dan was sent to fetch her. Then one day, Dan did not return. Free Joe was alone. But he refused to give up. Instead, he waited and waited. He was confident Lucinda and Dan would some day be seen and heard coming through the brush. Days became weeks, weeks faded away. Free Joe did not know, he could not know, that old Spite Calderwood had discovered their clandestine rendezvous and had taken Lucinda away to be sold off downriver. He did not know, he could not know, that little Dan had been set up by a pack of hounds and killed. All he knew was that one day they would all be reunited. His was a simple faith and a strong love. Background I first read the story several years ago when I spied a literature book while browsing through wares displayed on a yard sale table. For the princely sum of 50 cents, I acquired a copy of “The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2,” edited by Scully Bradley of the University of Pennsylvania, Richard Beatty of Vanderbilt University and E. Hudson Long of Baylor University, and published by W.W. Norton & Company, New York. Since then, I have acquired two other literature books, each of which cost me 50 cents. One was published in 1915, the other in 1923. They are: • “The Development of the American Short Story” by Fred Lewis Pattee, professor of American Literature at Pennsylvania State College. It covers American literature from the days of Washington Irving in 1799 (thereabout) to O. Henry in 1899. It contains biographies of many writers, including Joel Chandler Harris and Ambrose Bierce. It was Bierce who wrote a scary little Civil War story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I was much amused by some of the notes inscribed on its pages by students who used the book as a classroom text through the years. • “American Literature” by Roy Bennett Pace, assistant professor of English, Swarthmore College. It includes brief biographies and also some of the writings of great literary luminaries such as Cotton Mather (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), Benjamin Franklin (“Poor Richard’s Almanac”) and Edgar Allen Poe (“The Fall of the House of Usher.”) A parting thought I chose the story about Free Joe and the three books as a topic for a reason, a very good reason, it being: Next time you’re out and about, look for a yard sale. You never can tell what you’ll find. Published in The Messenger 9.5.08

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