Author, relatives discuss lives of Eatonton's famous 'Joe's'

 Pictured, from left, at the Sunday at The Museum lecture are Old School History Museum Director Sandra Rosseter, Georgia Writer’s Museum Board Member Paula Benjamin, author Julie Hedgepeth Williams, and Uncle Remus Museum Director Lynda Walker. 

Photo credit: JAMES MURDOCK/Special

As soon as she picked up a copy of The Countryman, Julie Hedgepeth Williams became interested in three famous men of Eatonton’s history and that interest grew into a book.

Williams, a journalism professor at Samford University in Birmingham, spoke about her book, Three Not-So-Ordinary Joes: A Plantation Newspaperman, a Printer’s Devil, an English Wit, and the Founding of Southern Literature at a “Meet the Author” event Sunday, June 10, at Eatonton’s Plaza Art Center.

Williams said she picked up the historical copy of Joseph Addison Turner’s publication in the special collections department at her workplace, and her interest was sparked.

The Countryman was a widely-popular political-type journal published mainly during the Civil War, from 1862-1866, out of Turner’s home, Turnwold Plantation, nine miles outside of Eatonton. 

“I began to read it and thought, wow, this was published at a plantation,” said Williams. 

Her immediate thought was that the Countryman would be an interesting window into the Confederacy and would make a great subject for discussion in her American journalism class. As she continued to read, she came to see this publication as something much more important. 

Williams’ book tells the story of Englishman Joseph Addison, Eatonton-born Joseph Addison Turner, and Joel Chandler Harris, a well-known writer and folklorist, also from Eatonton. Each of these men were connected in some way, and each of them played a role—either directly or indirectly—in the formation of what became modern southern literature. 

Having formerly studied the colonial period in depth for her own thesis work, Williams had been familiar with the famous British writer Joseph Addison. Addison, an early 18th Century essayist, poet, and politician, became famous for co-founding the Spectator, an often satirical political magazine that at one time was the most widely read publication in the English language.

At the time of Joseph Addison Turner’s birth in 1826, the British Addison was still widely discussed in literary circles. As Turner’s parents were educated and well read, they decided to name their son after the well-known literary figure. 

The influence of Joseph Addison on the life of Joseph Addison Turner did not stop there.

“I thought it was funny,” said Williams, “how Joseph Addison Turner would mention Joseph Addison in his writing—he clearly wanted to emulate the Spectator and other journals the British Addison had contributed to.” 

Williams’ real break-through moment and inspiration for her book came when she learned that Joseph Addison Turner had hired a mischievous red-haired 16 year old to be his apprentice and type-setter in 1862. 

Young Joel Chandler Harris was known for playing pranks on townsfolk and could often be found sitting on an old green couch in the town’s post office, reading a magazine or book that he had “borrowed” from someone in the community. 

After he read in the town’s paper that Turner was seeking an apprentice for his new publication, Harris wrote a letter and mailed it to Turnwold. Impressed by the elegance of the letter, Turner went and found Harris at the post office and hired him on the spot. 

Joseph Addison Turner went on to play a major role in the life of Joel Chandler Harris, inspiring him to write and create his own style and giving him the experience as a newspaper publisher that would launch Harris’ lifelong career, most of it spent as a popular columnist for The Atlanta Constitution

The experiences Harris had at Turnwold, listening to the oral traditions of slaves there, inspired the stories of Br’er Rabbit and Uncle Remus, and came to define the literary form of the Briar Patch and for the south beyond. It became a way to preserve a heritage that had never been written down.

“After learning all of this, I was astonished,” exclaimed Williams, “and I began to see Joseph Addison Turner as the father of southern literature—he became the main focal point of my book, and I believe he deserves more notoriety for his contribution.”

Two of Joseph Addison Turner’s descendents, who are also residents to the local area, were present at the event. Carol Grant is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Turner and Mike Wood is his great-great-grandson. 

“It’s incredible for us that this history is being preserved, having grown up hearing stories about him,” said Grant. Wood continued, “It helps to keep his name alive as someone who played a significant part in the founding of southern literature.” 

The talk and subsequent book-signing were jointly sponsored by four Putnam County entities: the Georgia Writer’s Museum, the Old School History Museum, the Uncle Remus Museum and the Eatonton-Putnam Historical Society.

*Story by James Murdock, Eatonton Messenger correspondent

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