October 2009

Out of the Briar Patch

Lain Shakespeare revives the Wren’s Nest—and Joel Chandler Harris’s legacy
By Elizabeth Westby

Sometime between 1895 and 1900, the story goes, Joel Chandler Harris used his family’s commode for the first and only time. His children had begged him to outfit their West End home with indoor plumbing, and Harris, ever wary of the technological advances of his day, complied. He gave it one shot and reverted to the outhouse.

More than a century later, you can still wash your hands in that sink, and water still flows from the historic front-yard spigot. As Atlanta’s oldest house museum, home of the Atlanta Constitution associate editor who penned the Tales of Uncle Remus, the building has been open for visitors since 1913. And until recently, it showed its age. Suffering under alternating periods of mismanagement, with a policy that barred blacks until the 1980s, the museum’s problems were compounded by the fact that recent generations have not looked favorably on Uncle Remus, the congenial, slang-using slave narrator of Harris’s stories. When Lain Shakespeare, Harris’s great-great-great-grandson, took over as executive director three years ago, the museum owed $112,000 to nineteen creditors, and Harris’s literary reputation was as dingy and malodorous as the original carpeting in his bedroom. “We were functionally closed,” says Shakespeare, who was then just twenty-three.

Thus began the Wren’s Nest revival, a story in which Shakespeare is a key player but hardly the only one. In a back room of the Queen Anne Victorian, which earned its avian nickname after a family of wrens took up residence in the mailbox, he shares an office with his girlfriend, Amelia Lerner, who among other feats as program director has started a summer publishing program for teens. There are two part-time docents, tasked with taking visitors around the house and pointing out illuminating artifacts such as the framed drawing of Abraham Lincoln. There are five freelance storytellers, who regale school groups with tales of the trickster Brer Rabbit. There’s a board of directors and a long list of donors, chief among them the Watson-Brown Foundation, which helped fund a $190,000 capital improvements project that saw the foundation repaired, the interior cleaned and restored, and the exterior painted an odd but historically accurate shade of mustard.

“I remember [Shakespeare’s] first day; we were sitting there paying the quarterly income taxes with very little money in the account,” says Marshall Thomas, the former longtime board chair. “I said, ‘Let’s see if we can do them together!’” Shakespeare, an English major who’d only recently gotten a credit card, found himself taking a crash course on debt management. But what he lacked in financial know-how he made up for with a mastery of social media. He launched a website and a blog, introducing Uncle Remus to an audience that knows a tar baby as something racist and that’s about it. He posted renovation pictures on Facebook, and the Wren’s Nest Twitter feed offers colorful commentary on other museums: “Looks like [Andalusia Farm] went and got themselves a lil’ ol’ makeover. Papa likey!”

It’s a plot that intrigues on multiple levels: Twenty-something helms museum honoring great-great-great-grandfather. White kid takes over racially loaded business in historic black neighborhood. Two young (and in love!) grads toil away in 139-year-old mansion—and they do have fabulously gothic stories to tell, such as the secret hatch Shakespeare discovered in the attic. “We’re lucky to be a little bit controversial and have a unique story, because it captures people’s imaginations,” says Shakespeare, who by now has cut the debt by two-thirds and more than tripled annual visitation. The exposure also allows him to address a few misunderstandings—to explain that Harris’s dialect stories were above all “a love letter to folklore.” “I don’t want to spout off propaganda, because it’s a complicated legacy, and I think it deserves scrutiny without immediate judgment,” he says. Whether it’s because Shakespeare has caught their attention or because a new generation of readers is willing to view the stories not in black or white but on the terms, however troublesome, of their era, it seems people are listening.

Photograph by Jamie Guy