“I don’t know anything else. You see, I was born in North Georgia, in Dalton, the town that has figured in my books as ‘Darley,’” explained novelist Will N. Harben to a reporter in a 1905 interview.
“So that while I am not one of the people about whom I write—for there is the sharpest line drawn there between the townspeople and the true countrymen still, my childhood and most of my life was spent amid such scenes as I have attempted to portray. Those people and the customs and conditions of their lives are as real to me as your own family life is to you. I cannot help writing about them, because I am thinking of them all the time.
“I get more and more out of it the further I go. And the deeper I go into the lives of these simple people the more I find to wonder at and admire and the deeper I want to go. It is an absorbing study, and my thoughts are so much bound up in it that my life is passed not so much in New York as in North Georgia. You have no idea of the depth of emotion of which these people are capable. You might know them a long time and never guess at the passion slumbering deep down in their souls until some chance occasion revealed to you the storm of feeling that had been sleeping concealed from all the world.
“They are a taciturn people, little given to demonstration, making light alike of their sufferings and their pleasures, but feeling with the full force of an ardent Southern temperament all the time. And their pride, especially their family pride – it is astounding. They are a clannish people, and you would be amazed to find the social distinctions which they observe among themselves. In their way these distinctions are far more fixed and more potent than those of the outside world. They have much ambition, but it is often asleep—lulled into content by the easy life that has been followed by generation after generation. Of course, in the towns this is not so true, and once the ambition of one of these North Georgians is aroused it is a mighty force.
“Yes, we have plenty of moonshiners, and among them are some of the best people there. But you cannot convince those people that they are doing any wrong. They really believe they have a perfect right to make whisky if they wish to, not only a moral right, but a legal right. You see, their sense of justice is absolute, and they believe they are fully within their rights as citizens. They are good people, too; kind, hospitable, and generous. I know them, because I have dealt with them.
“A keen sense of humor is one of their chief characteristics. It is the shrewd humor in these characters that make them so lovable. A group of North Georgians never comes together without this trait becoming apparent. Their conversations overflow with a canny mirth that is irresistible.
“[Abner Daniel] is a type only, a very common type in North Georgia. You can meet possible Abner Daniels sitting around on benches and cracker boxes all through this region. I have listened to the conversation of such men by the hour.”
Will Harben (1858-1919) was one of the most popular novelists in America during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In his thirty books and numerous short stories Harben portrays the mountaineers of his native North Georgia with authenticity and color, though his reputation today suffers from his use of a sentimental romanticism demanded by readers of his day.
“Abner Daniel (1902) made a wide appeal, North as well as South, and really laid the foundation stone of Mr. Harben’s reputation as a delineator of character,” commented critic Annie Booth McKinney in the Library of Southern Literature. “Crude, whimsical, sarcastic, yet good-natured, droll, witty, human, Abner Daniel stands quite apart, and it unlikely that his creator will ever surpass this creation. No one can read carefully any of his stories and fail to be impressed by their underlying sincerity, or fail to rejoice in the crisp humor that seems to be as much a part of old Abner and Pole Baker as the blue is of the sky.”
Sources: North Georgia’s Quaint Folk as a Novelist’s Type, Vivian M Moses, NY Times, August 13, 1905, http://snipurl.com/31fos [query_nytimes_com]
Library of Southern Literature By Edwin Anderson Alderman, Joel Chandler Harris, Charles William Kent, 1909, the Martin & Hoyt Company