A Baptist minister, Hardin (often spelled Harden) Taliaferro (1811-1875) is also one of Alabama's less well-known Old Southwest humorists; he lived in Alabama from 1835 to 1872, a period during which he wrote all of his major works. Although most of Taliaferro's time was consumed with preaching for several congregations and serving as editor for the South Western Baptist, he found time to write humorous sketches that empathetically depicted characters and scenes from both Alabama and his native North Carolina.
Born Mark Hardin Taliaferro on March 4, 1811, in Surry County, North Carolina, Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver") was the eighth child and sixth son of Charles Taliaferro and Sallie Burroughs. Upon moving to Tennessee at 18 years of age in 1829, Taliaferro changed his name from Mark Hardin to Hardin Edwards when he found himself living with a cousin of the same name (as an adult he most often signed his works "H. E."). In Roane County, Tennessee, Hardin lived with his brother and learned the hide-tanning trade; soon after his move, he received a license to preach and began what would become his primary occupation. During his one year of formal schooling at an academy in Madisonville, Taliaferro met Elizabeth Henderson, the daughter of a local printer, whom he married in 1834. The couple had two girls, Nancy and Adelaide.
In 1835, Taliaferro moved to the outskirts of Talladega, Talladega County, which was on the leading edge of the expanding southwestern frontier. There, he set up a tanning yard and began preaching in local churches. In 1838, he was named the pastor of the Good Hope Baptist Church of Talladega. In 1855, Taliaferro joined his brother-in-law, Samuel Henderson, in Tuskegee, Macon County, to edit the South Western Baptist, a weekly journal for Baptist ministers. Although dedicated to the ministry, Taliaferro did not believe himself fully converted until he experienced a vision that he would describe in The Grace of God Magnified (1857). In 1858, Taliaferro became the sole editor and proprietor of the South Western Baptist while continuing to preach; he remained with the journal until 1862.
Taliaferro first began to write prose sketches in 1857. Most of them center on the people and places in his birthplace, Surry County, but several pieces focus on other frontier subjects, particularly in Alabama. Although Taliaferro wrote in the genre that is now called Old Southwest Humor, several important differences exist between his work and that of other such humorists. For instance, Taliaferro wrote about the Upland South rather than the Deep South. Also, much Old Southwestern Humor uses a technique known as a double-frame in which a narrator introduces another narrator who actually tells the story; this double-frame establishes a distance from the second narrator, who is often of lower social standing and a target of the story's satire. In Taliaferro's tales, the double-frame was not meant to distance the reader from the tale. Instead, he attempted to establish a sympathetic relationship between the tale teller, usually a boyhood friend of Taliaferro's, and the audience. Also, rather than being demeaning to the narrator or other characters, Taliaferro's sketches good-humoredly revealed the customs, traditions, and tall tales of his subjects.
Taliaferro published only one collection of sketches, Fisher's River (North Carolina) Sketches and Characters, By "Skitt," "Who Was Raised Thar" (1859), along with several other individual sketches in the Southern Literary Messenger between 1860 and 1863. Although his works may be few in number, they reveal an important facet of southern life in the nineteenth
century not explored by other writers during this time. In 1873, at the age of 62, Taliaferro moved his family back to Roane
County, Tennessee, and opened a small retail store. He died in his home on November 2, 1875.
Works by Hardin Taliaferro
The Grace of God Magnified: An Experimental Tract (1857)
Fisher's River (North Carolina) Scenes and Characters, by "Skitt," "Who Was Raised Thar" (1859)
Anderson-Green, Paula Hathaway. "Folktales in the Literary Work of Harden E. Taliaferro: A View of Southern Appalachian Life in the Early Nineteenth Century." North Carolina Folklore Journal 31 (1983): 65-75.
Coffin, Tristram P. "Harden E. Taliaferro and the Use of Folklore by American Literary Figures." South Atlantic Quarterly 64 (Spring 1965): 241-246.
Craig, Raymond C. "Introduction" to The Humor of H. E. Taliaferro. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Jackson, David K. Foreword. Carolina Humor: Sketches by Harden E. Taliaferro, Author of Fisher's River (N. C.) Scenes and Characters. Richmond, Va.: The Dietz Press, 1938.
Walser, Richard. "Biblio-biography of Skit Taliaferro." North Carolina Historical Review 15 (October 1978): 375-392.
Williams, Cratis D. "Mountain Customs, Social Life, and Folk Yarns in Taliaferro's Fisher's River Scenes and Characters." North Carolina Folklore Journal 16 (1968): 134-152.
A. James Wohlpart
Florida Gulf Coast University
Published August 22, 2009
Last updated October 5, 2009