| In My Youth|
|by James Baldwin|
|A decidedly different autobiography, originally published under the pseudonym Robert Dudley, eventually revealed to be James Baldwin. A portrayal of life in rural Indiana in the middle of the 19th century it certainly is, but it is so much more. In the words of Mr. Howland, an editor for the original publisher, 'It is difficult to describe just what there is so remarkable about this book, but it is undeniably wonderful. It is literature. It is a strange combination of autobiography and fiction, and records only the simplest happenings -- the life of people in the Indiana backwoods, the primitive life, the commonplace experiences, the visits between neighbors. To tell about it in this way does not make it sound remarkable, yet it is. The style is simple and clear; there is a quiet humor running through it, and in other places the reading brings tears to the eyes.' Ages 10-12 |
THE ANGEL OF THE FACIN' BENCH
 THE meetin'-house at Dry Forks was a long, low frame
structure in the midst of a grove of sugar-maple trees.
My father, Stephen Dudley, had been its chief
architect, master builder and promoter, and there was
no other house in the New "Settlement—or in the
whole world, for that matter—that" stood more
firmly upon its corner-stones or had a finer roof of
shaved shingles above it. It was of that type of
ecclesiastical architecture which prevailed extensively
in the Friendly settlements of the West during the
Middle Ages. The plainness of its exterior was
indicative of the extreme plainness in person and soul
of the worshipers for whose benefit it had been
erected. On the side fronting the road there were two
small windows and two broad doors; on each end there
were one broad window and one small door; and in the
whole arrangement and construction of the building
there had been an eye for use, but certainly not for
The interior was divided into two rooms of exactly the
same size, between which there was a movable partition
(called "the shetters") that was always thrown wide
open on First-days. The room on the right-hand side of
the shetters was for the men and boys; that on the left
was for the women and girls and babies. At the farther
end of each room, three or four tiers of seats were
raised, one above the other, as in a theater. These
 called the "gallery benches" and were occupied by the
"fathers in Israel," the ministers and elders of the
meetin', who sat there overlooking the rest of the
congregation. It was from this gallery also that the
"ministers—when moved by the promptings of the
spirit—delivered" their messages to the meetin'
or addressed their supplications to the Throne.
The first, or lowermost, of the gallery seats was
called the "facin' bench," probably because those who
sat upon it were brought face to face with the
occupants of the first bench for the unofficial
members. It was upon this bench that marriage couples
always sat during the tedious but simple ceremony which
bound them in the bonds of wedlock. Here also sat the
three overseers, the petit officers who looked after
the morals and general behavior of the members whether
young or old. The facin' bench, in short, was the
business "bench—whether it was on the men's side
or the women's side— and" for that reason it was
usually the most interesting seat in the house. The
boys and girls, the young men and young women,
occupied, as a rule, the long benches that were nearest
to the front entrances and at some distance from the
gallery, while the newly married and the sedate
middle-aged men and women sat on the benches nearer the
middle of the room. Even when the shetters were thrown
open, the two sexes were still separated by a strong
wooden railing; and it would have been an act of the
greatest impropriety for a man to set foot in the
woman's apartment or a woman to wander by accident or
design into the precincts reserved for her stronger
partner in life. The rooms, although bare and
comfortless, seemed sacred to plainness and silence,
and the unpainted walls and long stiff-backed benches
 audibly of self-denial and a holy disdain for things of
the world, worldly.
Upon arriving at the meetin'-house, father drove the
wagon to a favorite spot in the sugar-tree gove that
had long been reserved for his exclusive use. With
becoming dignity he leaped to the ground, and then,
without looking round, proceeded to tie the horses to
the swinging branch of a tree. The womenfolks rose
from their seats on the straw and climbed out over the
wheels as best they could. Once safely on the ground,
they straightened their bonnets, brushed the straws
from their clothing, and made ready to enter the house
"Come, Robert!" said father stiffly but not unkindly;
and I leaped over the tail-board of the wagon and
submissively stood beside him. "Robert," he continued,
"I think thee is now quite big enough to take care of
thyself in meetin', as other boys do. So thee may sit
on one of the middle benches, not far from David and
Jonathan; and I shall expect thee to conduct thyself
properly and not fall asleep or make a noise."
I did not know what to say; but I grew half an inch
taller in a moment. During the first two years of my
life, I had sat with mother in the women's gallery; and
during the remainder of my brief span, I had clung
timidly to father's coat tail, shrinking unnoticed
beside him, and feeling myself a mere atom among the
ministers and elders on the top bench of the gallery.
Now, I was at last to take care of "myself—oh,
what an honor!— I" had been long hoping and
looking forward to this time. To sit by one's self in
meetin'! why, it was a mark of approaching big-boyhood,
a recognition of merit, a promotion to a higher grade.
I was so proud of it that I forgot all about Little
 Everything being in readiness, we entered the meetin'
"house—father" at the men's door, mother and Aunt
Rachel at the women's door, Cousin Mandy Jane at the
left-hand front door, and I at the right-hand front
door. Noiselessly and with trembling limbs, I glided
down the narrow aisle between the rows of long benches.
I feared to raise my eyes, for I felt that everybody
was looking at me. I fancied that even the ministers
and elders were passing judgment upon me, and that all
the boys and girls were admiring my figured vest. At
about the middle of the room there was a vacant seat,
and I climbed hastily into it. I knew that David and
Jonathan were a little way in front of me, and I
fancied that they were nudging each other and smiling;
but it was a long time before I had the courage to look
at anybody or anything.
How still the big room was! Why, I could almost hear
my heart thump underneath that wonderful little vest.
I knew that there were more than fifty persons seated
around me, and yet the silence was so profound that I
could easily imagine myself alone. Then, at length,
Inviz came down the aisle and climbed up beside me.
"It's nice to be a good boy and sit very still in
meetin', ain't it?" he said.
"Yes, I want to be good, and still I would rather be at
home," I confessed.
"Well, it was very wicked for thee to throw that stick
of "kindling—" "
Oh, that my invisible playmate, my dearest friend,
should thus become my accusing angel!
Presently I distinguished a slight noise, like that of
a gnawing mouse, somewhere on the other side of the
aisle. I looked timidly in that direction, and saw
that it was
 made by Little Enick, who was cutting his initials in
the back of the bench before him. He was not looking
at me, and the thought gave me courage. I raised my
head and glanced toward the men's gallery. There sat
my father, and Old Joe Sparker the minister, and Levi
T. Jay and all the other pillars of Our Society, just
as I had seen them sitting scores and scores of times
before. Their hats were on their heads, their hands
were folded on their knees, their eyes were directed
downward or fixed on vacancy, their minds were occupied
with heavenly things. My eyes fell a little, and I saw
the three overseers on the facin'
"bench—saintly," self-conceited, bigoted
creatures, who in other times and at other places would
have been holy inquisitors or perhaps only second-rate
modern detectives. And, then, just above these men of
importance, I saw Old Enoch Fox, his piercing yellow
eyes directed full upon me as though they would look me
through and through. The shivers ran down my back, and
had the Old Feller himself suddenly appeared in the
midst of the meetin', I could not have been more
disconcerted. I shuffled half-way round in my seat and
directed my attention to the near-by floor and my ten
"It was very wicked to throw that stick of kindling,"
said Inviz; "and now let us try to think of good
things, so that we may grow to be good also and be
prepared to go to the good place."
But try as I might, I could not center my mind on any
particular subject. I thought of Little William's
clothes, and wondered why they had not attracted more
attention from the young people around me. I thought
of my own growing self-importance, and wondered that no
one else had discovered my peculiar greatness. I
thought of my books, which I had read through and
 through until I could repeat whole pages from memory;
and I "wished—oh, how I wished!—that" some
good angel would now bring me a new one with pictures
in it. I would have prayed for it, but I was not used
At length, the silence continuing and my courage
reviving, I raised my eyes again and looked over into
the women's end of the meetin'. Yes, there was mother,
sitting on the top bench of the gallery, in the place
that was best suited to one so good, so long-suffering
and so kind. Her eyes were downcast, her face seemed
care-worn and sad, and I wondered if she were really
seeing visions and communing with the invisible angels.
Next to "her—yes, too close by half—sat"
Margot Duberry, that saintly woman who had once given
me over to the Old Feller and thereby won my lasting
antipathy. Coarse-featured, ignorant, claiming to be
inspired from on high, the sight of her filled me with
a feeling of "disgust—but" now she was looking at
me, and I turned my eyes to another part of the room.
Far over, near the women's door, alone, sat good old
Aunt Rachel, her sharp gray eyes funnily encircled by
the big brass rims of her spectacles, and her thin lips
seeming thinner than ever, being now deprived of the
familiar pipe stem. No doubt she was thinking of good
and holy things, just as every person ought to do in
"Yes," whispered Inviz suddenly, "that's what every
person ought to do, and so why don't thee do it? Why
don't thee turn thy thoughts inward instead of allowing
them to wander all about the meetin'-house?"
"Thee's right, Inviz," I answered; and I closed my
eyes, and for a full minute tried with all my might to
get some glimpse, however faint it might be, of the
Inner Light that lighteneth every man.
 Out-of-doors, everything was beautiful and
"cheering—the" earth, the sky, the woods and
farms, all were filled with life and joy. In the
meetin'house everything was dull and coarse and
undomfortable. I fancied that if I were free and alone
in the open air, with the voices of nature singing in
my ears, I should certainly be much nearer to the good
place than was possible within these bare ugly walls.
The spirit of rebellion was again rising hot within me,
and my invisible playmate sympathized with me and
stirred up evil thoughts in my mind.
"Don't thee hate this dry silent meetin'?" he asked
"It's awful, awful tiresome," I answered; "and yet I
like this silence better than the noise of some people
trying to preach."
"Well, the hour is nearly gone," said Inviz, "and I
guess nobody will try it to-day. But it was very
wicked of thee to throw that stick of kindling wood."
Suddenly I was roused from my rambling thoughts by
hearing a rustling of garments in the women's gallery
closely followed by a shuffling of feet in all parts of
the house. I looked up. Yes, there was Margot Duberry
on her knees, her eyes tightly closed, her hands
clasped and raised toward Heaven. I knew at once that
she had been moved to offer supplication. The men and
women and young people had all risen to their feet, as
was their custom, and were turning their faces away
from the place where t6he supplicatress was kneeling.
I slipped quickly down from my high seat, and
reverently followed the example of my elders. Why was
it that we must always stand when some one prayed? Why
must we refrain from even looking toward the person who
was addressing the Throne of Grace? My infantile mind
had long ago solved these perplexing
ques-  tions. We stood up in order to show our reverence to
the great Unseen Power who was being invoked; and we
turned our faces away lest, seeing the angel who had
come down to receive the petition, we might be
committing an unpardonable sin.
With bowed head and humble heart, I stood and listened
while Margot Duberry, in singsong falsetto tones,
offered much information and advice to the Almighty.
All my dislike of the woman was for the moment
forgotten. Then, as she proceeded, I began to wonder
why it was a sin to look at the angel. Did Margot
herself see him? Or was she simply conscious of his
presence, just as I was often conscious of the presence
of Inviz? In the Bible I had read many stories of
angels making themselves visible, and many persons had
looked into their faces without suffering any
disastrous results. Why, therefore, might not these
heavenly messengers show themselves also to us of the
Dry Forks meetin' in the New Settlement? I wondered if
I might turn my head just a "little—just" enough
to see the tip of one white wing as it hovered over the
women's gallery. Would I be stricken with blindness?
"I think thee might risk it," whispered Inviz. "It
won't be very wicked."
It was a fearful moment. I felt that I was being
tempted to commit a sin, and yet the desire to see an
angel was overpowering. But just as I had made up my
mind to take a sly peep, no matter what the
consequences, the voice of the supplicatress suddenly
dropped, and she uttered the concluding formula,
assuring the Almighty that if He would only grant what
we asked, He would be rewarded by receiving "the glory,
the honor, and the praise forever, amen." The prayer
 there was another shuffling of feet, another rustling
of homespun garments and all the meetin' sat down
again. The angel had flown to Heaven with the message.
I had been too late by half a second, and the delay had
probably saved my soul!
I climbed up and readjusted myself on the comfortless
bench. I looked at father; he was wrapped in deepest
meditation. I look at mother; she seemed not in the
least affected, although the angel must have been very
close to her. Then something at the foot of the
women's gallery attracted my notice, and as I turned my
eyes I was so astounded that I almost fell from my
There, on the women's facin' bench, in plain sight of
everybody, sat the angel!
At any rate, if it was not an angel it was something
very much like one. The face was that of a little
girl, only a thousand times prettier and sweeter than
anybody could tell or even so much as think about. And
around that face there was a framework of brownish
golden curls that reminded me of the sunlight when it
streams through the smoke-filled air of an Indian
summer day. Above these curls, resting lightly on the
angelic head, was something in the shape of a
"hat—a" white straw hat of wonderful workmanship
and most delicate texture. It was partly covered with
ribbons, gaily colored; and on one side of it were two
great feathers, larger by half than the biggest turkey
feather I had ever seen.
I gazed and wondered. In all my short and
circumscribed life, I had never known a girl or woman
to wear a hat. It seemed impossible. Every girl in my
little world wore a calico sunbonnet, made very plain,
and sometimes pink, sometimes blue, or sometimes brown,
as her mother might choose. Did angels wear hats?
Cer-  tainly no person but an angel could possess a
head-dress so perfectly magnificent as that which was
now claiming my admiration.
I was fascinated, entranced, enraptured. My gaze dwelt
upon the shoulders, the arms, the hands of the
mysterious creature. How white were those hands, how
delicate, how small! And surely the sunlight was
beaming from one of the fingers.
I looked at her dress. It was a marvel of beauty,
surpassing the finest linsey-woolsey that had ever been
woven on mother's loom. It was of many rare colors,
and I fancied that I could hear it rustle like the
silken strings on mother's First-day bonnet. But, ah
me! the goods must have been very, very costly; for the
dress was cut scandalously short. All the girls in the
New Settlement, little or big, wore dresses which came
to their ankles; and I blushed when I observed that
this angel's dress reached only a little way below her
This was not so bad, however, as it might have been;
for the creature wore the whitest and stiffest
pantalettes that you ever saw, and she had on shoes and
"stockings—yes," real shoes and stockings,
although the weather was so warm. The shoes were laced
high up, and they shone as if newly greased; and the
stockings were of a beautiful color, harmonizing with
the angel's dress.
And then my gaze wandered back to that heavenly face,
and I thought that I should never see enough of it.
Although my mind inclined to accept everything, believe
everything, yet my better judgment told me that this
wonderful creature was really not an angel, but a
child, a little girl from some remote part of the
"world—perhaps from ungodly Nopplis or the
distant 'Hio Country—where" people dressed
differently from the plain
 folks in our settlement. Perhaps she was a princess,
the daughter of a king; or maybe she was the child of
some very worldly person who had been miraculously
directed to our meetin', to the salvation of her soul.
I had read of such things.
Timidly, but persistently, I gazed at her angel-like
features, and then reluctantly turned my eyes away only
to glance at her again and again and again, to make
sure that she had not flown away. I forgot the
hardness of the bench upon which I was sitting, I
forgot Little William's gorgeous clothes, I forgot
everything save that beautiful vision and the wonder
and delight that filled my boyish heart.
How long I sat there, entranced, motionless, I can not
tell; but it seemed only a few minutes until I was
brought to my senses by a general movement of the boys
and young men in my immediate vicinity. I looked up.
Father, in his seat at the head of the meetin', was
shaking hands with Levi T. Jay, who sat next to him on
the top bench of the men's gallery. Others of the
ministers and elders were also shaking hands. It was
thus that "the meetin' was "broke"—that" is, the
hour of silent waiting was brought to an end and the
congregation was dismissed.
The men and women rose silently and with one accord,
and began to pass out through their respective doors of
exit, greeting one another with nods and handshakes on
the way. The boys clattered noisily along the aisle to
the front door, grinning at me as they
"passed—some" in a friendly manner, some
derisively. Certain of the older people also gazed
curiously in my direction, attracted no doubt by the
clothes which I wore. Then Jonathan, seeing me linger,
held out his hand as he
 passed, and whispered, "Come, Towhead, the meetin's
broke! It's time to go home."
As I climbed off the seat, I cast a last lingering
glance toward the women's facin' bench. Ah! I was
right, and the angel was only a little girl, after all.
All the young women and several of the older ones were
gazing at some object that was just passing out through
the western door. It was my angel, and she was being
led by an elderly woman Friend whom I had seen many
times before. The next moment she had disappeared, and
the world seemed suddenly empty. With downcast eyes,
lest some one should speak to me, I glided out of the
house and through the throng of men and boys, and
hastened to the place where our wagon was standing.
I climbed up and sat in my place on the straw,
anxiously waiting for father and the womenfolks. They
were a long time coming, for they must needs linger
about the doors to exchange friendly greetings with all
their acquaintances. This after-meetin' hour was the
time of times for pleasant social intercourse, and
there were few who did not avail themselves of the
opportunities which it offered.
The middle-aged men talked about their corn-planting
and the miserable state of the weather, the price of
pigs and of seed potatoes, and the general wickedness
and shiftlessness of their neighbors. The elders had
weightier matters upon their minds. They talked of the
slavery troubles, of the means whereby to maintain a
"monthly-meetin' school," and of the dangerous
tendencies of the times; and they specially deplored
the increasing influx into the Settlement of worldly
people and persons not in unity with Our Society.
The women, likewise, had many interesting things to
 discuss in their own brief and simple way. With many
warm greetings and handshakings, they gathered in small
groups and gave themselves up to gossip of a sort that
would now seem very strange to their
great-great-great-granddaughters. They talked about
their spinning and weaving and sewing, their success in
raising chickens and in making butter and soft soap,
and the prospects for a sickly summer and a fat
graveyard. They admired severally and individually the
many babies that were present, and discussed the
various ailments to which childhood is so unfortunately
prone. They exchanged recipes for cough sirup,
extolled the efficacy of goose grease in cases of
croup, and slyly whispered in one another's ears the
latest savory bit of neighborhood scandal. Such was
the dessert which followed the substantial meal of an
hour's silent waiting in "meetin'— and" everybody
The young men, among whom were our David and Jonathan,
assembled in a small group on the shady side of a log
heap, and discussed the last general coon hunt and
probable depth of the water in the old swimmin' hole.
Most of the smaller boys hung close to their fathers'
coat tails, looking sheepishly at one another and
saying not a word. A few of the bolder ones,
"however—gawky, shoeless, unmannerly fellows of
my own age—came" together under one of the trees,
where they chewed slippery elm, and swapped knives, and
talked about their sisters' fellers.
And these sisters, where were they? They were
circulating among the older women, joining in the
gossip, and modestly repeating the latest rumors of
marriage and giving in marriage. (My dear Leona, 'twas
ever thus since the days of Eve; 'twill continue thus
till the last
 trumpet shall announce the futility of maidenly hopes,
the end of earth's desires."
The little girls, of whom there were several, stood in
close proximity to their respective mothers, silently
admiring one another, and ready at the slightest
provocation to hang their heads in bashfulness and
fear. How I hated the sight of them with their long
coarse gowns, their ugly little sunbonnets, their fat
red hands, and their bare and brier-scratched feet!
But just as Inviz and I were whispering our feelings of
disgust, lo! my Angel of the Facin' Bench flitted for
one brief moment within the sphere of my vision. She
was seated in a brightly-colored wagon with her elderly
companion and a strange man whom I had not seen before;
and so swiftly was the wagon being driven away from the
place, that I had scarcely time to notice its occupants
ere it had disappeared among the trees at the forks of
I thought of Elijah's chariot of Israel and the
horse-man thereof," and I fancied that my angel was
riding back to Heaven in a cloud of glory. But while I
was in the midst of my dreaming, our womenfolks arrived
and climbed into the wagon beside me; and father also
coming quite soon, the ride homeward was begun.
That evening as I was helping Cousin Mandy Jane with
the milking, I felt that I could not live another hour
without unburdening my mind and taking some one into my
confidence. So I boldly broached the matter, and said:
"Cousin Mandy Jane, did thee ever see an angel?"
"Shucks, no! what a silly question!" she answered.
"Thee knows that nobody don't see angels, nowadays.
'Twas only in the Bible that they showed themselves."
 "Well I don't care," I said; "but I seen an angel
"to-day—a" real live angel. I seen it at
"Sakes alive, Robert! Thee's up to thy fibbin' ag'in.
I'll tell mother, and she'll give thee another
"I'm telling the truth, Cousin Mandy Jane. I seen an
angel just as plain as I'm seeing thee now; and I
wasn't in a dream, either."
"Robert, I tell thee what, thee cain't stuff me with
sich truck as that. But if thee raally thinks that
way, tell me what the angel looked like."
I fancied that she was beginning to understand, and I
answered bravely but briefly:
"Well, she was kind of smallish; and there was
something on her head that looked like a hat; and she
wore a streaked and striped dress; and she had shoes
and stockings on her feet; and her hair was so long
that it hung clean down her back, all fluffy like."
"Where was she when thee seen her?" asked Cousin Mandy
Jane, milking very fast.
"On the women's facin' bench!"
Cousin Mandy Jane laughed till the tears stood in her
"And so thee thought that was a angel, did thee?" she
cried. "Oh, what a ninny thee is! Why, that was
Esther Wilson's little granddaughter. An
"angel?—Sakes" alive, no!"
What's her name? Does thee know?"
"Oh, it's a queer-soundin' name that I never heerd
afore. "Tain't no Scripter name. Sounds like the
garden that Adam was "in—Eden;" but it ain't
I hazarded a guess: "Edith?"
"Yes, that's it. "Edith—Edith" Meredith. Ain't
that a funny name?"
 " 'Tis kind of funny," I answered. "Edith Mer-edith!
It ought to be Edith Merry Edith. I wonder where she
"Well, now, they do say that her father is rich, and
that they've jist come from some big town, way off, and
he's goin' to start a store over to Dashville. Oh,
everybody was talkin' about it at meetin',"
"I wonder if she belongs to meetin'," I said; a great
fear taking hold of my heart.
"Well, I don't reckon so," answered Mandy Jane. "She
wouldn't belong to our meetin' very long with all them
there feathers and furbelows and silks and satins stuck
on to her. It's my 'pinion that her father's a mighty
worldly man and her mother ain't much better."
I kept on with my milking, and the subject was dropped.
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