| 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 |
F all the presents received on that ever memorable
Christmas day, none was more highly esteemed than the
copy of the National Era which was included in
the small bundle of good literature from E. M. and her
mother. Father seemed a little shy of it at first; he
had so long cherished the belief that newspapers were
dangerous things to be admitted into a well-ordered
household that he hesitated before permitting me to
read it. He proceeded, therefore, to examine it himself
in order to see whether there was anything of a
demoralizing tendency in its columns.
His eyes fell first upon the column headed "Latest
Intelligence by Magnetic Telegraph," and his
attention was at once riveted. Sitting beside me on
that Christmas afternoon, with the big printed sheet
spread out before him, he read each item of news aloud
while I looked on with rapt attention. The date at the
head of the first column showed that the paper was
several weeks old, but that did not in the least
distract from its interest.
"It's wonderful," said father, as he finished the
telegraphic column. "Why, here we may sit beside our
own fireplace, safe at home, and know all about what is
going on a thousand miles away! It was not so in my
 Then he examined other portions of the
paper—reading the market reports, the editorials,
the comments on slavery, the advertisements—and
his face glowed with interest and satisfaction. He
glanced critically at some of the more lengthy
articles, to make sure that no poisonous matter was
lurking there under disguise, and finally, refolding
the sheet, he handed it to me.
"What does thee think of it, father?" queried mother.
"Does thee think it is safe to let him read it?"
"I find nothing in it that is not instructive and
true," he answered. "I have long thought that perhaps
Benjamin Seafoam was right when he said that it is
every man's duty to keep himself informed about what is
going on in the world. Thee may remember that he urged
me to become a subscriber to the National Era,
and I have been considering the matter quite seriously
for some time."
"And what is thee goin' to do about it?"
"I must say that I am very much inclined to take his
advice. The Widder Bright showed me several numbers of
the paper one day, and they were all as free from fault
as this one. And Levi Coffin, when I met him at
Larnceburg, assured me that one of the greatest powers
for good in this country is the National Era.
Barnabas Hobbs, when he was here, also advised me to
subscribe for it, because of the bold stand which it
takes against slavery."
"Well, Stephen, if thy mind is clear, thee is at
liberty to do as thee thinks best," said mother
In the meanwhile, I had again unfolded the paper and
was looking at the headings of the various editorial
items and contributed articles. One of these
contributions seemed so different from anything else
that I gave it
 a careful examination. I read a few paragraphs. It was
an account of "life among the lowly"—a story of
slaves and slavery. The beginning of it must have been
printed in an earlier issue of the paper, for here the
reader was introduced into the midst of things and the
chapters were numbered as high as "Six" or "Seven." I
soon got the hang of the narrative, however, and I read
on until I reached the end of the instalment.
"Here's something you'll all want to listen to," I
"What is it?" asked father.
"It's about a slave, named Tom, who read his Bible and
was sold to a wicked trader, and about some other
slaves that were running away to Canada. But the
account stops before it gets to the end."
"What's the name of the piece, Robert?" asked Cousin
Mandy Jane, looking over my shoulder.
I answered by pointing to the story itself. "There it
is: Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly.
Uncle Tom was sold away from his cabin."
"I wonder if it's a true account," said mother, always
a little suspicious of the genuineness of things.
"Mebbe it's one of them there stories that people
sometimes jist make up out of their imaginations."
"It reads like a true account," I answered. "It tells
of things that happened not long ago in Kentucky. If we
only had the beginning and the end of it, I think I
would like it almost as well as Robinson
The next evening, when we were all sitting very close
together before the fire to keep warm—for the
weather was exceeding cold—father spoke up
suddenly and said:
"Robert, suppose thee reads that piece in the
 about Uncle Thomas's log cabin. I think we'd all like
to hear it."
I needed no further invitation, for the thought of thus
furnishing entertainment for the rest of the family
appealed strongly to my vanity. With a little quiver of
pleasurable excitement in my voice I began. I read of
the slave woman's visit to Uncle Tom's cottage, of her
flight across the country with her child in her arms,
of her escape from the bloodhounds, and of her fearful
crossing of the 'Hio River on cakes of floating ice. As
I read, my hearers grew more and more attentive,
anxious, impatient to learn the fate of Eliza, eager to
know more about Uncle Tom—and then, just as the
tension was strongest, came the abrupt ending with the
words, "To be continued."
"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" exclaimed David. "Is that
the eend of it?"
"That's all there is in this paper," I answered; "but
it says it's to be continued, and that means that the
rest of it will be in the next number."
"I'd like to know if that there Lizy acshully got
away," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane.
"So'd I," said Jonathan; "and I'd like to know what
become of good old Uncle Thomas who had that there
cabin. I'll bet he licked that there master of his'n
afore he got through with him."
"No doubt all that will be told in the next number,"
said father; "and I confess that I have some curiosity
about it myself."
"Seems to me," remarked Aunt Rachel, "seems to me that
if we knowed how it all begun, we'd know more'n we do.
This hearin' the middle of a thing and leavin' both
eends off, unsight, unseen, is aggravatin'."
 "That's what I think," said mother. "We don't know who
Lizy was, we don't know why she run off, we don't know
much of anything 'cept that she did run off."
"And 'scaped 'cross the 'Hio," added Cousin Mandy Jane.
"Well, father, what's thee goin' to do about it?"
queried mother. "Thee spoke something about
subscribin'; but if thee don't feel free, maybe we can
borry the next number from the Widder Bright."
"I will take the matter under advisement," answered
father, in his old-time dignified manner. Then, having
taken the paper and refolded it very carefully, he
pushed his chair backward a little and put an end to
the conversation by saying, "David, thee may fetch me
The very next day father carried a dollar to the Widder
Bright, with the request that it be forwarded to Levi
Coffin and by him sent to the proper person, in payment
for a new subscription to the National Era; and
moreover, he borrowed from her the precious earlier
numbers of that paper which contained the opening
chapters of the story. "We'll do as much for thee, some
time," he told her by way of thanks.
In the evening, when we were again assembled, there was
much more reading to be done and we solved the mystery
of "Who was Lizy?" and "What made her run away?" And
when, a little later on, our own paper began to arrive
with some regularity through the new Dry Forks
post-office, we devoted one evening in each
week—generally Seventh-day evening—to
following the varied fortunes of good old Uncle Tom and
his friends and masters.
 "I do wonder if all that really did happen," remarked
mother with some degree of frequency.
And father would invariably answer, "It could have
happened, and it probably did. In any case, the
narrative is founded on facts, and we are at liberty to
believe that it is true."
But our reading—that is, mine and
father's—did not stop with this wonderful serial
story. We read every article in each successive number
of the Era; and besides keeping ourselves well
informed with reference to current events, we gradually
became deeply interested in politics, especially on all
points in which the subject of slavery was touched
upon. As for myself, it was not long until I had
developed into a partisan of the most radical type, and
I wished that I was a man so that I could make myself
heard in the councils of the nation. It seemed to me
that all the good people were ranged together on one
side of the political fence, and all the villains on
the other—and to this day, my dear Leonidas, you
will find a number of grown-up men who cherish the same
My lameness continuing throughout the winter, I was
unable to do anything but sit in the easy chair which
father had made specially for me, and read, read, read.
The floor beside me was usually littered with several
of my favorite volumes, and whenever I grew tired of
perusing one, it was easy enough to reach down and
The little story of The Shepherd-Boy
Philosopher, which E. M.'s mother had so
thoughtfully sent me, was the source of much
inspiration; and if I were to make a list of "the books
that have helped me," I think that I should include it
among the very best. In the first
 place, the book was written in a most attractive
style—a style worthy of its author, the originator
and founder of Punch, which to this day is the
ne plus ultraof first-class humorous journalism.
In the second place, what could be more uplifting than
the story, the true story, of how a little shepherd lad
had educated himself—how, in spite of poverty and
hard knocks and the lack of opportunities, he had made
himself famous among the astronomers and inventors of
Great Britain? For a time, therefore, Jamie Ferguson
was my pattern saint, the model of industry and
perseverance whom I resolved to emulate and imitate. I,
too, would be an astronomer, I would be an inventor, I
would educate myself.
The book on "The Stellar Universe" (also from E. M. and
her mother) was a great help toward forwarding my
astronomical ambitions. It was a thin stiff-backed
little volume, hard to read and still harder to
understand; but the maps were excellent, and I soon
learned how to use them. On many clear winter nights,
mother would wheel my trundle-bed to a convenient place
underneath the northern sky. Then, with the right map
fresh in my memory, I would lie there and imagine
myself Jamie Ferguson, watching sheep on the Scottish
hills and studying the starry heavens. Inviz, now grown
quite steady and thoughtful, would creep under the
bedcovers with me; and with both our heads on the same
little pillow, we would watch the Great Bear circle
around the pole-star while other constellations marched
in orderly procession across our field of vision.
"Ain't it wonderful?" my playmate would exclaim.
"Yes; and to think that they are all so very large and
far, far away! And when Jamie Ferguson lay on
 the cold ground among his sheep, and looked up at them,
he saw them just as we see them now."
"Well, you ought to be thankful that you have so many
more opportunities than Jamie had. Only think of it!
Instead of shivering on the bleak hills as he did, with
all those sheep to take care of, you have nothing to do
but to lie here in this warm trundle-bed while the
stars march past the window. Just see! There is Ursa
Major, and there is Ursa Minor, and there is
And so we kept it up until we both fell asleep. I
learned more of astronomy in that one winter, so long
ago, than I have ever learned since.
With the earliest approach of spring, the tide of
progress in the New Settlement began to make itself
apparent as never before. Father said that it was all
on account of the opening of the railroad through
Dashville, thus bringing the markets to our doors; but
there were, no doubt, other reasons for the great
awakening that was at hand. New settlers were daily
coming our way. All the government lands had been sold,
and now the larger holdings were being divided and
subdivided into farms of eighty or often of forty
acres. New houses were being built, new clearings were
opened, the big woods were fast disappearing. With the
establishing of the post-office at Dry Forks, the
little crossroads had begun to develop into a village.
Strangers who did not speak the plain language were
coming in and building houses; and the monopoly which
Our Society had long held on matters religious was in
danger of serious inroads from the "Methodisters" and
other worldly people.
The spirit of progress, if I may call it so, was in the
 air; it seemed to be getting in the rear of all those
sober, staid, slow-moving people who had been resting
so long in the same notch—getting in their rear
and pushing them along, whether they wished to go or
not. Scarcely a day passed now that we did not see from
one to a score of white-covered movers' wagons plodding
northward or westward along the main highways. Some of
these would stop in our own neighborhood, some were on
their way to the more thinly settled sections of the
state, and many were bound for what was then the
distant West—the Illinois Country, the Missouri,
and the new state of Iowa on the very verge of the
world. These movers had come from many different
localities in the older states—from Ohio and
Pennsylvania and Virginia, but the most of those that
tarried near us were from classic old Carolina or from
Surely, things were waking up; and father when he
observed it, was moved to the frequent repetition of
Bishop Berkeley's famous line:
"Westward the course of empire takes its way."
The state of Indiana, which for the life of a
generation had rested almost dormant, was experiencing
the new birth. Hitherto she had been known chiefly as a
region of mighty forests, of dismal swamps, of
miasmatic streams—a country of backwoodsmen and
"hushers" (hoosiers), of isolated settlements, of
social experiments and of native simplicity and rustic
barbarity. Now she had arrived at the parting of the
ways. A new constitution was going into effect, a
system of free public schools had been provided for and
would soon be established, canal routes were being
improved, railroads were being built, people everywhere
were beginning to have some idea of the vastness of the
 resources that were waiting to be developed in this,
until now, backward commonwealth. The middle ages in
the Middle West were fast drawing to and end; the era
of modern progress was beginning. And the changes that
were taking place in the state at large were reflected
or reproduced in scores of communities or settlements,
and in thousands of humble homes.
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