| 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 |
NE afternoon in haying time, a dreadful thing happened
at our house. The fire went out.
It had been our custom to depend upon Aunt Rachel for
the conservation of that useful article of household
economy. She it was who covered the fire at night. She
it was who always saw that there were glowing embers
somewhere in the ashes, ready to be fanned quickly into
flames. To her an occasional red-hot coal to drop into
her pipe was a necessity scarcely second to the
satisfying weed itself. So long, therefore, as she was
sitting daily in her favorite corner we knew that the
fire was being properly cared for. But now she had gone
to Wayne on a summer's visit among relatives, and the
guardianship of the hearth had devolved upon Cousin
"Be sure that thee don't let the fire go out," was Aunt
Rachel's parting injunction.
But Cousin Mandy Jane did let it go out.
It happened, as I have said, one day in haying time.
Mother was busy in the weavin'-room, finishing a piece
of linsey-woolsey upon which she had been engaged, at
odd times, now many weeks. All the rest of us were in
the meadow, raking and pitching the newly-mown hay, and
getting it ready for the stacking that must be done on
the morrow. At the dinner table all the talk had been
about the heaviness of the grass, the difficulty of
 cutting it and the admirable manner in which it had
been cured without a drop of rain falling on it. Then
the boys began to tell of Cousin Mandy Jane's great
skill in pitching and raking.
"I tell thee what," said David, waxing warm in his
praises, "she can do 'most half as much as a man when
it comes to puttin' up windrows. And that's purty good
for a gal."
"Well, it's my 'pinion," said Jonathan, "that if she
didn't have to be clogged with that there long dress of
her'n, a-floppin' about her knees, she could
e'en-a-most git ahead of thee—and thee thinks thee
can do all of a man's work, don't thee?"
"Thee'd better keep thy 'pinions to thyself," responded
David half angrily. "Mandy Jane can do right smart when
she tries, but I can put up two windrows to her one,
"I'd like to see thee do it," said Jonathan.
Cousin Mandy Jane smiled in that queer little,
thin-lipped way of hers which always indicated that her
mind was made up. And when the boys had finished their
meal and left the house, she whispered to me: "Jist
thee watch. I'll show that there lazy David what a gal
can raally do when she buckles herself to it. Thee'll
see a right smart lot of fun, I reckon."
She hurriedly washed the dishes, tidied the room, put
on her blue sunbonnet, and rake in hand followed the
boys down to the meadow. In her great haste and
pre-occupation of mind, the fire, which was burning low
on the hearth, was forgotten.
"Now, David, I guess thee'll have to hump thyself,"
said father, his face glowing with anticipation.
And truly it was a "humping" time that followed.
 While father mowed around the stumps and I followed
him, to spread the newly-cut grass, the big boys
competed with Cousin Mandy Jane in the making of
windrows of the cured hay. The pitchforks and rakes
moved with astonishing celerity, the windrows grew
rapidly, and ere the sun had sunk to the level of the
western tree-tops, the whole meadow was striped with
long piles of hay extending from the northern fence to
the southern. But never once had either David or
Jonathan been able to "git ahead" of Cousin Mandy Jane;
her windrow was not only always the biggest, but it was
invariably the first one finished.
At length the race was ended, for there was no more hay
to be raked, and all sat down in the shade of some
willows to rest.
"I reckon thee thinks thee's quite some," muttered
David, as he wiped his steaming face upon his
shirtsleeve; "but thee ain't nothin' but a gal,
"Well, I'd rather be a gal every day in the year than a
big hunk of a clodhopper like thee," retorted Cousin
Mandy Jane, fanning herself with her sunbonnet.
"And where's thy two windrows to her'n one?" queried
Jonathan who had greatly enjoyed the sport.
"Thee needn't to say nothin'," answered David, waxing
angry. "While thee was a-lickin' to it with all thy
might, I wasn't more'n half tryin'."
"Well't seems to me thee was strainin' right smart, not
to be a-tryin'," said Mandy Jane. "I s'pose thee was
afeard to let thyself out for fear thee'd bust
Nobody knows what further words of homely compliment
and suggestion might have been uttered had not father
quietly put an end to the discussion.
"I am afraid, boys, that we may have rain before
 morning," he said. "So, after you've rested a little
while, we three will set to work and pile up these
windrows into haycocks that will turn the water. It's
always best to be on the safe side, when it comes to
saving hay; and it still lacks two good hours to
"And what shall I do?" queried Cousin Mandy Jane.
"I think thee had better go home, now, and get the
supper ready, and do the milking. And Robert, he can go
along with thee, to help with the cows and carry in the
wood. For it will be quite late when we finish here."
And so, to my inward joy, we two wended our way
"Didn't I make them two boys hump it?" queried she; but
I was too busy thinking of other things to venture any
We reached the head of the lane and entered the yard,
passing under the cherry trees which were now laden
with crimson fruit. We heard something—thump! thump!
thump! It was the old loom, pounding away as usual in
the weavin'-room. Mother was busy at her task. She had
not left the weaver's bench a moment during the whole
of that summer afternoon. The sound seemed suddenly to
remind Cousin Mandy Jane of something in the cabin. She
ran quickly to the door, looked in and then uttered a
screech which brought mother out of the weavin'-room in
a high state of alarm.
"What in the world is the matter?" she cried. "Does
thee want to skeer me to death?"
"Lands' sake!" answered Cousin Mandy Jane. "I jist
believe the fire's gone out. I was in sich a hurry when
I went to the medder that I clean forgot to kivver it."
 "Look in the ashes," said mother rather soothingly;
"maybe thee'll find a little live coal or two that
hain't gone with the rest, and thee can fan it to a
Mandy Jane took the fire shovel and tossed the ashes
this way, that way, every way, but no glowing cinder
could she find. The hearth itself was cold.
"There ain't a drap of fire in the whole fireplace,"
she cried. "Every spark and splither of it's clean gone
"Well, I must say that thee was rather careless not to
tend to it before goin' to the medder," said mother in
tones of mild reproof. Then she took the shovel in her
own hands and made diligent search among the ashes, but
all to no purpose.
"Maybe thee might find a little fire in one of the old
log heaps down in the deadenin'," she suggested.
"Oh, no!" answered Mandy Jane. "The boys hain't had no
fire in the deadenin' not since the big rains put 'em
out jist after corn-plantin'."
"Well, then, thee'll jist have to wait till father
comes, and he'll kindle a new fire with his steel and
tinder; and that will make supper purty late," said
"Yes; and the boys, they'll have it back at me, too;"
and Cousin Mandy Jane began to cry. "I beat 'em at the
rakin'; but they'll crow when they hear about the fire.
And David, he'll be throwin' up to me about bein' a
gal, wussun ever."
"Oh, well, I wouldn't mind that," said mother
soothingly. "It's a purty good thing to be a gal
sometimes; specially when it ain't convenient to be a
"I wish we had some of them things they use down in the
"Hio Country to make a fire," sobbed Cousin Mandy Jane.
"They are little wooden splinters with a drap of
 brimstun on one end; and when the brimstun is rubbed
hard acrosst a stone or somethin', it blazes right up
and makes a fire. Mahaly Bray, she was tellin' me of
'em; and I wish I could remember what the folks down
there calls 'em—some kind of a Lucy thing or other."
"They call 'em Lucifer matches," said mother. "Sich
things is good enough for quality folks, but they're
too expensive for pore people to use. Now, I've jist
thought of a plan that I think will set things right,
and the boys needn't never know a word about the fire
goin' out. The sun's two hours high, and there'll be
plenty of time; and thee can have supper ready when the
men-folks come up from the medder."
"But how can I cook the supper without any fire?" asked
"Thee cain't," said mother; "but we'll get some fire.
There's Robert at the door. He can run over to Enoch's
and borrow some. It won't take him more'n an hour, and
then thee'll have plenty of time. Thee can get
everything ready while he's gone—slice the meat and
put it in the skillet, scrape the taters, skim the
milk, mix the dough for the dodgers, and set the table.
And if I was thee, I would have the wood and the
kindlin's all ready jist to drap the live coals in
among 'em. Then thee can go right ahead and do the
cookin' before the men folks know anything about it."
"It's a good plan, if Robert will only go for the
fire," said Cousin Mandy Jane, much pleased; and she
looked at me with an expression like that of a
candidate on the day before election.
"Oh, he'll go," said mother, with a smile which I
thoroughly understood. "Here, Robert, take this little
iron kittle and run over to Enoch's as fast as thee
 and ask 'em to lend us a little fire, and we'll pay it
back when their'n goes out. Come, now, hurry!"
If she had asked me to walk into a nest of bumblebees,
I would have been much better pleased. Enoch Fox was
our nearest neighbor; but he was a very old and very
hard man of whom I had always felt great fear.
Moreover, there were six grown-up young women at his
house, and a scapegrace son, called Little Enick, the
mere thought of whom was wont to make my heart sink
within me. Nevertheless I dared not refuse to obey my
mother; I had not even the courage to tell her of the
feelings of undefined dread which almost overpowered
me. I took the little iron kettle in my hand, turned
quickly away to hide the tears that were starting in my
eyes and ran out of the yard.
"That's a good boy," mother called after me. "No don't
let the grass grow under thy feet."
The distance to Enoch Fox's house was not much more
than half a mile; but the way thither was through the
densest of dense woods, and the only road was a narrow
winding foot-path so seldom traveled that in places one
had to look closely in order to follow it. In no
courageous mood, I ran across our sheep pasture,
climbed the dividing fence and the next minute was
threading my way along the tortuous path. As soon as I
was well hidden from sight among the trees and
underbrush, I slackened my speed, and Inviz came out of
the bushes and walked by my side.
"I wouldn't hurry, if I was thee," he said.
"No, I don't think I shall," I replied. "There's plenty
of time, and Cousin Mandy Jane can wait for her fire."
"It was all her fault, anyhow," said Inviz. "If she
 had covered the coals with ashes before going to the
meadow, this wouldn't have happened."
Presently we heard a squirrel chirping among the trees
at some distance from the path, and we made a long
detour in order to see him. We satisfied ourselves that
he was a fox squirrel and not a gray squirrel, and then
with some difficulty regained our bearings and returned
to the path. Everything was so pleasant, there in the
woods; the air was cool and fresh, and there were
robins and jay birds and woodpeckers in great numbers
among the trees. We stopped often to examine some
unusual object or to listen to some strange sound; and
I was never once afraid, for Inviz had his arm around
me, and I could feel his sweet breath on my cheek.
"Everything is very, very beautiful," he said. And for
the moment I forgot all about my errand and the
dreadful Enoch, and gave myself up to the intensest
enjoyment of the scene and the occasion.
"See those pretty things over there, close by the papaw
bushes," I said.
"Oh, yes, I think they are moccasin flowers," answered
Inviz; and we raced thither to see and admire the
somewhat rare and beautiful although gaudy flowers of
the wild. I was about to pick one of them from its
stalk, it was so enticing, but Inviz held my arm.
"Let it alone," he said. "It is happy here, where God
has put it, and if thee breaks its stalk it will grow
sick and die."
So I contented myself with looking at the flowers, and
counting them, and noting the variations in color and
form—and by and by I reluctantly bade them all
farewell and strolled slowly onward toward Old Enoch's.
And now the path skirted the edge of a small
button-  wood swamp, where frogs were croaking, and strange shadows
were moving among the tangled bushes, and everything
seemed to speak of loneliness and terror. There was a
splashing in the dark water near an old rotten log, and
the shivers ran down my back as I thought what a good
place this was for the Old Feller to lie in wait for
"It was only some turtles sliding off the log," said
Inviz; and I distinctly saw one of them floundering
along through the black ooze.
"Yes, but I'm afraid," I said. "Let's hurry."
"I shouldn't like to be here after night," said Inviz.
And then we ran as fast as we could away from the
The woods became rapidly thinner, and then a small
clearing appeared, and a high rail fence, and beyond it
Old Enoch's orchard. I was quite out of breath with
running, and as I climbed over the fence I noticed with
dismay that the sun was almost down. There must be no
more loitering for me; I must boldly beard the lion in
his den and then hasten home.
The orchard was not a large one, and on the farther
side of it, at the end of a lane, stood the house, a
long, low log cabin with two doors. Everything was very
quiet, and but for the smoke that was curling from the
chimney I would have thought that nobody was at home. I
crossed the lane and crouched trembling beside the
gate. I heard the rattle of pots and tin pans inside
the house, and soon saw some one walking about the
"It's Becky Fox," said Inviz. "It's Old Enoch's wife,
and she's getting the supper ready. She's all alone."
 "Good! good!" I answered. "How lucky! I'm not afraid of
I straightened myself up, tightened my grasp on the
bail of the little kettle, and reached up to lift the
latch of the gate—and then, oh, horrors! I heard a
rushing of feet and a strange clattering, and the next
moment saw Old Enoch coming up the lane behind me with
a pitchfork and two rakes on his shoulder. He was
walking very fast, as was his habit; and behind him in
goosemarch line followed the six young women, some
carrying scythes, some rakes, and the last one an
earthen jug. As he came striding toward me, I shrank
into the shadow of the gate-post, and wished—oh, how
I wished—that I could be like Inviz, unseen,
unrecognized, my presence unsuspected.
But there was no escaping the sharp eyes of Enoch Fox.
In spite of all my shrinking, which must have been
considerable, he saw me and quickened his steps. I
stood speechless, helpless, feeling that my doom had
come. He threw the rakes over the fence, and with the
pitchfork in his left hand, came forward to greet me
with his right.
"Howdy, Robert! howdy!" he said, extending his great
I tried to make some sort of reply, but my tongue stood
still. The old man's words were gentle, he looked at me
kindly, he surely meant me no harm.
"How's thee and thy folks?" he asked.
My tongue was loosened. "Oh, we're purty well," I said.
"How's thee and thine?" This was the formula which I
had heard thousands of times from others, and which I
believed to be the correct thing on such occasions as
 "I'm toll'ble," answered Enoch in a peculiar,
long-drawn-out, saintly tone; "and all the rest is
He lifted the latch and opened the gate, saying, "Come
into the house a spell."
He led the way to the cabin door, and I followed him,
somewhat reassured, but wondering what would happen
Just as I put my foot upon the door-step there was a
sudden rushing behind me and a fearful barking and
snarling that sent my heart clear up into my throat. I
leaped forward with a scream and landed on my hands and
knees in the middle of the room. There was a great
sound of laughter just outside the door, and more
snarling and savage barking; and a kind motherly woman
who I knew was Becky Fox, lifted me gently to my feet
and bade me not to be afraid. I looked and saw Little
Enick standing by the door and holding a huge yellow
dog by the collar. He was laughing uproariously, and
encouraging the dog by saying, "Sick 'im, Bull! sick
'im, Bull! Ketch the little Towhead."
"Don't thee be afeard," said Old Enoch, quietly
lighting his pipe. "Old Bull, he won't hurt nobody; and
Little Enick, he's jist in for havin' some fun. Take a
cheer, and set down."
I seated myself on a stool as far from the dog as
possible, holding the precious little kettle between my
knees. Notwithstanding Old Enoch's words of assurance,
I expected to be devoured at any moment, and I mentally
wondered how many mouthfuls I would make.
"How's thee, Towhead!" shouted Little Enick from the
door. "How does it feel to git skeered?"
Then the kind mother interposed and closed the door,
leaving the rude fellow and his dog on the outside.
 "I hope thee won't mind Little Enick," she said. "He's
jist so full of mischief that he don't never think of
nothing else, and he likes to see folks git skeered."
Then, for politeness' sake, I ventured upon a
falsehood. "Oh, I ain't skeered at all," I said.
The flames were leaping high in the big fireplace, and
the hearth was glowing with heaps of red-hot coals. The
table was set. Becky Fox was frying fat pork for
supper; and with a sinking heart I thought of our own
deferred evening meal at home. But I sat silent in my
place, and was afraid to mention my errand.
"So they call thee Towhead, do they?" said Old Enoch,
puffing clouds of smoke from his pipe.
"Yes, some of 'em do," I answered.
"I hear 'em say that thee can read right smart," he
remarked. "Is that so?"
I nodded my head in the affirmative, and Becky smiled
"Well, it seems to me thee is a leetle bit young to be
fussin' with books, as I hear 'em say thee does," Old
Enoch continued, now half hidden in smoke. "I don't
much believe in larnin', noway. The Bible says that
it's a weariness to the flesh, and I'm one that always
goes 'cordin' to the Bible. Don't thee think that's
Not knowing what else to do, I nodded again.
"Now, thy father," said he, "he's all the time talkin'
about schools and larnin', and all them things, but me
and him don't agree. He says that everybody ought to be
eddicated, but I say that all the larnin' anybody needs
is to know how to read in the Bible; and all other
books, 'cept maybe the spellin'-book, is a trap that's
been set by the Old Feller. Don't thee think I'm
What could I do but nod my head for the third time?
 And the old man continued: "Now, there's my Little
Enick. He's an uncommonly bright boy, and he's goin' on
sixteen the first of next Tenth month—well, he hain't
got through his spellin'-book yit. But he's powerful
brisk and smart—don't thee think so?"
At that moment there was a scraping noise at the door,
and so sure was I that this brisk and smart young man
was about to enter with Old Bull at his heels that I
spring quickly to my feet. In my alarm, the little iron
kettle slipped from my grasp and rolled rattling upon
"Look there, Becky," cried Old Enoch, as though seeing
the kettle for the first time. "The leetle feller has
fetched a bucket with him. Maybe his folks is out of
meal, or m'lasses, or sumpin or 'nother. Thee'd better
Then, with a might effort, I summoned all my courage
and said: "Mother wanted to know if thee would lend us
a little fire, and we'll pay it back when thine goes
"Oh, your fire's went out, has it?" said Becky very
kindly. "Well, that comes of Aunt Rachel bein' away,
I'm sure. And did thee fetch that little kettle for me
to put the coals in?"
I nodded my head, and she took the vessel from my
hands. First, she put a thin layer of cold ashes in the
bottom of it, and on this she sprinkled some hot ashes.
Then she selected some large glowing coals which she
placed on top of the ashes; and on these she laid three
dry hickory chips, "to keep 'em from burnin' out," as
she said. Finally, she covered the whole with cold
ashes, firmly packing them down.
"There!" she said, as she handed the filled kettle to
 me. "Be keerful and don't spill the ashes, and them
coals will keep alive for a week."
I took the bail
in my left hand, and offering my right to the good
woman, said, "Well, I guess I must go now. Farewell!"
She smiled, and kindly answered, "Farewell, Robert. I
hope thee'll git home safe."
Then I walked to the other side of the hearth where the
old man was smoking. "Farewell, Enoch," I said,
"Farewell, leetle Towhead," he returned, shaking my
hand. "But thee must stay and eat supper with us—mush
and mild and fried side-meat." Then, turning to his
wife, he said, "Becky, put on an extry spoon for
Robert. He can dip in the same bowl with M'rier and
I stood irresolute, trying to mutter an excuse; and
then suddenly a new source of alarm appeared. The door
opened, and the six young women of the household came
in, some with armloads of wood, some with bundles of
wool for carding, and the last with a heavy bag of
unshelled corn. I knew them all by name. The first four
were M'rier, M'lindy, Betsy and Beulah—tall,
strongly-built, raw-boned, with dull patient faces like
the faces of oxen. The fifth was a niece, Ruth Hazel,
whom Old Enoch had undertaken to bring up in
consideration of the work she could do. She was a
slender fair-haired maiden, as much out of place amid
her surroundings as a solitary white lily lifting its
head in a rank patch of jimson weeds. And then,
following a little after the others, came Esther Lamb,
the grand-daughter of Becky Fox, a robust, cardiacal
young woman, with snappy brown eyes and a countenance
like that of
 the moon. Everybody said that she was our Jonathan's
favorite, and when I saw her and heard her speak, I
greatly admired his wisdom.
The older girls sadly deposited their burdens—the
wood in the chimney corner, the wool on the floor
beside the two big spinning-wheels. They gazed at me
curiously, and said not a word. But buxom Esther,
having thrown her bag of corn under the table, came
toward me with outstretched hand and welcoming voice.
"Howdy, Robert," she said. "How's thee?"
"I'm pretty well," I answered in quavers. "How's thee
I fancied that somebody was giggling, and I wondered
what I had said that was amiss.
"Come, gals!" commanded Old Enoch, in the tones of a
master; and immediately the giggling ceased and they
began to take their places around the long bare table.
Come, Robert," he said, pushing me with his hand. "Set
down, set down! Thee may set between M'rier and M'lindy
and dip into their bowl."
I trembled and hesitated. There was nothing on the
table save a big wooden trencher filled with hot mush,
five large bowls of milk, and ten iron tablespoons -
one of these last for each member of the family, and
one for me. With a desperate effort, I stammered, "I
don't believe I want any supper to-night."
"Come, and set down!" commanded Old Enoch.
And then that blessed woman interposed again to save
me. "I think, Enick, that we had better let him go
home," she said. "They can't get supper at Stephen's
till he comes with the fire, and thee knows it's
"Well, then, I s'pose thee must go, Robert," he said
 in softening tones. "I will tell thee farewell," and he
shook my hand a second time. "Tell thy father that if
his sheep ever gits over into my clearin' ag'in, I'll
set Old Bull on 'em. Farewell!"
Like a bird set free, I made my way quickly toward the
door; but suddenly remembering that good manners should
never be neglected, I paused to shake hands with Becky
and again bid her farewell. "We'll pay thee back when
thy fire goes out," I said.
Then up spoke Esther pleadingly, "Mother, don't thee
think I'd better go as far as the dividin' line with
him? It'll be gittin' dark in the woods, and the path
ain't very plain."
But before the good mother could reply, Old Enoch
blurted out, "Hush thy slather, and tend to thy supper.
Thee needn't think thee can play another trick on me.
If that Jonathan's a-waitin' for thee at the dividin'
line, he'll have to wait a right smart spell, I'm
thinkin', afore he gits a sight of thee to-night."
I stood in the doorway and looked out. The sun was
down. The way was clear. With a bound, I was out and
running to the gate. I lifted the latch very softly,
lest it should click and by the sound betray me to my
enemies. I dodged quickly through into the lane, but
not too quickly, slamming the gate behind me. At the
same moment, out rushed Old Bull, barking, snarling,
snapping as though he would devour me; and out rushed
Little Enick, from his hiding-place in the bushes,
laughing, clapping his hands, and shouting to the dog.
"Sick 'im, Bull! Sick 'im! Eat 'im up! Sick 'im!"
With a fleetness born of great fear, I fled down the
lane, casting not a single glance behind me.
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