| 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 FRIEND FROM ENGLAND
LL this while, the Friend from England, unconcious of
the interest he had aroused, was sitting at the table
in the big-house, partaking of the cold chicken and
corn bread and pumpkin pie and multitudinous sweetmeats
that were set before him. He had ridden far that day,
and his appetite was excellent. He ate in an
astonishing deliberate manner while at the same time
conversing most charmingly with father and Senith Hunt
and Barnabas the schoolmaster. And I, anxious to hear
the words of the powerful man, made myself as small as
possible, and by slow degrees crept up to a point of
vantage just inside the door. I listened entranced, and
wondered how it was possible that the world could hold
two men so wise and good as my father and this Benjamin
from over the sea.
The repast was in due time ended, but not so the
conversation. The girls, entering the room on tiptoe,
deftly removed the dinner things from the table, but
our honored visiting Friends remained seated in their
places; and between then and father, the feast of
reason and the flow of soul continued uninterruptedly
until long past our accustomed bedtime.
The humbler guest stood silently around the room, or
sat on the door-steps, or hung about the
windows—the masculine portion keeping religiously
aloof from the
frm-  inine. Sometimes they listened languidly to the
conversation, and sometimes they indulged in irreverent
whispered remarks concerning things which they should
have regarded as sacred and above reproach. The younger
women snickered as one of their number called attention
to the love lock that hung so cunningly over Friend
Benjamin's ear; and the query went round whether he was
a bachelor or whether he had left a wife in England.
Then the younger men nudged one another shyly and
directed attention to the woman Friend from Carliny,
who had the strange habit of constantly moving her jaws
as though chewing her food a second time like a cow.
And the men in the outer circle, out-of-doors, began to
yawn and wonder where so many people were going to
sleep. Not one in the entire company seemed able to
understand, much less appreciate, any portion of the
animated discussion that was going on within their
At length, however, as though wakened from a dream,
father rose suddenly, looked at the clock on the
mantelpiece and lighted a fresh candle.
"If Friends feel inclined to retire to their rest,"
he said, speaking very loudly, "we are now prepared to
show them to their places."
This was the signal for a general dispersal of the
company. The humbler people quickly vacated the
settin'-room and retired into the moonlit yard to await
further instructions, while the ministers and elders
and Barnabas the schoolmaster rose and signified their
willingness to seek their respective couches. Then
father, candle in hand, opened the door of one of the
tiny bedrooms, and said, "If Benjamin and Barnabas have
a mind to do so, they may occupy the bed in this room."
And mother likewise opening the other little room, made
an-  nouncement: "Senith Hunt and Huldy Estey and Becky
Hobbs, if you think you can sleep three in a bed, you
may take this room." Thus were the guests of honor
disposed of in summary fashion.
As Friend Benjamin entered his chamber and cast a
glance at the wonderful bed of two feather ticks and a
straw mattress towering upward to a level with his
head. I fancied that I saw a look of
amusement—perhaps it was consternation—
pass over his face; but with a kind word to father,
which sounded strangely like "Good night," he closed
the door gently behind him; and I felt queerly, as
though the sun had suddenly set and the landscape was
no longer visible.
Your grandmother, my dear Leona, would have been
sorely puzzled, had she in her lifetime been required
to find sleeping places for forty people in two small
houses like ours. But your grandmother's grandmother,
who was my mother, was accustomed to such emergencies,
and it required only a few minutes for every one of our
guests to be assigned to his appropriate place of
repose. Some of the young women and girls were sent up
the ladder into the cabin loft, which David and
Jonathan had vacated for their use. The married women,
with their babies, were told to make themselves
comfortable in Cousin Mandy Jane's curtained corner and
in my trundle-bed. As for our own two girls, they
contented themselves very jollily on a pile of shavings
in the weavin'-room.
The men-folks, whether old or young, were sent to the
barn to bunk on the hay, or in the mangers, or anywhere
they chose—and I, being a man in the making, was
proud and at the same time very much abashed to be one
of the masculine company. As I lay in a snug secluded
corner of the hayloft, with sweet-smelling new hay
be-  neath and around me. I could look through the cracks in
the roof and see the stars twinkling joyously in the
invisible sky; and I, too, felt a joyous sensation as
though I were living in an atmosphere of perfect peace.
Then my dear, long neglected Inviz, whom I had almost
forgotten, came very softly and cuddled down beside me,
just as he came very softly and cuddled down beside me,
just as he had done once before when I was in extremest
trouble. He put his cheek against my own and whispred:
"Don't thee wish thee had been raised in England?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I am afraid that even if
I should be raised there twice I could never be such a
man as Benjamin Seafoam."
And then, with Inviz lying lightly on my arm, I fell
It is not my purpose, dear Leonidas, dear Leona, to
weary you with any further account of that memorable
quart'ly meetin', for I fancy that you have already had
as much of that sort of thing as your decadent natures
can absorb and appreciate. It is sufficient to say that
those who ought to know described it afterwards as " a
season of great refreshing wherein the walls of Zion
were marvelously strengthened." At the end of the third
day's session, all our guests, excepting only the
Friend from England, bade us farewell and departed.
Benjamin Seafoam still tarried with us. His itinerary
was such that he was not obliged to hurry on to his
next appointment, and so at father's urgent invitation
he consented to protract his stay with us for at least
And those five day! they were like a revelation to
us. Our eyes were opened and we saw things of which we
had not previously dreamed. For Friend Benjamin was a
missionary of a very uncommon type. He preached no
 dogmas. You might believe in Jesus, or in Buddha, or in
Mohammed—it mattered not if only your life was
pure and lovely and all your actions guided by that
Inner Light which glows brightly or dimly in the heart
of every thinking being. All his labors, therefore,
were for the enlightenment of the ignorant, and for the
upbuilding of character, of culture adn of good manner;
and his teachings related not to a future life and
unfathomable mysteries and old-world traditions, but to
the duties, the amenities and the possibilities of the
life that now is.
The greater part of that which he said in his
pleasant but convincin way was entirely beyond my
comprehension—for I was only a child. But later
on, when the fruits of his teachings began to appear, I
understood more and more, and my memory, which was
seldom at fault, recalled many a word and many a
"Stephen Dudley," he said, "I wonder that a
broad-minded man like thee should know so little about
what is going in the great world. Why don't thee
subscribe for a newspaper, and keep in touch with the
march of humanity?"
"Newspapers, so far as I can learn, have an evil
influence," said father. "They tell of wars and murders
and thefts and all sorts of debasing things and
conditions from which we should keep our minds free.
When I and other Friends came here to found this New
Settlement, we came with the fixed determination to
keep ourselves and our homes unspotted from the world.
How then can I consent to bring into my house a vile
newspaper to contaminate adn poison the minds of those
who read it?"
I did not hear the answer nor any portion of the long
conversation that followed it; but the result was, as I
shall explain in a future chapter, that father, ere
 months, became a regular subscriber to The National
Era, and an ardent admirer of good newspapers in
At another time the Friend form England remarked:
"Doesn't it seem rather a selfish thing for a person or
company of persons to try to withdraw from the rest of
the world and live apart from their fellow men?
Wouldn't it be better to mingle with others and try to
lift them up to higher and nobler planes of living and
thinking? Wouldn't it be better, instead of trying to
keep out of the way of evil, to rise up valiantly and
fight it with the weapons of truth? What does thee
"It was our hope when we came here," said father,
rather dodging the question—"it was our hope when
we came here that we might bring up our children in
surroundings far removed from the besetting sins and
temptations of the world."
And then there was another long and earnest
discussion in which father was again worsted. Thus one
citadel of narrowness after another was attacked with
weapons of gentle argument, and utterly overthrown.
One-sided opinions adn life-long errors of judgement
and belief were one by one subjected to the light of
reason. And all this was done so quietly and in a
manner so matter-of-fact and convincing, that there was
no room for suspicion, nor indeed for serious
opposition. Thus, through the five days' influence of a
wise and true man, father gained a broader outlook upon
life and the world than all his twoscore and ten years
of rigid adherence to dogma had been able to give him.
As for our womenfolks, they were influenced in quite
a different way; for their sphere was the household,
and although the Friend from England neither advised
 argued nor showed any desire to change their ways of
doing, yet his slightest acts set them to thinking and
"Aint's it funny how he always spreads a clean
handkerchief in his lap when he's eatin' at the table?"
remarked Cousin Mandy Jane.
"I axed him why he done it," said Cousin Sally, "and
he told me that in England they always put one by each
plate—a napkin, he said they call it. They use it
to wipe their lips on afore they drink from a cup."
"Well, I declare!" exclaimed Aunt Rachel. "It's quite
somethin' to be borned in England."
"And another funny thing," said Cousin Mandy Jane, "I
notice that, no matter how hot the room is, he never
comes to the table in his shirt-sleeves."
"Oh, well, I think it's kinder nice for him to sorter
dress up that way," said Cousin Sally. "But did thee
notice that he never pours his coffee into the sasser
to drink it? He waits till it cools and then sips it
from the cup. He says that everybody does that way in
"Well, it's a good thing that everybody ain't borned
in England," muttered Aunt Nancy; "for if they was,
there wouldn't be no use for sassers."
"The funniest thing of all," said Cousin Mandy Jane,
"is the way he eats pie. He never cuts it with his
knife, nor holds it in his fingers, but uses his fork
to cut it and stick it into his mouth."
"I've noticed that, too," said Cousin Sally. "One day
I thought maybe he didn't see his knife, and so I says,
'Here's thy knife to eat thy pie with. The fork's
sorter dull,' I says. And he looked at me and says, 'I
thank thee, Sally; I prefer to use the fork.' After
that, we got to talkin' about knives and forks, and I
told him that I
 noticed he never took the victuals on his knife. 'Oh,
no!' he says, kinder funny like. 'In our country the
young ladies would faint if they seen a person put a
knife to his mouth.'"
"Laws a me!" ejaculated Aunt Rachel from the midst of
a cloud of smoke. "Well, I'm glad we hain't got none of
them young ladies here in the New Settlement. We can
git along without 'em. But after all, it's kinder nice
to be borned in England."
Then mother, who had thus far been a silent listener,
ventured to offer her kindly comments: "What gits me
more than anything else, is his compliments. If he
passes betwixt me and the fire, he says, 'Please excuse
me.' If I hand him the bread and he don't want any, he
don't just answer with a plain 'No,' but he says, 'I
thank thee." Now, how is anybody goin' to know what he
means by all then unnecessary compliments?"
"Well, I've always heerd it said that compliments was
like an empty bag," remarked Aunt Nancy. "There ain't
never anything in 'em. For my part, I b'lieve in the
plain yes-and-no language."
"Yes," muttered old Aunt Rachel. "Compliments is good
for them that's borned in England; but as for me, give
me the plain yea, yea and nay, nay."
"That's right, Aunt Rachel, for it's in the Bible,"
piously ejaculated Cousin Sally. "It's my 'pinion that
all them Englishers are cram-jam full of queer ideas.
Why! don't thee know? Benjamin Seafoam, he hain't slept
on a feather tick nary night since he's been here.
Every morning when I go in to make up the bed, what
does thee s'pose? There's the two feather ticks packed
up in the corner, and nothin' on the bedstid but the
straw tick with the sheets pulled over it."
he shaves hisself every day," cried Cousin Mandy Jane,
anxious to have the last word in this delectable
conversation. "Then he has a kind of shiny stuff that
he puts on his boots instid of taller; and he always
takes off his hat when he comes in the house; and he
never eats pie for breakfast; and when he wants another
hot cake he don't jist reach over and git it, but he
says, 'Mandy Jane, I'll thank thee for another one of
those fine bisquits.'"
"Oh, well, he's queer—he's queer," softly
murmured old Aunt Rachel.
"Yes, he was borned in England," kindly responded
And thus, seated around the great cabin hearth, they
went on, wondering, finding fault, admiring,
pitying—carding wool, spinning flax, knitting,
baking corn dodgers. All were busy.
You may smile, my dear Leona; but do you, yourself,
talk more sensibly, act more wisely? The times, the
manners, all change; dynasties flourish and decay,
empires rise and perish, kings play their brief games
and turn to dust—but the tongues of women wag on
in the same way forever.
As for myself, it was my settled policy to keep at a
distance form our honored visitor lest he speak to me
and I be overcome with bashfulness. I especially feared
that, being a preacher, he might ask me about the state
of my soul, and in that case I could have no
alternative but to tell a sneaking lie. So, I hung
around the door, or concealed myself in a corner, or
peeped through a crack in the wall—always burning
to see and to hear, and yet so shy that I was always in
fear of being seen. The great man kindly pretended not
to notice me, for he
un-  derstood my shyness and respected it. Sometimes, when
he detected me in a stratagem to excape him, he would
nod his head and smile pleasantly, allowing me to go my
way. Sometimes he would utterly ignore my presence as
though I were no better than a dog; and this, while it
relieved my timid soul, wounded my pride most
One morning, however—it was the next to the
last day of his stay—he fairly captured me. I was
sitting under a cherry tree reading a lesson in my
Parley Book, and very much absorbed in the brief
account therein given of the heathenish Chinese and the
great wall that was built around their country. I felt
quite secure from any untoward interruption, for I
supposed that Benjamin Seafoam was in the deadenin',
helping David and Jonathan with the log heaps; but just
as I was in the midst of a most interesting passage, a
shadow fell on my book. I looked up. The Friend from
England was standing over me; he was so close that
escape was impossible. I trembled and shut the volume,
bidding fairwell to hope.
"Well, Robert," said the pleasant voice, "I'm told
that thee is a lover of books and that thee has started
quite a little library. What book is thee reading now?"
My tongue, for the moment, was paralyzed, and I could
not speak; but my sense of propriety made me show him
the title-page of the geography. And then I shrank into
myself and thought that I would give the world and all
if mother would only call me to do some wearisome
task—to carry water, to split wood, yes even to
do the churning. But my hour of doom had arrived.
I never could understand how it came about, but
within ten minutes we two were sitting side by side,
our heads close together and our hearts beating as one,
 looked at that wonderful geography. Benjamin turned the
leaves and made running comments on the various
illustrations, and I volunteered many brief remarks on
things which had appealed most strongly to my fancy.
When we came to the map of England, we paused quite a
while, and Benjamin with the point of a pin showed me
the exact spot where his home was located. It seemed to
me a very small place to hold so great a man, and I
told him so. He laughed merrily, and then began to
tell me about other things.
He told me of the vastness of the city of London, but
I, having never seen so much as a village, could not
comprehend his simplest description. He told me of
Queen Victoria, whom everybody loved, and of her little
son, who was exactly my own age and who would probably
at some future day be the king of England.
"We all hope that he will grow up to be a wise and
good man, in every way worthy to wear the crown," said
Then we turned back and looked at the picture of
Queen Elizabeth, and laughed at the strange immense
collar that stood up from her shoulders and encircled
her neck. And Benjamin told me briefly of some of the
famous men of Elizabeth's reign—of Drake and
Raleigh the heroes of the sea, of Bacon the
philosopher, of Spenser the poets' poet, and of William
Shakespeare who wrote playing pieces wonderful in
language and conception, but in their purpose rather
beneath what would be expected from a gentleman and a
scholar. He told me also of my great namesake, that
other Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, a lordly
villain who had aspired to become the queen's husband.
"I trust that when thee becomes a man," said Friend
 Benjamin, "thee will add honor to the name which the
unworthy earl so shamelessly dishonored."
At length, having come to the end of the volume, he
suggested that I show him the rest of my library; and
with happy feet I ran and brought out all my treasures,
not forgetting even the humble Emerson's Primer.
Oh, what a red-letter morning that was! The horn for
dinner sounded while yet we were in the midst of our
intellectual feast; and my mother's call to run down to
the spring and fetch up a pail of clear cool water was
by no means so welcome as it might have been had it
occurred a few hours earlier.
That afternoon my new-found friend and I took a long
stroll through the deadenings and the greenwoods. I
pointed out the trees upon which Esau and Jacob had
built their summer homes, and on one of these trees we
espied the two ungrateful ex-pets themselves, now grown
quite wild and disdainful of their former master. Then,
walking on, I showed him the spot where a quail had but
lately hatched seventeen little ones, and the deserted
nest of some robins in an old thorn tree, and the
burrow of a ground squirrel which always came out,
chipping, to greet me as I passed. Then, to my intense
delight and Benjamin's also, we saw a humming-bird
flitting in and out among some blossoming shrubs, and
we paused for some minutes watching its strange erratic
movements from flower to flower. It was the first one
of these tiny creatures that our Friend from England
had ever seen, and he appeared to be more overjoyed
that if he had stumbled upon a bag of gold.
As we strolled homeward, he told me of some English
birds that are unknown in our country—of the
cuckoo and her cunning habit of avoiding the anxieties
 and trials of motherhood; of the true robin redbreast
that stays in his favorite haunts all winter, shivering
and starving and yet hoping; and of the skylark and its
marvelous song flight to the blue gate of Heaven.
Talk about fairy tales, my dear Leonidas! I am quite
sure that you will never hear any that are half so
entrancing as were the true stories of birds and beasts
that my new-found playmate related to me on that
memorable afternoon. Then, as we passed through a grove
of giant trees, he told me of the beautiful belief
among certain peoples, ages and ages ago, that every
tree and bush and shrub was inhabited by a gentle
spirit, a wood nymph or dryad, who was invisible to
I listened enraptured, and then forgetting my
customary caution, I cried out, "Oh, yes! I've seen
them often in these very woods. They're all around ys
Friend Benjamin smiled gently and then by degrees
changed the subject. Perhaps, like our home-folks, he
thought I was telling a foolish fib; but as I looked
upward I could see on every ash and oak and elm a
fairy-like creature swinging back and forth in the
evening breeze and looking benignly down upon us. The
vision was as real to me as the presence of the trees
or of my companion himself; yet I kept silent, fearing
to be still further misunderstood.
It was very late when we reached the house, and
mother was losing her temper because the supper was
getting cold. Friend Benjamin apologized for our
tardiness, washed his hands and face at the spring, put
on his coat, and took his accustomed place at the
table. There was no supper for me, and I hurried out to
the barnyard where Cousin Mandy Jane was milking. She
fuss-  ing and fuming because I had not arrived earlier to
"I tell thee what, Towhead!" she said, "that Friend
from England ain't worth shucks. Jist to think of a
grown-up male man like him a-traipsin' through the
woods a whole afternoon with a little shaver like thee!
Why, he ain't right in his noggin'! Now, thee hump it,
and git the fodder for the cows while I finish the
I made no reply, for I was content. I had found a
kindred spirit; I had for the time being forgotten my
baleful shyness; I had had a happy day.
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