| 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 |
 ONE morning after driving the cows to the pasture, I took a
long leisurely ramble through the old deadenin' on the
eastern border of our place. That great waste of dying
trees, rotting logs and tangled underbrush was the home
and abiding-place of many of my little friends, and I
fancied that they greeted me, each in its own small,
hearty, natural way. Some crows that were playing tag
in the tree-tops were the first to see me, and they
expressed their pleasure by a vociferous cawing which I
answered by repeating the rhyme:
"The crow, the crow, the great black crow,
He never gets drunk on rain or snow!"
A quail, whose mate must have had a nest close by, sat
eying me from the top rail of the fence and
occasionally whistling his shrill "Bob-white." Some
chipmunks, sitting upright near the entrance to their
home in a hollow log, chattered merrily, and were not
at all afraid. A rabbit leaped suddenly out of a brush
heap where he had been hiding, and was about to flee to
some safer covert, but seeing it was no enemy that had
frightened him, he squatted on his haunches and waited
for me to pass.
Thus, my ramble was by no means a solitary one. I
strolled slowly along, meeting friends at every turn,
 lingering here and there to listen to the song of some
familiar bird or to admire the beauty of some freshly
blown wild flower. The sun was hot, the air was
sultry, and I was in a meditative mood. At length, in
a shady place near the boundary fence, I saw down on a
log and gave myself up to dreams.
I must have actually fallen asleep, for I was suddenly
startled by hearing a voice.
"Hello, there, Towhead!"
The voice came from above, and the speaker was on the
fence. I looked up and saw, astride of the topmost
rail, a boy some five years my senior, whom I had heard
called Ikey Bright. His mother, "The Widder Bright,"
had but lately come into the New Settlement. She had
bought the farm adjoining our own, and with her four
grown-up sons was carrying on business in a way that
was surprising to the older settlers. Everybody would
have thought she belonged to the Anti-Slavery Friends
and was, therefore, "not in unity with Our Society."
"Hello, there, Towhead!" was repeated from the fence,
kindly but very pompously.
I was tempted to respond in like phrase, but dared not
utter the newly coined word of greeting which would
have been a very bad word without the o at the end of
it. (Indeed, Joel Sparker had said that it was a swear
word, pure and simple, and a cunning invention of the
Old Feller to entice boys into profanity.) Therefore,
the only reply that I could make was a half-hearted,
"Howdy-do! How's thee and thine?"
"What's thy right name, little friend?" inquired Ikey
in condescending tones.
 "I'll call thee Bobby. How many acres of land is in
that farm of your'n?"
I straightened myself up and answered. "One hundred;
and half of it is cleared." I thought surely the big
boy would recognize and respect the wealth and
importance implied by the ownership of so large a tract
of field and woodland. But I was mistaken.
"Oh, pshaw!" he answered in a tone that made me shrink
into perceptibly smaller dimensions. "That ain't
nothin'. We've got two hundred and forty in our'n.
How many cows do you milk?"
"Five; and when the heifer comes in there'll be six."
"Phe-ew! That a right smart lot, ain't it? But when
our heifer comes in we'll have twelve. How many rooms
is in your house?"
I felt sure that I had him at disadvantage this time,
and I answered proudly, "Well, we have one room and the
loft and the weavin-room now, and when the new house is
done we'll have three more. That'll make six."
"Oh, pshaw!" said Ikey. "We have seven rooms in our
house, all under the same roof. But that ain't nothin'
to what we had in Sin Snatty. There we had eight rooms
and a pantry."
"What's a pantry?"
"It's a little room where they hang the pans and
things. Come here, Towhead, and I'll show thee
I slipped off my log and went over to the fence where
he was sitting. He took from his pocket seven
brand-new marbles, all striped in beautiful colors, and
held them out to my admiring gaze.
"I'll bet thee hain't got any marbles like these," he
 I made no answer, but counted them silently one by one.
"My uncle Levi sent 'em to me," said Ikey. "He lives
in Sin Snatty. He's a great man, he is. He's rich and
sends me lots of things."
I looked eagerly at the marbles as they lay in his
hand, and timidly turned some of them over with the tip
of my forefinger. I had heard David and Jonathan talk
about the game of "marvels" and once I had seen two
small brown things of the same shape as these, which
they called "commies"; but I had never before felt the
happiness of actually touching a plaything of this
"I never had one in all my life," I muttered, gulping
down a big lump in my throat.
"Well, well, that is bad," said Ikey, slipping the
pretty things back into his pocket. "But I s'pose thee
has a nice ball to play with?"
"I had one once," I answered. "Cousin Mandy Jane made
it all out of red stockin' yarn. But I lost it in the
brier patch, and she wouldn't spare the yarn for
"Well, I have a fine big one, all covered with strong
leather. Uncle Levi, he sent it to me at Christmas.
What did thee get at Christmas?"
"I didn't get anything."
"Not any playthings or toys? Why, what do you folks do
"We don't do anything particular," I answered. "When
we get up in the morning, we all say 'Christmas gift!'
and maybe mother gives us some hot cookies to eat.
Once she gave me a pair of warm mittens."
"Well, well!" said Ikey, tapping his foot against one
 of the lower rails. "If thee hain't got any marbles or
balls, what kind of playthings does thee have?"
"Oh, I only have one," I said. "It's a little windmill
that Jonathan made for me. When I hold it up toward
the wind it goes whizzin' around."
"A windmill!" cried Ikey. "I wish I could see it. Run
over to the house and fetch it, won't thee?"
"N-no, "I—don't" think I can," I stammered.
"Mother wouldn't let me fetch it."
"Who does thee play with when thee's at home?" asked my
I was on the point of telling him about Inviz, but
knowing that he could not understand, I answered, "I
used to play with Esau and Jacob; but now they've grown
up and gone to live in the woods, and I don't have much
of anybody to play with any more."
"Esau and Jacob! Who are they?" he asked; and then I
had to give him a full history of my pets and tell him
all about their cunning tricks and why I would never
consent to keep them in a cage.
Ikey was much interested, and plied me with question
after question. Finally he said, "I tell thee what,
Bobby! Thee run home and ask thy mother to let thee go
over to my house and play with me for an hour. Tell
her that I'm going to give thee a marble. I'll wait
here for thee till thee comes back."
The temptation was strong. I thought what a treasure
that marble would be, and how much enjoyment I should
derive from its possession. Then I thought of the
great trial of having to meet Ikey's mother and perhaps
his sisters and brothers, and my shyness conquered.
"Thee may keep the marble," I said. "I don't like to
ask my mother, for I know she won't let me go."
 Then I climbed back over the log and resolutely turned
my footsteps homeward.
Ikey began to whistle. He watched me until I had gone
perhaps a hundred yards, and then he called out
"Say, Towhead! Wait a minute."
I paused. "What does thee want?"
"I've got a pretty book with pictures in it, at home.
Wouldn't thee like to see it?"
"Yes," I answered eagerly.
"Well, if thy mother will let thee go home with me for
an hour, I'll show it to thee. It's a book that Uncle
Levi sent to me from Sin Snatty."
The bait was irresistible. I yielded to the tempter
without even a show of resistance.
"Will thee wait here till I ask her?"
"Certainly. Run along and when thee comes back, fetch
that little windmill with thee. I want to see it."
Ten minutes later I had laid the case before mother and
had got her somewhat hesitating consent to go home with
Ikey and look at his picture-book. But on no account
was I to stay at the Widder's longer than the specified
hour, and if Ikey, in the meanwhile, should say or do
anything improper, I must return immediately.
It was a new and most delightful experience; for I had
never before known what it was to have a real boy
playmate, and all my former little ventures abroad had
been hampered by the presence of other members of our
Ikey was a jovial companion, boastful and
self-important, very patronizing to little me, and
determined to make my visit a pleasant occasion for
both of us. He took me to the barn and showed me the
horses, the pigs
 and the calves, each one of which, he declared, had
cost his mother an enormous sum because it had not its
equal anywhere in the world. Then he led me into the
house, and to my great dismay, into the very presence
of his mother and sisters.
"This is little Bobby Dudley," he said in a lordly
manner. "He has come to make friends with us."
They greeted me very cordially and tried to make me
feel comfortable and unafraid; but I shrank bashfully
away from them and was unable to speak a word. Big
lumps swelled up in my throat, my eyes grew watery, I
wished that I was safe home beside the old hearth that
I new so well.
"I think, girls," said the Widder, perceiving my great
shyness, "I think that we might as well go into the
kitchen and leave these boys together. They'll feel
better without our company than with it." And,
thereupon, they retired quietly through the back way,
thus kindly relieving my timid heart of a tremendous
Then, to restore my courage, Ikey redoubled his efforts
to amuse me.
With pompous pride, as well as well-meaning host, he
showed me the two small bedrooms and the spacious
living-room which also contained two beds, not
forgetting to comment upon the enormous price and
unusual quality of each article of furniture.
"Father makes all of our things," I said. "I wonder
how thy mother can buy so many chairs and
"Oh, Uncle Lev, he helps her," answered Ikey. "I tell
thee he's awful rich. He runs the underground
 "Underground railroad! What's that?"
"Well, it's something that ain't a railroad and it
ain't under the ground; but it's a way they have of
helpin' the poor slaves to run away from their cruel
masters. Queer they'd call it that, ain't it?"
"It's a pretty good thing if it helps the slaves," I
said; for I had lately been hearing at home a good deal
of talk about slavery and a fugitive slave law which
father most hotly condemned.
"Do your folks use slave labor?" inquired Ikey.
"Slave labor? What's that?" I asked.
"Why, things that's made by slaves, such as sugar and
molasses and cotton things and coffee and such stuff,"
said Ikey. "We don't use it. The first question
mother asks when she goes to buy anything is whether
it's slave labor or free labor. If it's slave labor,
then she won't have it."
"Well," said I, "we make most of our things ourselves,
and so I guess they're free labor. We don't have to
ask about it."
"Does thy father read the Era! It's
"The Era! What kind of thing is it?"
"It's a "paper—a" newspaper that's made in
Washington. Uncle Levi, he sends it to us from Sin
Snatty. I'll show thee one."
"I don't know," said I hesitatingly. "I've heard
father say that he has doubts about newspapers; but I'd
like to see one."
Without further comment, Ikey opened the drawer of an
old bureau and brought out three or four broad printed
"sheets—the" first newspapers I had ever seen.
He spread one of them out on the floor before us. I
 the name that was printed in big letters at the top of
the first page, The National Era, and my eyes
glanced at the headings of some of the leading
It was all very strange and "mysterious—this"
sheet of four huge pages, the head-lines, the various
sizes of type, the date of issue, the advertisements.
A column on the first page seemed especially wonderful,
so wonderful that I felt a thrill of excitement as I
read its head:
"Latest Intelligence by Magnetic Telegraph."
Father had told us something about the magnetic
telegraph. He had seen one when he was at Nopplis some
time "before—a" long wire stretched from a number
of poles and reaching from one town to another. Men in
whom he had entire confidence had informed him that a
letter could be carried on this wire at the rate of
more than a hundred miles a minute, which was certainly
as wonderful as any miracle. He had been told by the
same truthful persons that news of any kind could be
transmitted from Sin Snatty to Nopplis like a flash of
lightning, and that in this way newspapers obtained
intelligence from all parts of the world. And here, in
this wonderful sheet that lay before me, was
intelligence that had been so
"obtained—"intelligence" by magnetic telegraph!"
Well, I would have something to tell mother when I got
home, wouldn't I?
Ikey did not permit me to linger long over the
marvelous newspaper. "Mother thinks lots of these
Eras," he said; "and she don't allow everybody
to handle 'em;" and he carefully refolded each copy and
returned it to its place in the bureau drawer.
"But thee hain't showed me that book," I said, feeling
that my hour's leave of absence was nearly exhausted.
"Oh, no!" said Ikey. "I 'most forgot about it;" and
 opening another drawer in the same bureau, he brought
forth a thin square volume which he handed to me with
the air of a prince. "Here it is, Bobby. Does thee
think thee can read in it?"
I opened the book with eagerness, and glanced at the
title-page. "Parley's Geography"! Well, here
was something wonderful. I turned the leaves, and saw
that there were pictures at frequent intervals, and
strange colored diagrams, which I afterward learned
were called maps. I saw at once that here was a
treasure of great value, and, forgetting myself, I
whispered, "Oh, how I wish it was mine!"
"What will thee give me for it?" asked Ikey.
"I hain't got anything to give," I answered, "I would
give thee a good deal if I had it."
"What's that in thy pocket?" he asked, pointing to a
bulging portion of my ample tow breeches.
"Oh!" I answered, "That's the little windmill that
Jonathan gave me;" and I drew it forth. "Thee told me
to fetch it, but I forgot to show it to thee."
Ikey took the crude little mechanism to the door and
held it out against the wind. It turned slowly; but I
assured him that if the wind were stronger it would
fairly whiz. He seemed delighted, and in his lordly
way said, "I tell thee what, Robert. This thing ain't
worth much, but I'll give thee the geography book for
What a bargain! In less time than I can write about it
the exchange was made, and I immediately began to feel
it was time to go home.
"I guess I've been here an hour," I said; and tucking
the book under my arm, I started to the door.
"Don't go yet," said Ikey. "Thee hain't seen our
 "Yes, it's time to go and I don't care about the
But Ikey refused to let me go. He took me by the
shoulders and forcibly guided me to the kitchen door.
"Mother is in there, and she wants to tell thee
farewell," he said.
I glanced fearfully in, and saw the Widder sitting near
the door and shelling peas. My timid eyes took rapid
notice of a table and a corner cupboard and a
spinning-wheel, and of strings of dried apples hanging
from the ceiling. Then I glanced at the clean-swept
hearth, and the blazing fire, and the dinner pot upon
the coals. These things were not very different from
what I saw every day at "home—but" what was that
dark shadow in the chimney corner?
I took a step forward, and horror chilled my
"veins—for right there, in a big armchair beside
the hearth, sat the Old Feller himself! Black as night
he was— or" indigo-blue, it seemed to me. His
big white eyes gleamed and glared in the imperfect
light, and his great teeth grinned horribly between his
monstrous lips as though he was ready to devour the
first bad boy that came within his reach.
Without stopping to take a second glance at the fearful
apparition, I uttered a yell of dismay and fled from
the house. With the geography book firmly grasped in
my right hand, I ran by the shortest cut across the
garden, climbed quickly over the fence into the lane
and hurried homeward. Soon I heard footsteps behind me
as though I were pursued, and with the energy of
despair I put all my strength into my legs. One and on
I ran, but the Old Feller was evidently gaining on me.
I could hear him panting, I could almost feel his host
breath upon the
 back of my neck, I expected every moment that his long
fingers would grasp my hair. Then, at length, he
"Say, Bobby, hold up! What's thee afraid of?"
"Ah, it was only Ikey; and with a great sigh of relief
I paused for him to come up.
"What in the world's the matter with thee?" he asked
half angrily. "Nobody is goin' to hurt thee. What's
thee scared at?"
"Who was "that—that" blue "man— in" the
rockin' "chair—by" the fire?" I asked, between
"Blue man! blue man!" shouted Ikey, and he fell
into convulsions of laughter. "He ain't blue; he's
black! He's a black man that we're helpin' through on
the underground. But thee mustn't tell anybody. He's
a fugitive slave."
"A slave!" I exclaimed. "Is that the way they look?"
"Certainly," answered Ikey. "Didn't thee ever see a
colored man before?"
"Not a real one. I've read about people of color, and
I've seen pictures of some; but I never thought they
looked like that," I said as we walked on together.
"Some of 'em don't look quite so ugly," said Ikey; "and
some are 'most white. There's lots of 'em in Sin
Snatty. Uncle Levi, he has some of 'em round the house
'most all the time. When a slave runs away from his
master in Kentucky, Uncle Levi, he puts him on the
underground and hustles him off to freedom and Canada
so fast that his owner never gets sight of him again."
"That's good," I said. "I hope he'll hustle all of 'em
to freedom and Canada. Father says that slavery is a
bad thing for the country."
 "That's a fact," said Ikey very positively. "Thee just
ought to hear Uncle Levi tell what he knows about it."
Thus talking, we came in a few minutes to the foot of
the lane, and as we approached the boundary fence Ikey
declared that he must return home.
"Farewell, Bobby!" he said very patronizingly. He
shook my hand, and turning upon his heel, swiftly
retraced his steps.
With a proud heart and triumphant feet, I climbed the
fence and ran across the clearing. How lucky it was
that Ikey had not changed his mind and asked me to
"swap back"! I still held the precious geography with
a firm grasp, almost dreading to look at it lest
something should happen. As I was hugging it to my
bosom and thinking what a fine bargain I had made, my
invisible playmate came like a puff of wind behind me
and almost tripped me off my feet.
"Does thee call it a fine bargain when thee gets
something for nothing?" he asked.
"I didn't get something for nothing," I answered. "I
gave Ikey the windmill, and he gave me the book."
"Thee knows very well that the book is worth ten times
as much as the windmill," said my accuser. "Is it
right to take anything without giving full value for
"Well, it was Ikey's fault, not mine. He offered to
trade that way," I argued; "and he never gave me the
marble that he promised."
But Inviz would give me no peace. "Ikey was certainly
very kind," he said, "and perhaps he meant to give thee
the book. Don't thee think thee might manage to do him
a favor some time, so as to pay him the debt thee owes
 "I'll think about it," I answered impatiently.
"Thee'd better do so," said Inviz, rather harshly I
thought; and slapping me on the cheek, he was off and
I ran into the house to show my treasure to mother.
She looked at it with admiration; but when I told her
how I had swapped the windmill for it, she shook her
head doubtingly and said that Ikey surely did not
expect me to keep the book.
"Sakes alive!" said Cousin Mandy Jane. "If it was me,
I'd a good deal rather have the windmill; and I s'pose
Ikey thinks the same way."
Oh! what a red-letter day I had had, and how many new
things I had seen and heard! I had seen a real black
man, a slave, who was on his way to freedom; I had seen
a newspaper that had come all the way from Sin Snatty,
and maybe much farther; I had been inside of a house
that was bigger and roomier that our own; and best of
all, I had secured another "book—a wonderful
book— to" add to my little library.
At the very first opportunity I began to read the
geography from the beginning; and soon it became plain
that all my previous notions of the world upon which we
lived were erroneous. I learned what the maps meant,
and took great pleasure in noting the location of
various countries, oceans and rivers, especially those
whose names I had encountered in my reading. But there
was one omission which I could not understand: the New
Settlement, which I supposed was the most important
portion of the earth's surface, was not so much as
mentioned. Nopplis and Sin Snatty (called respectively
Indianapolis and Cincinnati) were each represented on
one of the maps by a fly speck; and I looked in vain
 Dry Forks, Dashville, Wayne and other places with whose
names I was most familiar. That each country or state
was pictured in a particular color, was an interesting
feature which I was slow to understand. A small
oblong, green space was marked Indiana, while adjoining
it on the right was a yellow region, somewhat larger,
labeled Ohio. Why was this?
"Thee trees and grass in Injanner are green," I
remarked to Cousin Mandy Jane. "I wonder if they are
all yaller in the "Hio Country."
"Shucks, no!" was her disdainful answer. "Why, I used
to live in the ‘Hio, and everything's the same color
there as here."
And then father, having overheard our conversation,
very carefully explained to me the uses of color in
maps and other diagrams.
The pictures in the Parley Book, as we came to call it,
were never-failing sources of delight, and I spent hour
after hour in studying them and weaving fanciful
stories about them. Here were such perennial favorites
in illustration as the "Landing of Columbus," an Eskimo
house, a Chinaman in native costume, and a view of St.
Peter's at Rome. But the picture that was engraved
most indelibly upon my mind was a half-page cut
entitled "A Scene in Russia." I remember it yet with a
distinctness undimmed by the lapse of more than
threescore years. The time is winter, the place is in
the midst of a dreary forest, the actors are a bear and
a man. The bear stands calmly erect, its forepaws
resting firmly upon the shoulders of its adversary.
The man faces the bear with becoming solemnity, his
right hand is holding a knife, the long blade of which
is sheathed in the fierce beast's heart. The blood is
gushing forth in a stream as large as the man's body,
and man and bear are gazing vacantly at the snow-laden
trees around them. It was this picture that gave me my
first impressions of Russia; and to this day it always
presents itself at the merest mention of the Russian
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