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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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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
554 pages $18.95   




[112] 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, and [113] 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.

"Robert Dudley."

[114] "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 something."

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 said.

[115] 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 kind.

"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 another."

"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 at Christmas?"

"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 [116] 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 inquisitor.

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."

[117] 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 sharply:

"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 family.

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 [118] 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 weight.

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 candlestands."

"Oh, Uncle Lev, he helps her," answered Ikey. "I tell thee he's awful rich. He runs the underground railroad."

[119] "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 anti-slavery."

"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 read [120] 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 articles.

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 [121] 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 it."

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 kitchen.

[122] "Yes, it's time to go and I don't care about the kitchen. Farewell!"

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 [123] back of my neck, I expected every moment that his long fingers would grasp my hair. Then, at length, he called out:

"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 breaths.

"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."

[124] "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 it?"

"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 him?"

[125] "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 away.

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 for [126] 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 Bear.

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