| 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 |
"THIS IS MY LIBRARY"
F there was one thing of which my father was justly
and openly proud, that was his library. There was
nothing like it in the New Settlement, and I fondly
believed that there were few collections of books in
the whole world that could rival it in variety and
completeness. Some of our neighbors possessed an
almanac or two, and in every Friend's house there was a
family Bible, to say nothing of an occasional tract on
slavery. In homes where there were children, one might
find a few dilapidated school-books, hidden away in old
hair trunks or among the cobwebs and dust of the cabin
loft. But nowhere was there such a collection of
printed works as that which gave honor and distinction
to the cabin wherein I was born.
Our bookcase, as we called it, consisted of two
shelves, made by laying short boards upon some wooden
pegs that had been driven into the wall, midway between
the fireplace and the corner cupboard. It was so high
that in order to reach the lowest books I was obliged
to stand upon a chair. The shelves were placed one
directly above the other, and they were scarcely half
as long as the five-foot shelf recently made popular
and glorified by an ex-president of our oldest
The books were arranged with some care, the larger
volumes on the upper shelf, the lesser on the lower.
The collection made such an unusual appearance, that
 neighbors who sometimes visited us seemed awed when
they came near it, as though uncertain how to behave in
the presence of so much preserved wisdom.
"This is my library," father would say, standing up
very straight and tall and running his fingers lovingly
across the backs of the books. And our visitors would
stand with open mouths, gazing and wondering—some
admiring, but more condemning and all questioning the
propriety of a thing which seemed so like a worldly
Now, what were the contents of that wonderful library?
In the upper shelf were six portly quarto volumes, in
sheep binding, very appropriately entitled Friends'
Library, and comprising a series of memoirs and
journals of eminent members of Our Society from the
date of its organization down to the first years of the
nineteenth century. Flanking these volumes on the right
was a very old copy of the Bible, in leather covers,
thumb-worn and greasy. It had belonged to my
great-grandfather, eminent in the ministry, and it was
so sacred that the mere touching of it sent an electric
thrill of goodness to the heart. It was never taken
from the shelf or opened, save now and then by good
Aunt Rachel for the concealment between its leaves of a
faded precious love-letter, preserved, I verily
believed, since the days of the flood. There was room
on this shelf for only one other book, and that was a
thin gray-backed volume, written by William Penn and
entitled, No Cross, No Crown. It was the dullest,
driest, most unsatisfactory book in the library, for I
could get no sense out of it, no matter how
persistently I wrestled with its big words and
 On this upper shelf there was but little to tempt the
voracity of so young a bookworm as myself.
Nevertheless, I more than once attacked one or another
of those musty volumes, and with a determination worthy
of success pored long over their pages. I took no
little pleasure in turning the leaves of the Friends'
Library, picking out the easy passages, and studying
the chapter headings and the tables of contents; and I
soon came to know the books so well that if any
particular biography were mentioned I could immediately
tell where to find it.
It was the lower shelf, however, which contained the
treasures best suited to the enrichment of youthful
minds. Here was John Woolman's Journal, that record of
a gentle life, which Charles Lamb advises everybody to
get by heart. What a picture John Woolman made upon my
imagination as I thought of him clad in his undyed
garments of exceeding plainness and refusing to ride in
carriages because they were painted! I got none of his
writings by heart, but the story of his remorse for
killing a mother robin I read and reread many times
with never-failing sympathy and admiration.
The next volume was a well-thumbed copy of George Fox's
Journal—why were there so many journals? With dogged
perseverance, I read every word of this book from its
title page to the end; but it was a reading of words
only, for I failed to understand the meaning of the
stiff unadorned sentences, and the greater part of the
book was as unintelligible as Greek or Arabic.
Nevertheless, there lingers in my memory a vivid
picture of that doughty old champion of non-resistance,
wearing leather breeches, preaching from the tops of
haystacks, and refusing to doff his hat even to kings.
 admired the heroism of the man who shrank from no
danger and boldly spoke what was in his mind,
regardless of scourgings and imprisonments and the
revilings of the ungodly; but somehow I hated his
egotism and thought of him as a crusty, opinionated and
unlovable man whom I hoped I should never meet in this
world or in the world to come. My notions of time and
place were confused and indefinite, and I thought of
George Fox and William Penn and Oliver Cromwell as
still being much alive and only waiting for a
convenient opportunity to visit the New Settlement. I
had no realization of the fact that two hundred years
and a broad ocean lay between me and those valiant
heroes of another civilization.
Next in order upon the lower shelf were three of four
school-books to which I had not yet attained. My
father, in the process of educating himself, had
mastered these books with a great sense of pleasure and
profit, and he assured me that they would be very handy
when I became old enough to be sent to school. Among
these, I remember Pike's Arithmetic, a stiff little
volume from which with father's help I early learned
the tables of multiplication and dry measure. Its
nearest neighbor was Lindley Murray's English Reader, a
book of classical selections with which I frequently
wrestled, sometimes to my edification, but often to my
Reposing conveniently near these was a thin cloth-bound
volume familiarly known to us as The Discipline,
wherein were printed the principles of faith and the
guiding rules of Our Society, together with the forms
to be observed on all occasions of worship, of
 marriage and of death. It was an ugly book, repugnant
to my sight, and I seldom disturbed its solemn repose.
Then there was that old blue-backed spelling-book with
the name of Noah Webster on the title-page—a
ill-smelling little work which was the
common property of our two "big boys" and marked the
limit of their literary attainments. Its general
contents consisted of meaningless rows of words, words,
words, and task lessons in which I could discover
neither rhythm nor rhyme nor common sense; and for
these I conceived an intense dislike, which even to
this day is revived at the mere mention of a
spelling-book. But there were occasional lines of
reading at the bottom of the page—short proverbs,
pithy sayings, bits of information—which I frequently
perused with interest. And toward the end I found a
collection of four or five fables which afforded
enjoyment for many an idle hour. The story of the
"Milkmaid and Her Pail" was so nearly in the line of my
own experiences that I committed it to memory and
recited it one day to Cousin Mandy Jane, greatly to her
amusement and disgust.
Fit companion for the spelling-book was a belabored
little volume, with broken leather backs, entitled
Walker's Dictionary. Its use was not well understood,
and therefore it was but seldom referred to; yet the
memory of its first important service to me still
lingers in my mind. It happened one day after we had
all been to meetin' and had heard there an eloquent
discourse from a traveling Friend upon the wonders of
the invisible world. Our womenfolk were busy putting
the dinner on the table, the big boys, David and
Jonathan, were loitering impatiently by the hearth, and
look-  ing at his library. Very naturally everybody was thinking
about the strange minister and his unusual sermon.
"Well, he can preach right smart, anyhow," remarked
Cousin Mandy Jane, as she laid the dishes in their
places. "I could jist set and listen to him all day, he
speaks his words so plain and so purty."
"But did thee understand all of his purty words?"
queried Aunt Rachel, adjusting her cap strings.
"Sometimes thee can be pleased with the sound of things
without knowin' much about their sense."
"Well, it seems to me his words was nearly all
Scripter," answered Mandy Jane; "leastwise he spoke 'em
so plain that a body couldn't help but understand. But,
come to think of it, there was one word that I never
heerd before. He kept sayin' it over and over, over and
over, and it sounded so uncommon that I thought I'd ax
what it meant. He must have spoke it twenty times, and
he spoke it in a mighty purty way, too."
"Does thee remember what partickler word it was?"
inquired mother, as she stooped over to remove the
smoking-hot corn dodgers from the covered skillet in
which they had been baking.
"Well, no," answered Cousin Mandy Jane; "but it was a
mighty queer-soundin' word and it had somethin' to do
with the world. I do wish I could recklect it. I think
it begun with in, or un, or some sich thing."
"Maybe it was 'invisible,'" said David, whose memory of
words was sometimes superior to his power of using
"Laws' sakes, yes! That's the very word. It's queer,
ain't it?" And Cousin Mandy Jane ran to bring a pitcher
 "It's a good-soundin' word," placidly remarked Aunt
Rachel. "I noticed how beautiful he rolled it off his
tongue—'in-vis-i-bul-l-l wor-r-rld!' It was better
nor a pipe of tobacker to hear him roll them words
along like rollin' punkins over the barn floor."
"But what does it mean? I'd like to know," said mother.
"I think it means somethin' that's clean gone out of
sight," answered Aunt Rachel. "What does thee think,
Father, being thus appealed to, made reply in his usual
quiet way: "Suppose we look and see what the dictionary
He took the leather-covered volume down from its place
and turned the leaves with much deliberation. Finding a
word in the dictionary was no common process with him,
and he progressed slowly. At length, however, he
announced the result: "Here it is. 'I-n, in—v-i-s,
viz, inviz—i, invizi—b-l-e, bul, invisible,
something that can not be seen.' The minister spoke of
an invisible world meaning a world that we can not
"Well, I don't keer what the meanin' of it is," said
Aunt Rachel, "it's a mighty purty-soundin' word,
leastwise as the preacher spoke it."
And we all sat down to dinner.
In truth, the minister had given to the word a peculiar
musical inflection which it is impossible to indicate
on paper. There was a singsong melody connected with it
that had pleased my imagination mightily—it was the
nearest approach to real singing that I had ever heard.
As I sat at the table I repeated it softly to myself
with varying intonations and inflections. Immediately
 echoed back to my mental tympanum in tones exactly like
those of the minister. My unseen playmate was certainly
near; I felt his soft breath upon my cheek.
"I can not see thee," I said.
"No, for I am invisible," he answered.
"Well, that's a good name for thee," I returned. "I
think I will always call thee Invisible—yes, I will
name thee Inviz, Inviz."
"I shall like that name," he whispered. And we were
But, to the library again.
At the extreme right-hand end of the lower shelf, you
might have seen my treasure of treasures—the three
precious little volumes that were all my own. They were
Emerson's Primer, McGuffey's First Reader, and the
"Child's Instructor, by a teacher of Philadelphia." In
presenting these books to me, father had said, "Robert,
these are thine. They are the beginning of thy own
library. Take good care of them, and as thee grows
older, perhaps thee may have others given to thee."
Oh, the delightful memories that are awakened by the
mention of those books! In Emerson's Primer were my
first lessons in reading—little stories of the most
absorbing interest, of which the following is a sample:
"Is he in? He is in.
"Do we go up? We do go up.
"Go in. Do go in.
"We go in. We go up.
"Up we go. We do so."
This was a great romance, a charming fairy tale related
in words of two letters, and leading up to a delightful
 climax. And when the action proceeded to words of three
letters, how thrilling was the result!
"You are wet.
"Can you get dry?
"See him run.
"The sly fox met him."
The yellow covers of the Primer were faded and torn,
the leaves were thumb-worn, every page was grimy and
soiled from much handling, but to me it was a garden of
perpetual delight through which I was never weary of
McGuffey's First Reader was not inferior to it in
interest, and it was a grade higher in language and
thought. In it I reveled over the stories of "The Poor
Old Man" and "The Broken Window." Good moral tales
these were, my dear Leonidas, and they were calculated
to help in the building of good moral men—which can
not be said of the slush and rot that are too often
found in the so-called "method" readers of to-day. And
there were a few delightful poems, too—poems of the
kind that children understand and enjoy. Chief among
these was that little masterpiece which never grows
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky."
And scarcely inferior to it was another poetical gem
which I memorized and spoke as my first "piece" at
"I like to see a little dog
\And pat him on his head;
So prettily he wags his tail
Whenever he is fed."
The brightest and best, however, of my trio of literary
treasures was the little volume entitled The Child's
Instructor. This was a veritable storehouse of
knowledge, a collection of all sorts of good things, an
array of thought gems adapted to the understanding of
children of every age. What could be more musical to
the ear or more suggestive to the imagination than this
"Ab eb ib ob ub; ac ec ic oc uc.
"Ad ed id od ud; af ef if of uf.
"Ag eg ig og ug; ak ek ik ok uk.
"Ba be bi bo bu; ca ce ci co cu.
"Da de di do du; fa fe fi fo fu.
"Ha he hi ho hu; ja je ji jo ju."
There was a peculiar fascination in such exercises as
this, and I think they were fully as sensible and
useful as much of the present-day babble under the head
of phonograms and blends, families and stock words.
When weary of real study or of wrestling with George
Fox and his followers, I often took great pleasure in
humming these over and over to my invisible playmate,
varying the order of the syllables and forming new ones
as he would from time to time suggest.
Many things in this odd little volume fixed themselves
indelibly upon my memory, and they, no doubt, have had
a subtle influence upon my thoughts and actions at
times when I least suspected it. Among such was the
following couplet on the first page, which pleased me
so much that I adopted it as my motto, wrote it down
and never forgot it:
"Let this be your plan,
Learn all that you can."
Here also were occasional touches of humor tempered
with a droll philosophy which at times set me to
thinking and furnished me with food for speculation.
One passage, which I remember, appealed to my
imagination with such force that I learned it by heart,
and afterward went out into the pasture and declaimed
it to the sheep:
"History informs us that Tom Thumb grew up to be a
greater man than his mother; but before we attempt to
prove this, we must inquire what makes a great man. Is
it a big head? No. Is it a strong arm? No. Is it a fat
body? No. Is it a long leg? No.—But I will tell you
what it is. It is a wise head and a good heart."
The sheep were probably not much edified by this brief
discourse; but there was one barefooted boy who went to
his bed that night fully resolved that he would some
day become a greater man than Tom Thumb. He thought of
his three, thin little volumes on the lower shelf, and
pictured to himself the great library which he hoped to
possess by the time he had grown to manhood. And Inviz
whispered to him that perhaps, if he were very good, he
might acquire a collection of books equal if not
superior to that of his father.
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