| 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 |
GOING TO MEETIN'
GAIN it was the spring-time of the year—the time for
plowing and planting, and for going barefoot every day
in the week. On a bright First-day morning I sat under
one of our cherry trees, listening and looking, and
enjoying to the full the beauty and the glory of the
day. Esau and Jacob, now grown to the full stature of
squirrelhood, were whisking and leaping among the
white-blossomed branches overhead. On an apple tree
near by, a robin was singing; under our eaves some
swallows were twittering; from the meadow came the
sound of croaking frogs; the humming of insects was
heard on every hand. The air was full of sweet sounds;
and I was in one of my visionary moods.
Suddenly my invisible playmate came out of the nowhere
and put his arms very softly around my neck.
"Isn't it nice to be alive on such a day as this?" he
"Yes," I answered. "Let's have a good romp here under
And at once we began rolling and scuffling in the
grass, running races from one tree to another, and
turning somersaults on the soft ground.
Cousin Mandy Jane, looking out from the cabin door,
exclaimed, "For the land's sake! That boy acts like he
was gone clean cracked."
 But she didn't see the other boy, nor would she have
believed that he was with me, even had I told her. It
was beyond her power to imagine the intense enjoyment
that was ours.
At length, puffing and blowing with excitement, we
threw ourselves down in the shade to rest. I had been
reading of angels, and as I looked up through the white
cherry blooms at the measureless silent sky so far
above, the old story of Jacob's ladder came suddenly
into my mind. The thought was probably induced by
seeing the grayer of the two squirrels run fearlessly
to the top of the topmost branch, as though he would
leap straightway into Heaven; and forwith I began to
see visions. Suddenly, each tiny blossom above me
became an angel robed in white, and the twigs and
branches of the tree were transformed into myriads of
delicate ladders, each leading up into the celestial
kingdom. I shouted aloud, from pure enjoyment of the
scene, and was proceeding to conjure up some other
picture of the imagination when a shrill voice brought
me to the dull earth again and wakened me rudely from
"Robert, thee come and git ready for meetin'! Be
quick!" It was Cousin Mandy Jane, calling from the
I lay quite still and made no answer; and Inviz put his
cheek against my own.
"Don't thee hate it?" he whispered.
"Yes, I wish we didn't have to go to meetin'," I
answered. "I don't see any use in it."
"But all good people do go to meetin'," said Inviz.
"They go because the Bible says they must."
"Well, I never read it in the Bible," I said dreamily
but aloud. "I think it's lots nicer to go into the
 and see the birds and the flowers than it is to go and
sit in that stuffy old meetin'-house."
"Robert! Robert!" It was not the voice of Inviz but
that of Cousin Mandy Jane, who was now standing over
me. "Robert, I'm ashamed to hear thee talk so. Why,
thee won't never go to the good place, if thee don't go
to meetin'. Come, it's most time to start, and thee
hain't begun to dress."
I rose unwillingly and followed her slowly into the
house. It was one of the unwritten laws of our family
that everybody should go to meetin' twice a week—on
First-day morning and on Fifth-day morning—and from
this rule there must be no deviation or excuse, except
in cases of illness or absolute necessity. Thus, ever
since I was three weeks old I had been going to
meetin', going to meetin', without much idea of the
reasons for doing so. Every man, woman, or child that I
knew was a meetin' goer; and I had a dim idea,
amounting to conviction, that all good people since the
days of Adam had been accustomed to the same practice.
How would people ever get to Heaven if they didn't go
to meetin' and learn to be good? So regularly, so
faithfully did our family assemble themselves with
other Friends at Dry Forks, that I had come to regard
this act as a very natural and necessary thing—as
natural and necessary as the rotation of the seasons or
the alternation of day and night. Nevertheless, on this
particular First-day morning, rebellion was in my
heart; I hated the very thought of meetin', and I
wished that God had appointed some other way by which
we might learn how to be good and fit ourselves for the
But mother met me at the door and in her pleasant
 persuasive manner said: "Come, Robert, make haste. Thee
may wear Little William's suit to-day."
"O mother, may I?" And instantly the whole aspect of
things was changed.
Now, the fact is that only twice since they were
presented to me had I been permitted to array myself in
the precious clothes that had formerly belonged to
Little William—once I had worn them to "quart'ly
meetin'" and once to Aunt Nancy's on a brief visit with
"They're too nice for thee to wear jist any time and
every time," said mother; and Aunt Rachel and Cousin
Mandy Jane concurred in the opinion. "We'll lap 'em up
nice and clean, and keep 'em in the bureau drawer; and
Aunt Nancy, when she comes, she can see that they're
jist as nice as when she had 'em and took so much care
of 'em for Little William's sake."
And so there they had lain, admired but useless,
through all the long months of fall and winter. Now,
however, a new leaf was to be turned, and I was to be
permitted to wear the precious suit to a common
First-day meetin'. My joy can not be described. With
alacrity, I set about getting ready, and while doing so
I repented of all the rebellious feelings, that had so
recently entered my heart. I was willing to go to
meetin' not only twice a week, but seven times, if it
should be required of me; and I admired God's wisdom in
making this the means through which we could outwit the
Old Feller, learn how to go to the good place and
incidentally show our fine clothes.
Oh, my dear Leona! Do you remember that last new Easter
hat, and how thankful you felt that there was a church
wherein you could display its feathered
magni-  tude to an admiring throng of worshipers? Your
vanity and mine were of the same sort, arising from the
same primitive instincts. Through such we trace our
kinship to savage ancestors who proudly decked
themselves with plumes and scalps to do hideous
reverence to their gods.
At the end of half an hour I emerged from the cabin
door as sleek and self-satisfied as a butterfly just
transformed from its chrysalis state. The blue breeches
and blue robin seemed less roomy than before, doubtless
because I had grown appreciably bigger. The vest of
figured calico was a perfect fit, and its flowers of
blue and pink were marvels of beauty. The collarless
shirt of home-made linen was all that could be desired.
My hair was well oiled with goose grease, and plastered
smoothly over my brows—not parted, for that would
have indicated a foolish vanity. My face and hands and
feet—thanks to Cousin Mandy Jane—had been scoured
and scrubbed until they fairly glowed with cleanliness.
"Well, thee looks like a prince," whispered Inviz,
tapping me on the cheek.
But mother, who must have overheard him, was quick to
rebuke my folly: "Robert, thee mustn't feel proud. It
ain't the clothes that makes the man."
And then I drew on my last article of apparel, a brown
toboggan cap of indescribable shape which old Aunt
Rachel had knitted for me while she was visiting in
Promptly, as the shadow of the door-jamb reached the
ten o'clock mark on the cabin floor, Jonathan drove the
farm wagon round to the "uppin' block" just inside the
big gate. Then David came with an armload of clean
wheat straw which he threw into the wagon-box to serve
as a seat for the womenfolks and me. As I walked out
 toward the gate, the young men nudged each other,
looked at me and smiled—but whether in approbation or
derision I could not tell.
"Well, Towhead," said David, "thee looks like thee
might cut a right smart shine at meetin' to-day."
"I reckon all the little gals will be a-cryin' for thee
when they see how slick thee looks," said Jonathan.
My anger was for the moment superior to my vanity, and
before I had time to curb it, David was dodging a piece
of kindling wood that flew suddenly at his head. And at
that moment father came out of the house, his solemn
face somewhat softened by a struggling smile.
"What's the matter, boys?" he asked.
No one answered. The big boys betook themselves to the
barn, while I leaned up against the gate-post and
Father was dressed in his "go-to-meetin'" suit of drab
homespun—a soft but coarse cloth made from the wool
of his own sheep and woven with his own hands in his
own loom. The cut of his coat was scrupulously plain -
no collar, no cuffs, no needless buttons. His shoes
also were of his own making, heavy, serviceable, not
polished, but lavishly treated with tallow. On his head
he wore a very large gray beaver hat, which had been
his wedding hat, years and years before. His whole
appearance was that of a dignified, sober-minded,
self-possessed man—a strong man who would be a leader
of other men, no matter where his lot might be cast. As
I looked at him, I forgot my own imagined importance,
and lost myself in admiration; and Inviz whispered to
me from around the gate-post, "Ain't it fine to have
such a father as that? But it was very wicked to throw
that stick of kindling."
 A moment later, David and Jonathan came riding up from
the barnyard, each astride of his own frisky young
filly. Their faces were very sober, as was becoming to
young men on a First-day morning, and they scarcely
deigned to notice me as they passed through the gate.
"We're goin' around the long way," said David to
father, "but we'll git to the meetin'-house before thee
Good boys they were—always ready to go to meetin',
always glad to perform what they believed was a solemn
duty; but they felt themselves too big and manly to
ride in the wagon with the rest of the family. I
watched them as they cantered briskly down the lane and
out into the main road, their white shirt-sleeves
flapping funnily in the wind, and their burly awkward
forms rising and falling with the motion of their
steeds. Just as they disappeared in the first strip of
greenwoods, father stooped suddenly, picked me up in
his strong arms and threw me bodily into the wagon upon
the heap of straw.
I was speechless, amazed, frightened. I knew not
whether I should laugh or cry, and hence did neither.
Had father treated me thus because he was in a jolly
good humor, or had he not done so to reprove me for my
fault? I was perplexed; and then I fancied that there
was a twinkle in his eye, and something like a smile
about the corners of his mouth, and I felt easier. I
settled myself on the straw with my feet over the
tail-board of the wagon, and wondered what would happen
"I think he was playing," said Inviz, nestling down
beside me; "but wasn't thee a bad boy to throw that
stick of kindling?"
Had I felt sure that father meant to play with me, I
 would have been the happiest boy in the world. But I
had grave doubts. Never in my life had I known him to
play with any one; and, besides, he was too old, too
wise, too great a man to indulge in frivolities of any
sort. No; he had seen me give way to a fit of temper,
and this was his way of punishing me for it.
"Thee deserves more than that," said Inviz; "for thee
was very wicked."
Father climbed into the wagon and took his place on the
driver's seat. He looked at me, for a moment, not
unpleasantly, and then, without saying a word, turned
toward the horses and took the long lines in his hands.
He sat up straight and stiff and thoughtful, and
silently waited for the womenfolks to appear.
And soon they came—mother and Cousin Mandy Jane, and
old Aunt Rachel with her tobacco satchel in her hand.
They closed the door behind them, and latched it to
keep out the chickens. They came demurely out to the
gate, and ascending the "uppin' block" to its topmost
level, they stepped, one after the other, into the
wagon and were soon settled comfortably down on the
heap or straw. The faces of mother and aunt were pretty
well hidden within their stiff plain bonnets of
dove-colored silk, and yet I could see that they bore a
tranquil expression of resignation and faith which
spoke of holiness and the Inward Light. Their looks,
their actions, their words, all reflected the day and
the occasion. Cousin Mandy Jane was resplendent in a
pasteboard pink sunbonnet and new linsey-woolsey gown;
and as she sat down beside me, her shining countenance
betokened the pleasure which she anticipated from this
brief respite from household cares.
And now, at last, we were off, on our way to meetin'!
 The day, as I have said, was a glorious one—a day in
which to see visions and dream dreams. Father sat erect
and silent, guiding our ancient horses in the way they
should go, while in his large mind he pondered upon
subjects of a nature both vast and perplexing. The
women gave themselves up to the solemn joy of the hour,
talking but little, and seeing nothing but the rough
road and the jogging horses and now and then a plowed
field or a new deadening in the woods. As for myself, I
sat high up on the straw in the rear of the wagon, my
bare feet dangling out behind, while with eyes and ears
alert, I took notice of every new sight or unusual
Thus we rode onward between various clearings and
through strips of greenwoods, now jolting over
causeways and projecting roots and stones, now
splashing through miry bogs and mud-holes, anon dashing
down a breakneck hill to cross a sluggish stream at the
bottom, and then creeping laboriously up a rough and
winding ascent to a smoother and more traveled highway
on the hilltop whence we could see the Dry Forks
meetin'-house at no great distance.
To me although my joy was tempered by frequent qualms
of conscience and a dreadful sinking of spirits, the
journey was a triumphal one. My imagination conjured up
a thousand wonderful happenings, as enjoyable and
profitable as though they had actually occurred. I
fancied that the birds stopped singing, and the little
wood beasts paused in their play, to look at the small
white-haired lad so beautifully arrayed in vest of
rainbow colors and in robin and breeches of blue.
At one place, a squirrel peeped round the trunk of a
walnut tree and called to his mate across the road:
 "See that little fellow on the straw? He is going to
meetin' to learn how to be good."
And his mate replied, "Surely, he needs to learn. It
was very wicked in him to throw that stick."
Then an old crow that was perched on the topmost dead
branch of a near-by oak, looked down and nodded
knowingly as we passed beneath him. I thought of the
verses which I had laughed over and repeated with
"The crow, the great black crow,"
and suddenly I fancied that the wise sleek bird was
talking to me.
"Caw! caw!" he hoarsely croaked. "Howdy, Robert,
howdy-do? If thee'll love me, I'll love thee, too. Caw!
caw! It's nice to be a good little boy, ain't it?"
And Inviz, who had been sitting by me all the time,
pinched my arm and responded, "Yes, it's nice to be
good, but it's mighty wicked to throw sticks of
kindling at folks."
Thus, in a state of mind alternating between exultation
and self-condemnation, I rode onward to the house of
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