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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   





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 said.

"Yes," I answered. "Let's have a good romp here under the trees."

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."

[87] 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 my dreams:

"Robert, thee come and git ready for meetin'! Be quick!" It was Cousin Mandy Jane, calling from the door-step.

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 woods [88] 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 hereafter.

But mother met me at the door and in her pleasant [89] 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 mother.

"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- [90] 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 Wayne.

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 [91] 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 waited.

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."

[92] 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 does."

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 next:

"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 [93] 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'! [94] 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 sound.

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:

[95] "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 Cousin Sally—

"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 worship.

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