| 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 |
A MEMORABLE OCCASION
OR a whole week, yes, for two sunny weeks in early autumn,
the entire feminine portion of our household was busy
making preparations for the approaching "quart'ly
meetin'," which was to be held for three days in the
Dry Forks meetin'-house. Scarcely anything else was
talked about, and the air seemed full of
prognostications of the coming event. For, our
big-house being completed, we were prepared to
accommodate a goodly number of visiting Friends; and
the people of the Settlement were expecting a great
impouring of strangers and of traveling ministers from
foreign parts. Indeed, it had been officially announced
that, besides the usual contigents from Wayne and White
Lick, we were to be favored with the presence of
distinguished visitors from Carliny and even from
far-away, fabulous England.
At the time of which I am writing, these quarterly
gatherings were the four great festivals of the year.
Not only the members of Our Society, but all the wordly
in the New Settlement looked forward to their
recurrence with the keenest interest. Although of a
strictly religious character, they brought with them a
species of holiday recreation which everybody relished.
The more modern assemblies for combined improvement and
enjoyment; it antedated the country fair and the
baseball game, neither of which had yet been dreamed
of; and it
 attracted curiousity-seekers and pleasure-goers from
the four corners of the earth.
My father's well-known hospitality, no less than the
fact of his being a leader in the New Settlement,
always insured for us a goodly number of distinguished
and undistinguished guests. and in anticipation of this
influx of Friends and strangers, making necessary the
feeding and lodging of many people without money and
without price, we began our preparation early and on a
scale of considerable magnitude.
Three days before the opening of the meeting, the
bustle at our house had reached fever heat. Early in
the morning, Aunt Nancy and Cousin Sally
arrived—it being their custom to come over on all
such occasions to lend their help in providing for, and
taking care of, the guests. Blithe, buxom Cousin Sally,
with her red cheeks and bouncing figure, sized up the
situation at once, put on her pink apron, rolled up her
sleeves, and attacked everything in the shape of work
that came within the range of her vision. But her
mother, grown old and feeble, found her field of
usefulness in the chimney corner opposite our Aunt
Rachel; and it was a rare good picture to see the two
old ancient dames, each with her long-stemmed pipe,
sitting hour after hour in their cozy places and
smoking and knitting and gossiping to their old hearts'
content, while everybody else was so busy and so
worried with many cares.
David and Jonathan now became butchers and purveyors.
They slew the fatted calf and the milk-fed pig, and
beheaded half a score of long-legged chickens. They
skinned the calf and cut it up into charming roasts and
chops and cutlets. They scalded the pig, and then
falling upon it with long-bladed knives, converted it
 spare-ribs and hams and pigs' feet and headcheese and
links of sausage. The slain chickens, as being too
small for grown-up young men to bother with, were
turned over to the tender mercies of Cousin Sally, who
was particularly expert in preparing fowls of whatever
kind for the dinner table.
"Thee may come and help me, Robert," she said, as
with a pail of boiling water in one hand, she gathered
up the ten limp, lifeless little bodies and threw them
in a heap by the wood-pile.
At first, I was inclined to excuse myself on the
ground of having other duties to perform; but then,
reflecting that Cousin Sally was always the best of
company, I sat down beside her and held the pail while
she dipped the chickens into the scalding fluid and
deftly deprived them of their feathers. And all the
while, there was a honey-flow of words from her mouth
which held me entranced and charmed me in a way that I
can never describe.
It was not the matter, but the matter, of her
conversation that made it so exquisite—for, like
you, my dear Leona, she seldom said anything that was
worth treasuring away in one's memory. And then, to see
those nimble fingers as they quickly reduced each
feathery fowl to a state of shameless
nakedness—to see ten headless chickens neatly
dressed in twice ten minutes—it was a pleasure
like that of witnessing some rare feat of magic, some
trick of legerdemain.
When at length the task was finished and the nude,
clammy, pitiable little bodies were laid side by side
in a row at our feet, I ventured humbly to contribute
my share to the morning's entertainment.
"Cousin Sally," I said, "does thee know that them
chickens ain't dressed?"
dressed?" she answered with some indignation. "What's
thee talkin' about? Of course they're dressed, and
dressed good, too."
"But I say they ain't dressed, and I can
prove it," I retorted. "What'll thee bet on it?"
"I won't bet on nothin'. It's wicked to bet, 'cause
the Bible says so. But I tell thee what I will do. If
thee can prove that them chickens ain't dressed, I'll
give thee three hot doughnuts out of the skillet; and
if thee cain't prove it, thee must carry in all the
wood for the cookin', to-day and to-morrow."
"That's fair—I'll do it," I said eagerly.
"Thee'd better get the doughnuts ready."
"But thee hain't proved it, and thee cain't," she
"I'll prove it right now. Listen! when thee is
stripped of all thy clothes, does thee say thee is
"Oh, shame on thee, Robert! How does thee dare to
talk that way?" And her red cheeks blushed to the
"But really, Cousin Sally, would thee be dressed?"
"Well, no, I reckon I couldn't be," and
she turned to look the other way and hide the quivering
smile that was broadening her ample mouth.
"Then why does thee say them chickens is dressed when
they hain't got a stitch of clothes on, nor even so
much as a feather? Does thee give it up?"
Cousin Sally made no reply, but quickly gathering up
all the fowls—five slender legs in each
hand—she ran trippingly into the house.
With feelings akin to those of a presidential
candidate who has stampeded a convention, or of a young
rooster who has crowed louder than his rival, I climbed
 top of the gate-post, and sat there to watch for the
coming of our earliest guests. In a little while I
heard soft footsteps near me, and looking down, I was
not at all surprised to see Cousin Sally. She tittered
nervously as she handed me a neat little package done
up in a plantain leaf.
"Here they are, Smarty," she said. "Eat 'em while
they're hot; and then thee may go with me to the truck
patch to git a nice yaller punkin for the punkin pies."
Thus the pleasurable excitement of preparation went
on, with scarcely an interruption, until the eve of the
day for the assembling of the quart'ly meetin'; and
then, after due investigation, mother proudly announced
that nothing remained undone—the work had been so
carefully planned and executed that everything was in
readiness for the entertainment of as many Friends as
might present themselves.
And surely they waited for no urgent invitation.
Immediately after the close of the first session of the
meeting they began to arrive—indeed a few were on
hand before. They came on foot, on horseback, in
wagons,—singly, by twos, by families—and
every one, no matter what his name or condition, was
heartily welcomed and provided for. A long table,
extemporized from some freshly-hewn puncheons, had been
erected under the cherry trees, and a smaller on was
spread in the settin'-room of the big-house. To the
former were invited the rag-tag and bobtail, the
humbler guests, the boys and girls and other
individuals who were of no special consequence. The
latter was the table of honor, the board around which
the ministers and elders and the visitors from abroad
assembled to partake of the feast.
And, oh! what a feast it was! No modern
Thanksgiv-  ing dinner could compete with it in the variety and
quantity of the viands that were freely offered to as
many as came; and the poor people under the cherry
trees were fed as liberally and with the same kind of
food as the well-to-do quality folks in the big-house.
It was expected that the young women who came would
kindly assist in waiting on the table and washing the
dishes, and that the married women would attend to the
making-up of the beds and the general care of the
house. But further than this, the entertainment was as
free as the air and as generous as old Mother Earth
herself. My parents would have scorned the suggestion
of compensation for their hospitality. "Be not
forgetful to entertain strangers" was their motto; and
they were concious of more than one occasion when they
believed they had entertained angels unawares.
Among the earlier arrivals were two or three
ministers and distinguished persons from distant parts.
As these drove up to our gate, father was there to
welcome them, each with the same hearty handshake and
the same kindly-spoken words.
"How's thee, Senith Hunt? I'm right glad to see thee.
Walk in," he said to a stately woman Friend in a drab
silk dress and black silk bonnet. She was a minister of
renown who had come all the way from Carliny to preach
love and duty to the erring ones in the New Settlement.
"How's thee, Barnabas? I'm right glad to see thee.
Walk in!" The person addressed was a middle-aged man
with a square face, and a small tuft of whiskers in
front of each ear. He held his head up with a concious
air of superiority and was very precise and methodical
in all his movements. I understood that he was the
 of a "boardin' school in Wayne," and my heart swelled
with pride at the thought of being in the presence of
such a fountain of knowledge and storehouse of wisdom.
And then there came, slouching along on foot, a poor
old reprobate from the remoter backwoods, ragged,
unkempt—an offshoot of the white trash of the
South, as worthless here as in his native hills. As he
shambled through the gate, doubtfull of his right to
appear among respectable people, father, with
outstretched hand, advanced to meet him. "How's thee,
Joshua? I'm right glad to see thee. Walk in!"
Everybody knew that his words came straight from his
heart. He welcomed even the dogs that came to eat the
crumbs which fell from the table.
As I remember, it was late in the evening when the
last and most honored of our guests—the Friend
from England—made his tardy appearance. The name
of this man had been on our tongues for many days, and
we were all agog to see what manner of person he could
be who had traveled so vast a distance to bring a
message of peace and love to our favored community.
Father was standing at the gate, benign, dignified,
self-possessed, as good a man as any Englishman that
ever lived. He met the stranger as he alighted form his
"How's thee, Benjamin Seafoam? I'm right glad to see
thee. Walk in! Thee is too late to eat dinner with the
rest of us; but come, and set down at the table, and
thee shall be served."
Before he had been with us ten minutes, our hearts
went out completely to the well-dressed,
pleasant-spoken stranger from over the sea. There was
something charming in his every action, his every word.
His manners were wonderfully different form those of
 people, and yet they were not offensive, as they would
have been if exploited by a person less natural and
sincere. Nevertheless, to their own shame, there were
some among the young men present who were disposed to
"Ain't he a queer old codger?" said David, after
carrying the stranger's saddlebags into the cabin.
"Don't he comb his hair slick? I wonder where he gits
the bear's grease to smear on it?"
"But did thee notice them fine clothes—all made
outen broadcloth?" whispered Jonathan. "They must ha'
cost a right smart sight of money."
"Did thee notice his boots, how shiny they are?"
queried one of the younger guests.
"Anyway, he's mighty good-lookin', and I like him,"
said Cousin Sally, holding her breath. "He's jist as
good as a picter to look at."
"Well, I declare, if he don't beat the juice!"
exclaimed Cousin Mandy Jane as she ran into the cabin
for a second cup of coffee for the stranger. "He's the
most politest man I ever seen, and yit he does it all
so pleasant like. I jist cain't wait till to-morrow, I
want to hear him preach so bad."
"I've an idee he's an uncommon smart person," said
Aunt Nancy from her corner of the chimney.
And Aunt Rachel, sitting opposite, nodded her head in
acquiescence, and remarked, "That's nateral, for he was
borned in England."
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