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James Baldwin

The Awakening

O F all the presents received on that ever memorable Christmas day, none was more highly esteemed than the copy of the National Era  which was included in the small bundle of good literature from E. M. and her mother. Father seemed a little shy of it at first; he had so long cherished the belief that newspapers were dangerous things to be admitted into a well-ordered household that he hesitated before permitting me to read it. He proceeded, therefore, to examine it himself in order to see whether there was anything of a demoralizing tendency in its columns.

His eyes fell first upon the column headed "Latest Intelligence by Magnetic Telegraph,"  and his attention was at once riveted. Sitting beside me on that Christmas afternoon, with the big printed sheet spread out before him, he read each item of news aloud while I looked on with rapt attention. The date at the head of the first column showed that the paper was several weeks old, but that did not in the least distract from its interest.

"It's wonderful," said father, as he finished the telegraphic column. "Why, here we may sit beside our own fireplace, safe at home, and know all about what is going on a thousand miles away! It was not so in my boyhood."

Then he examined other portions of the paper—reading the market reports, the editorials, the comments on slavery, the advertisements—and his face glowed with interest and satisfaction. He glanced critically at some of the more lengthy articles, to make sure that no poisonous matter was lurking there under disguise, and finally, refolding the sheet, he handed it to me.

"What does thee think of it, father?" queried mother. "Does thee think it is safe to let him read it?"

"I find nothing in it that is not instructive and true," he answered. "I have long thought that perhaps Benjamin Seafoam was right when he said that it is every man's duty to keep himself informed about what is going on in the world. Thee may remember that he urged me to become a subscriber to the National Era,  and I have been considering the matter quite seriously for some time."

"And what is thee goin' to do about it?"

"I must say that I am very much inclined to take his advice. The Widder Bright showed me several numbers of the paper one day, and they were all as free from fault as this one. And Levi Coffin, when I met him at Larnceburg, assured me that one of the greatest powers for good in this country is the National Era. Barnabas Hobbs, when he was here, also advised me to subscribe for it, because of the bold stand which it takes against slavery."

"Well, Stephen, if thy mind is clear, thee is at liberty to do as thee thinks best," said mother resignedly.

In the meanwhile, I had again unfolded the paper and was looking at the headings of the various editorial items and contributed articles. One of these contributions seemed so different from anything else that I gave it a careful examination. I read a few paragraphs. It was an account of "life among the lowly"—a story of slaves and slavery. The beginning of it must have been printed in an earlier issue of the paper, for here the reader was introduced into the midst of things and the chapters were numbered as high as "Six" or "Seven." I soon got the hang of the narrative, however, and I read on until I reached the end of the instalment.

"Here's something you'll all want to listen to," I said.

"What is it?" asked father.

"It's about a slave, named Tom, who read his Bible and was sold to a wicked trader, and about some other slaves that were running away to Canada. But the account stops before it gets to the end."

"What's the name of the piece, Robert?" asked Cousin Mandy Jane, looking over my shoulder.

I answered by pointing to the story itself. "There it is: Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. Uncle Tom was sold away from his cabin."

"I wonder if it's a true account," said mother, always a little suspicious of the genuineness of things. "Mebbe it's one of them there stories that people sometimes jist make up out of their imaginations."

"It reads like a true account," I answered. "It tells of things that happened not long ago in Kentucky. If we only had the beginning and the end of it, I think I would like it almost as well as Robinson Crusoe."

The next evening, when we were all sitting very close together before the fire to keep warm—for the weather was exceeding cold—father spoke up suddenly and said:

"Robert, suppose thee reads that piece in the Era  about Uncle Thomas's log cabin. I think we'd all like to hear it."

I needed no further invitation, for the thought of thus furnishing entertainment for the rest of the family appealed strongly to my vanity. With a little quiver of pleasurable excitement in my voice I began. I read of the slave woman's visit to Uncle Tom's cottage, of her flight across the country with her child in her arms, of her escape from the bloodhounds, and of her fearful crossing of the 'Hio River on cakes of floating ice. As I read, my hearers grew more and more attentive, anxious, impatient to learn the fate of Eliza, eager to know more about Uncle Tom—and then, just as the tension was strongest, came the abrupt ending with the words, "To be continued."

"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" exclaimed David. "Is that the eend of it?"

"That's all there is in this paper," I answered; "but it says it's to be continued, and that means that the rest of it will be in the next number."

"I'd like to know if that there Lizy acshully got away," remarked Cousin Mandy Jane.

"So'd I," said Jonathan; "and I'd like to know what become of good old Uncle Thomas who had that there cabin. I'll bet he licked that there master of his'n afore he got through with him."

"No doubt all that will be told in the next number," said father; "and I confess that I have some curiosity about it myself."

"Seems to me," remarked Aunt Rachel, "seems to me that if we knowed how it all begun, we'd know more'n we do. This hearin' the middle of a thing and leavin' both eends off, unsight, unseen, is aggravatin'."

"That's what I think," said mother. "We don't know who Lizy was, we don't know why she run off, we don't know much of anything 'cept that she did run off."

"And 'scaped 'cross the 'Hio," added Cousin Mandy Jane.

"Well, father, what's thee goin' to do about it?" queried mother. "Thee spoke something about subscribin'; but if thee don't feel free, maybe we can borry the next number from the Widder Bright."

"I will take the matter under advisement," answered father, in his old-time dignified manner. Then, having taken the paper and refolded it very carefully, he pushed his chair backward a little and put an end to the conversation by saying, "David, thee may fetch me the Book."

The very next day father carried a dollar to the Widder Bright, with the request that it be forwarded to Levi Coffin and by him sent to the proper person, in payment for a new subscription to the National Era;  and moreover, he borrowed from her the precious earlier numbers of that paper which contained the opening chapters of the story. "We'll do as much for thee, some time," he told her by way of thanks.

In the evening, when we were again assembled, there was much more reading to be done and we solved the mystery of "Who was Lizy?" and "What made her run away?" And when, a little later on, our own paper began to arrive with some regularity through the new Dry Forks post-office, we devoted one evening in each week—generally Seventh-day evening—to following the varied fortunes of good old Uncle Tom and his friends and masters.

"I do wonder if all that really did happen," remarked mother with some degree of frequency.

And father would invariably answer, "It could have happened, and it probably did. In any case, the narrative is founded on facts, and we are at liberty to believe that it is true."

But our reading—that is, mine and father's—did not stop with this wonderful serial story. We read every article in each successive number of the Era; and besides keeping ourselves well informed with reference to current events, we gradually became deeply interested in politics, especially on all points in which the subject of slavery was touched upon. As for myself, it was not long until I had developed into a partisan of the most radical type, and I wished that I was a man so that I could make myself heard in the councils of the nation. It seemed to me that all the good people were ranged together on one side of the political fence, and all the villains on the other—and to this day, my dear Leonidas, you will find a number of grown-up men who cherish the same idea.

My lameness continuing throughout the winter, I was unable to do anything but sit in the easy chair which father had made specially for me, and read, read, read. The floor beside me was usually littered with several of my favorite volumes, and whenever I grew tired of perusing one, it was easy enough to reach down and select another.

The little story of The Shepherd-Boy Philosopher,  which E. M.'s mother had so thoughtfully sent me, was the source of much inspiration; and if I were to make a list of "the books that have helped me," I think that I should include it among the very best. In the first place, the book was written in a most attractive style—a style worthy of its author, the originator and founder of Punch,  which to this day is the ne plus ultra  of first-class humorous journalism. In the second place, what could be more uplifting than the story, the true story, of how a little shepherd lad had educated himself—how, in spite of poverty and hard knocks and the lack of opportunities, he had made himself famous among the astronomers and inventors of Great Britain? For a time, therefore, Jamie Ferguson was my pattern saint, the model of industry and perseverance whom I resolved to emulate and imitate. I, too, would be an astronomer, I would be an inventor, I would educate myself.

The book on "The Stellar Universe" (also from E. M. and her mother) was a great help toward forwarding my astronomical ambitions. It was a thin stiff-backed little volume, hard to read and still harder to understand; but the maps were excellent, and I soon learned how to use them. On many clear winter nights, mother would wheel my trundle-bed to a convenient place underneath the northern sky. Then, with the right map fresh in my memory, I would lie there and imagine myself Jamie Ferguson, watching sheep on the Scottish hills and studying the starry heavens. Inviz, now grown quite steady and thoughtful, would creep under the bedcovers with me; and with both our heads on the same little pillow, we would watch the Great Bear circle around the pole-star while other constellations marched in orderly procession across our field of vision.

"Ain't it wonderful?" my playmate would exclaim.

"Yes; and to think that they are all so very large and far, far away! And when Jamie Ferguson lay on the cold ground among his sheep, and looked up at them, he saw them just as we see them now."

"Well, you ought to be thankful that you have so many more opportunities than Jamie had. Only think of it! Instead of shivering on the bleak hills as he did, with all those sheep to take care of, you have nothing to do but to lie here in this warm trundle-bed while the stars march past the window. Just see! There is Ursa Major, and there is Ursa Minor, and there is Arcturus—"

And so we kept it up until we both fell asleep. I learned more of astronomy in that one winter, so long ago, than I have ever learned since.

With the earliest approach of spring, the tide of progress in the New Settlement began to make itself apparent as never before. Father said that it was all on account of the opening of the railroad through Dashville, thus bringing the markets to our doors; but there were, no doubt, other reasons for the great awakening that was at hand. New settlers were daily coming our way. All the government lands had been sold, and now the larger holdings were being divided and subdivided into farms of eighty or often of forty acres. New houses were being built, new clearings were opened, the big woods were fast disappearing. With the establishing of the post-office at Dry Forks, the little crossroads had begun to develop into a village. Strangers who did not speak the plain language were coming in and building houses; and the monopoly which Our Society had long held on matters religious was in danger of serious inroads from the "Methodisters" and other worldly people.

The spirit of progress, if I may call it so, was in the air; it seemed to be getting in the rear of all those sober, staid, slow-moving people who had been resting so long in the same notch—getting in their rear and pushing them along, whether they wished to go or not. Scarcely a day passed now that we did not see from one to a score of white-covered movers' wagons plodding northward or westward along the main highways. Some of these would stop in our own neighborhood, some were on their way to the more thinly settled sections of the state, and many were bound for what was then the distant West—the Illinois Country, the Missouri, and the new state of Iowa on the very verge of the world. These movers had come from many different localities in the older states—from Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia, but the most of those that tarried near us were from classic old Carolina or from Tennessee.

Surely, things were waking up; and father when he observed it, was moved to the frequent repetition of Bishop Berkeley's famous line:

"Westward the course of empire takes its way."

The state of Indiana, which for the life of a generation had rested almost dormant, was experiencing the new birth. Hitherto she had been known chiefly as a region of mighty forests, of dismal swamps, of miasmatic streams—a country of backwoodsmen and "hushers" (hoosiers), of isolated settlements, of social experiments and of native simplicity and rustic barbarity. Now she had arrived at the parting of the ways. A new constitution was going into effect, a system of free public schools had been provided for and would soon be established, canal routes were being improved, railroads were being built, people everywhere were beginning to have some idea of the vastness of the natural resources that were waiting to be developed in this, until now, backward commonwealth. The middle ages in the Middle West were fast drawing to an end; the era of modern progress was beginning. And the changes that were taking place in the state at large were reflected or reproduced in scores of communities or settlements, and in thousands of humble homes.