James Baldwin
Gateway to the Classics for Lifelong Learners

James Baldwin



Born in 1841 in a small Quaker settlement in the backwoods of Indiana, James Baldwin rose to become a highly-respected author and textbook editor. Largely self-educated, Baldwin became a teacher in 1865, at the age of 24. For the next 22 years he worked in various capacities in Indiana public schools, serving as superintendent for a good number of those years. For the writing he did during this period as well as his work in the Indiana public schools, Baldwin received an honorary Ph.D. from DePauw University.

In 1887 he moved east and entered the publishing world. As an editor of school books, first with Harper and Brothers and later with the American Book Company, he selected the best of our literary heritage and cast it into a form that delighted children of all ages. His influence in the first decades of the twentieth century was broad, because of all the grammar school books in use in the United States at that time, over half had been written or edited by him. He is remembered most for the books of introductory historical sketches he wrote for younger students and his retellings of the legends of the heroes for older students.

Historical Tales

Fifty Famous Stories Retold (1896) is undoubtedly the most well-known of all James Baldwin's books. A dozen stories from that volume were included in William Bennett's "Book of Virtues," which is where I first encountered them. That set me to wondering who this James Baldwin was and what books he wrote. Before long I had published the first modern reprint of "Fifty Famous Stories Retold" (2005), a title which was adopted not long afterward by Ambleside Online as a key component of their Year 1 curriculum. Our publication of modern paperback editions of Thirty More Famous Stories Retold (first published in 1905) and Fifty Famous People (first published in 1912) followed in short order. (I apologize for the bland covers on these books—they were the first I created!) As stories that appeal to all ages, these short historical tales are well-suited both for individual reading, and for reading aloud in a variety of settings.

Fifty Famous Stories Retold
Includes fifty legendary tales depicting certain romantic episodes in the lives of well-known heroes and famous men, or in the history of a people. Children naturally take a deep interest in such stories. The reading of them will not only give pleasure but will lay the foundation for broader literary studies, as nearly all are the subjects of frequent allusions in poetry and prose.  Ages 6-9

Thirty More Famous Stories Retold
This volume was written by the author in answer to the requests of hundreds of children for more stories like the ones they had enjoyed in Fifty Famous Stories Retold. This volume includes stories of historical events, scientific discoveries, and legendary heroes. The richer vocabulary and more complicated plot elements in these stories gradually accustom children to following a longer narrative.  Ages 7-10

Fifty Famous People
Offers stories about real persons who actually lived and performed their parts in the great drama of the world's history. Some of these persons were more famous than others, yet all have left enduring footprints on the 'sands of time,' and their names will be long remembered. Though not strictly biographical, each of the stories contains a basis of truth and an ethical lesson which cannot fail to have a wholesome influence. Each also possesses elements of interest that will delight the children with whom it is shared.  Ages 6-9


James Baldwin wrote three books centered around horses. The first, The Horse Fair (1895) [Internet Archive], was written for the general public. The second, The Wonder-Book of Horses (1903), consists of stories selected from "The Horse Fair" for use in schools. To give you a sense of the contents of these two books, read the Note to the Reader in "The Wonder-Book of Horses."

The last book James Baldwin wrote about horses is Fifty Famous Rides and Riders (1916) [Internet Archive]. While having a title similar to "Fifty Famous Stories Retold," its selections are longer and written at a higher level, making it well-suited for fifth and sixth grade boys and others who enjoy stories of adventure.

Hero Tales

The Story of Siegfried (1882), The Story of Roland (1883), and A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes (1887) are among Baldwin's earliest works. Written for the general public, they were published by Scribner's, as was The Sampo (1912), written much later. "The Sampo" was published as a volume in the Scribners Illustrated Classics series, with four color illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, one of which you can see in the cover image below. Not long after, "The Story of Siegfried" and "The Story of Roland" were republished in the Scribners Illustrated Classics series, with color illustrations by N. C. Wyeth's son-in-law, Peter Hurd. The last two volumes were republished in classy editions with dust jackets in the 1930s, making them available for a longer period of time than the rest of Baldwin's works.

Like "The Wonder-Book of Horses," Hero Tales Told in School (1904) [Internet Archive] is a selection from earlier works, in this case, from "The Story of Siegfried," "The Story of Roland," and "A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes." To read more about the selections in this volume and the reasons they were included, read the Introduction to Hero Tales.

One more note about "A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes"—it was originally published under the title, "A Story of the Golden Age." When Yesterday's Classics published it, we retitled it as "A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes" to make it clearer what it is about and to position it as an ideal book to read before The Iliad for Boys and Girls and The Odyssey for Boys and Girls (both by Alfred J. Church) to furnish useful background material in a most enjoyable way.

A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes
This book paves the way to an enjoyable reading of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, by presenting the legends about the causes of the Trojan War woven into a continuous narrative, ending where the story of the Iliad begins. The youthful Odysseus is the hero, as he journeys to visit his grandfather Autolycus, then Nestor and Menelaus, hearing the old stories as he goes.  Ages 8-12

The Story of Siegfried
Legends of the Nibelungen hero, Siegfried, full of the mystery, awe, and poetry of the northern lands. They tell of how Siegfried forged the wondrous sword, Balmung, of his riding through flaming fire to awaken the maiden, Brunhild, and of the many other strange and daring deeds which he wrought. Many of the Norse myths are interwoven in the tale. The best rendition for children of the Siegfried legends, based on the Eddas, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungen-lied.  Ages 11-14

The Story of Roland
Here are related the daring feats and great exploits of Roland, worthiest of the barons of France in the time of Charlemagne, and those of Oliver and Reinold and Ogier the Dane, all heroes who were his companions in arms and who rivalled him in the number and greatness of their exploits. The story is culled from the works of song-writers and poets of five centuries and in as many languages.  Ages 11-14

The Sampo
Far away in the Frozen Land in the long ago time a master wizard forged the wonderous sampo or mill of fortune, which ground out all sorts of treasures and gave wealth and power to its owner. This story, retold from the Finnish Kalevala, tells of the making of this mill and the adventures of the heroes who sought to gain possession of it.  Ages 11-14

Retellings from Ancient Times

James Baldwin produced three retellings of stories from Ancient Times—two books of stories from Greek Mythology: Old Greek Stories (1895) and The Golden Fleece: More Old Greek Stories (1905) [Google Books]; and one of tales taken from the Old Testament: Old Stories of the East (1895) [Internet Archive].

In each of these he focused on telling the stories in a way that allows children of our own time to read them in the light in which they were narrated long ago. To that end he used simple language, relegating the supernatural element as far as possible to the background, and by that means freeing the narrative from elements that might detract from its interest simply as a story.

More details about his approach can be found in the Foreword to The Golden Fleece and the Preface to Old Stories of the East.

Old Greek Stories
Delightful retelling in simple language of the stories of the old Greek mythological heroes, and their encounters with Jupiter and the other Olympians. While each story can be read independently, they can also be read as a continuous narrative, with one story leading to the next. Includes the myths of Prometheus, Io, Cadmus, Perseus, and Theseus. A pronunciation guide and numerous illustrations accompany the text.  Ages 8-10

Adaptations for Younger Readers

Two of the books that James Baldwin adapted for younger readers—Robinson Crusoe Written Anew for Children (1905) and Stories of Don Quixote Written Anew (1905)—are among the most popular on our website, showing that there is an interest in this type of literature.

In addition to these two, Baldwin penned three others. The first, Stories of the King (1913) [Internet Archive], is a collection of stories about King Arthur, gleaned from various sources. The second consists of an account of the first two voyages of Gulliver, Gulliver's Travels into Some Remote Countries (1908) [Google Books], rewritten and simplified, shortening the narratives by half, and in other ways making the story suitable for young people.

The last is an adaptation of "Pilgrim's Progress" called John Bunyan's Dream Story (1913) [Internet Archive]. In this, as in all the other adaptations, Baldwin took care to select the parts that would most delight children, arouse their interest, and fire their imaginations. In the case of preparing an adaptation of "Pilgrim's Progress," though, there was also the additional consideration of how to adapt this overtly religious work so it could be read in a school setting. Read the Foreword to John Bunyan's Dream Story to discover how he handled this issue.

Robinson Crusoe Written Anew for Children
Adaptation of the story of Robinson Crusoe for children. Relates how the shipwrecked sailor makes a new life for himself on the island, crafting shelter, food, and clothing for himself from the few tools he rescued from the ship and what he is able to find on the island. Living on the island for over twenty years before he is finally rescued, he reinvents almost everything necessary for daily sustenance.  Ages 7-9

Stories of Don Quixote Written Anew for Children
A retelling for the youthful reader of the most interesting parts of Cervantes' great novel about Don Quixote, the eccentric gentleman who fancies himself a knight-errant. The adventures most appealing to children are included, and related in such a way as to form a continuous narrative, with both the spirit and style of the original preserved as much as possible.  Ages 10-12

Fairy Tales

James Baldwin prepared four books of fairy tales, designed for children who are able to read easy narratives with some degree of facility. In the first volume, Fairy Stories and Fables (1895), there are fables also. The longer stories in this book, and all of the stories in the other three, are called fairy tales, because that is the name by which such stories are always known to children; and yet only a very few contain any direct reference to fairies. Most of them have to do with talking animals and with strange incidents and transformations such as have always delighted the childish fancy. They have been drawn from a variety of sources; and liberty has been taken to make such changes in the narratives as seemed most necessary to adapt them to the understanding and needs of the children of our own time. Free renderings, they may be called, of some of the most popular folk­tales of foreign lands.

All of the stories in Fairy Stories and Fables (1895) are taken from English, French, Norwegian, and German sources. The ten famous stories in The Fairy Reader (1905) [Internet Archive] have been adapted from Grimm and Andersen.

In both The Second Fairy Reader (1907) [no edition online] and Another Fairy Reader (1907) [Google Books], the stories are derived from a variety of sources, with each representing the folklore of a different country.

In the retelling of these tales, care has been taken to avoid whatever might distress the most sensitive child as well as everything that could distort his perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The language, although not childish in form, is so adapted to the comprehension of young children that the stories may be read by them without difficulty—affording a greater pleasure, it is hoped, than any that could be derived from the mere hearing of them from the lips of others.


In 1896 James Baldwin contributed four titles to the Werner Biographical Booklet series: The Story of Benjamin Franklin [Internet Archive], The Story of George Washington [no edition online], The Story of Daniel Webster [Internet Archive], and The Story of Abraham Lincoln [Internet Archive]. A year later, the American Book Company combined them, publishing a hardback edition containing all four lives: Four Great Americans (1897).

Later Baldwin wrote a full length biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln (1904) [Internet Archive], with a broader scope, as he expresses at the beginning of the book: "It is my aim in this book to trace, as briefly as may be, the progress of our government from the time of its organization to the end of the great civil war; and more particularly to make plain the causes and motives which brought about the tremendous crisis in which Abraham Lincoln bore so conspicuous a part."

The last title in this section, In My Youth (1914) is one of our family's all-time favorite books! A fictionalized autobiography of James Baldwin, it was originally published under the pseudonym of Robert Dudley and aroused such curiosity at the time of its publication that there was even an article in the Indianapolis Medical Journal speculating on its authorship. Action, suspense, and humor fill the pages of this book, while giving the reader an appreciation for what life was like for a farming family in a devout Quaker community in a border state in the years leading up to the Civil War. It is especially interesting to see the role that books played in the protagonist's life, given that he became a leading textbook author and editor in later life.

Four Great Americans
An engaging introduction to four of the greatest Americans-George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln. Their lives are set forth in a simple manner, yet with many interesting details, and a glimpse is given of the trials and successes which combined to mold their character and afford such stirring examples for the youth of today. The stories are patriotic in every line, readable in every paragraph, and inspire the reader to the best thoughts and deeds.  Ages 9-12

In My Youth
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

American History

In The Discovery of the Old Northwest (1901) [Internet Archive] and The Conquest of the Old Northwest (1901) [Internet Archive], James Baldwin chronicles, in a series of engaging sketches, the early history of the Old Northwest, that magnificent area of our country lying west of the Alleghenies and bounded by the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Great Lakes, and comprising the present day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota. The Old Northwest was explored by the French, taken over by the British, then ceded to the new United States by the Treaty of Paris of 1783.

Barnes's Elementary History of the United States Told in Biographies (1903) [Internet Archive] covers the period from the time of Christopher Columbus to the end of the 19th century. The writing in this volume is not likely to capture the reader's interest. If you want to read about American history told through biographies I suggest you use the two volumes by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth instead: Builders of Our Country, Book I (1914) and Builders of Our Country, Book II (1914).

An American Book of Golden Deeds (1907) was probably written in response to Charlotte M. Yonge's A Book of Golden Deeds, which relates golden deeds performed in the Old World. The stories in "An American Book of Golden Deeds" are well written and could be read with profit, one story a week, for almost a full year.

In The Story of Liberty (1919), James Baldwin describes the growth of liberty from the time of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to the end of World War I.

Prompted to write Sailing the Seas, the Log of Tom Darke (1920) [Google Books] by a request from the US Shipping Board to awaken a more general interest in American enterprise upon the seas, James Baldwin relates the adventures of the fictional Tom Darke as he records them in his log. While reading about his travels and experiences, students will acquire a store of information about ships and seas, which is as varied as it is comprehensive and useful.

The Story of Liberty
What is liberty as exemplified in American institutions? Where and how did it originate? Through what struggles and triumphs has it advanced? It is in order to answer these questions that the author presents these brief sketches, supplemented by extracts and selections, so the reader can have a panoramic view of the beginnings and growth of political liberty among English-speaking peoples.  Ages 10-12


James Baldwin was involved in the publication of three different series of readers: Harper's Readers (1888), Baldwin's Readers (1897) and Baldwin and Bender's Expressive Readers (1911).

The first three volumes in the Harper's Readers series do not list James Baldwin as an author on the title page, and are not remarkable in any way, despite their having the same "Publishers' Note" as the Fourth Reader. Here is an excerpt from this note: "These books contain a larger amount of reading-matter than the corresponding numbers of any other series in general use; in the variety and interest of their lessons they are unsurpassed; their gradation is perfect; they form a complete, unbroken series. . . .The reading-lessons have been prepared with a view towards cultivating a taste for the best style of literature as regards both thought and expression. While adapting these lessons to the understanding of children, care has been taken to avoid the opposite extreme—that of overmuch simplifying. It is desirable rather to improve the child's intellectual capacity by giving him lessons a little in advance of his present attainments. . . .Lessons inculcating moral truths are of frequent occurrence. These lessons are such as will appeal at once to the child's better nature and strengthen his love for right-doing. Lessons intended to cultivate an appreciation of the wonderful and the beautiful in nature, and to introduce the pupil to a knowledge of the achievements of science and art, are given due prominence."

Harper's Fourth Reader, the first in the series with James Baldwin listed as author, does contain a few interesting selections, thereby living up to its billing to some extent. Harper's Fifth and Sixth Readers, which also list James Baldwin as author, definitely do, so they are well worth considering for possible use. The Fifth Reader includes works of both American and British authors, while the Sixth Reader contains selections from the works of British authors only. I urge you to read both the "Publishers' Note" and the "To Teachers and Pupils" section in the Sixth Reader, in which the editor speaks of his purposes in making the selections he did and challenges the reader to engage in practices that will further his ability to read well. Then examine the Table of Contents in the Sixth Reader and marvel at the readings included.

Harper's Readers

Baldwin's Readers, from the Third Year on, are all worthy of consideration. Each volume has its own preface which gives the focus for the volume in question. An excerpt from the Preface to the Third Year sets the stage: "The successive stories, poems, and other pieces have been chosen so as to present a varied succession of thoughts and images pleasing to the child—thus stimulating his interest from day to day, arousing his curiosity, directing his imagination, and adding to his store of knowledge. . . .Among [the features in this volume], special attention may be called to the following: the literary quality of all the selections; the adaptations from the classics of our language, introducing the pupil to certain famous books and their authors; the numerous lessons in nature study; the many stories of a moral or ethical character which will appeal to the child's better nature and strengthen his love of right-doing; lessons relating to the history of our country or to the lives of great men; short pieces to be memorized, occurring here and there throughout the volume."

In reading the selections from the Fifth Year, "Considerable time should be occupied in observing and discussing the literary contents, the author's manner of narrating a story, of describing an action or an appearance, of portraying emotion, of producing an impression upon the mind of the reader or hearer. The pupils should be encouraged to seek for and point out the particular passages or expressions in each selection which are distinguished for their beauty, their truth, or their particular adaptability to the purpose in view."

The Preface in the Seventh Year reader explains how this volume prompts pupils to broaden their reading: "Care has been taken to place before the young reader such selections as will be interesting to him and will inspire him with a desire to read still more upon the same subjects or from the same authors; for it is only by loving books and learning to know them that any one can become a really good reader. Many of the selections are introduced or followed by historical or bibliographical notes designed to assist the learner's understanding, to broaden his knowledge of good books, or to suggest suitable supplementary reading on various topics of interest. The notes on 'Authors and Books' near the end of the volume carry out this idea more fully." The Suggestions beginning on page 225 of this volume are particularly recommended. Similar aids are provided at the end of the Eighth Year reader. Any student who reads through volumes three to eight of this series in the manner described would be well on his way to becoming a top-notch reader.

Baldwin's Readers

On the other hand, I have little positive to say about Baldwin and Bender's Expressive Readers. The focus in the series appears to be on oral expression rather than the development of proficient readers. For a given level, the selections in this series are nowhere near as challenging as the selections in the Baldwin's Readers series, nor are there the aids or exhortations to the student inspiring him to grow in reading ability that there are throughout the Baldwin's Readers series. While the selections in the latter volumes of the Baldwin and Bender's Expressive Readers series are good, they are better suited for reading several years earlier. I find it hard to believe that James Baldwin contributed anything to this series other than his name on the front cover and title page.

Baldwin and Bender's Expressive Readers

English Literature

James Baldwin's An Introduction to the Study of English Literature and Literary Criticism (1882) [Internet Archive] is a comprehensive work that can be employed as a practical guide to systematic reading and study. It includes typical selections, illustrative criticisms, and exhaustive analyses of the best and most notable works in the English language, with copious references, suggestions, and aids for the student and general reader. The arrangement of subjects is such as to allow the study of literature to be begun with any chapter and followed in any order.

For younger students, James Baldwin put together a shorter introduction to literature: Essential Studies in English and American Literature (1886) [Google Books]. This volume is similar in scope to H.E. Marshall's English Literature for Boys and Girls, which I recommend you use instead of this book, though you may find some material in Baldwin's book that would provide supplementary material for topics of interest in Marshall's tome.

The first four volumes of the Select English Classics series, prepared by James Baldwin, look promising for use with upper level students: Six Centuries of English Poetry (1892) [Internet Archive], The Book of Elegies (1893) [Internet Archive], The Famous Allegories (1893) [Internet Archive], and Choice English Lyrics (1894) [Internet Archive]. According to the Publishers' Note in the first volume, "The series will include an extensive variety of selections chosen from the different departments of English literature, and arranged and annotated for the uses of classes in schools. . . . Each volume will contain copious notes, critical, explanatory, and biographical, besides the necessary vocabularies, glossaries, and indexes."

Nine Choice Poems (1906) [Internet Archive], originally prepared by Baldwin for eighth-grade students in New York, presents poems that are conspicuous for their beauty of thought and expression, and are intended to help lead the young to an appreciation of the highest forms of poetry. In the Preface the author writes, "The explanatory notes are brief and few; for the introductory sketches are intended to awaken such interest in the poem as a whole as will lead pupils to discover for themselves whatever is most needful to understand. The biographical sketches are designed chiefly for reference." This volume would seem to be a good choice to use before delving into the titles in the Select English Classics series described above.

What To Read

The Book-Lover (1888) [Internet Archive] is a guide to the best reading, according to the title page, which, in the words of its author, "explains its plan and purpose. The courses of reading and the schemes for practical study are the outgrowth of the author's long experience as a lover of books and director of reading." The Book-Lover went through many revisions. The copy that I have is the fifteenth edition printed in 1910. While this volume may be of historical interest to some, its book lists for both adults and children are too dated to be of much use today. The narrative, about the sorts of books to read and why, may be of greater interest.

Similarly, A Guide to Systematic Readings in the Encyclopaedia Britannica [Internet Archive] went through multiple editions as well. It was first published in 1895, when the Encyclopaedia Britannica was in its 9th edition. After the Britannica was sold to an American partnership in 1901, the 10th edition of the Encyclopedia was produced. At that time, a new edition of the guide, titled "A Guide to Systematic Readings in the New Twentieth Century Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica," was published to correspond to the 10th edition of the Britannica. No new edition of the guide seems to have been published, though, for the highly acclaimed 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which made its appearance in 1911. This is an unfortunate omission, considering that the 11th edition of the Britannica is now readily available online through Project Gutenberg.


Of the more than fifty books that James Baldwin prepared, a handful are not to be missed. Into that category fall Fifty Famous Stories Retold, Thirty More Famous Stories Retold, and Fifty Famous People, as well as The Story of Roland, The Story of Siegfried, The Sampo, and A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes. Last, but certainly not least, in the not-to-be-missed category is In My Youth, the fictionalized autobiography of James Baldwin. All of these titles are available in Yesterday's Classics paperback editions.

The Adaptations for Younger Readers, Fairy Tales, and Horse Books are all fine reading, and I would recommend them without hesitation if you find that they appeal to your students. Two of these volumes have been published by Yesterday's Classics in paperback editions, with another two available for online reading. The other titles I would be willing to add to the online library at Gateway to the Classics, if there is sufficient interest.

I am intrigued by the possibilities of using the later volumes of the Harper's Readers and Baldwin's Readers, as well as some of the titles in the English Literature section. Let me know how you find them if you try them out.

I hope that all of you who have gotten this far have enjoyed reading about the books authored by James Baldwin as much as I have enjoyed doing research about them! I welcome your feedback! — Lisa Ripperton

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