BLTC Press Titles

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The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Rudolf Steiner

Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley

The Secret Doctrine, Volume I Cosmogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

A. Conan Doyle

John Brown

by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois


A Tall big boy of twelve or fifteen, "barefoot and bareheaded, with buckskin breeches suspended often with one leather strap over his shoulder'" roamed in the forests of northern Ohio. He remembered the days of his coming to the strange wild land—the lowing oxen, the great white wagon that wandered from Connecticut to Pennsylvania and over the swelling hills and mountains, where the wide-eyed urchin of five sat staring at the new world of wild beast and the wilder brown men. Then came life itself in its realness—the driving of cows and the killing of rattlesnakes, and swift free rides on great mornings alone with earth and tree and sky. He became "a rambler in the wild new country, finding birds and squirrels and sometimes a wild turkey's nest." At first the Indians filled him with strange fear. But his kindly old father thought of Indians as neither vermin nor property and this fear "soon wore off and he used to hang about them quite as much as was consistent with good manners."

'The quotations in this chapter are from John Brown's Autobiography, Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, pp.

The tragedy and comedy of this broad silent life turned on things strangely simple and primitive— the stealing of "three large brass pins" ; the disappearance of the wonderful yellow marble which an Indian boy had given him; the love and losing of a little bob-tailed squirrel for which he wept and hunted the world in vain; and finally the shadow of death which is ever here—the death of a ewelamb and the death of the boy's own mother.

All these things happened before he was eight and they were his main education. He could dress leather and make whip-lashes; he could herd cattle and talk Indian ; but of books and formal schooling he had little.

"John was never quarrelsome, but was excessively fond of the hardest and roughest kind of plays, and could never get enough of them. Indeed when for a short time he was sometimes sent to school, the opportunity it afforded to wrestle and snowball and run and jump and knock off old seedy wool hats, offered to him almost the only compensation for the confinements and restraints of school.

"With such a feeling and but little chance of going to school at all, he did not become much of a scholar. He would always choose to stay at home and work hard rather than be sent to school." Consequently, "he learned nothing of grammar, nor did he get at school so much knowledge of common arithmetic as the four ground rules."

Almost his only reading at the age of ten was a little history to which the open bookcase of an old friend tempted him. He knew nothing of games or sports; he had few or no companions, but, "to be sent off through the wilderness alone to very considerable distances was particularly his delight. ... By the time he was twelve years old he was sent off more than a hundred miles with companies of cattle." So his soul grew apart and alone and yet untrammeled and unconfined, knowiug all the depths of secret self-abasement, and the heights of confident self-will. With others he was painfully diffident and bashful, and little sins that smaller souls would laugh at and forget loomed large and awful to his heart-searching visiou. John had "a very bad foolish habit. ... I mean telling lies, generally to screen himself from blame or from punishment," because "he could not well endure to be reproached and I now think had he been oftener encouraged to be entirely frank ... he would not have been so often guilty of this fault, nor have been (in after life) obliged to struggle so long with so mean a habit."

Such a nature was in its very essence religious, even mystical, but never superstitious nor blindly trustful in half-known creeds and formulas. His family was not rigidly Puritan in its thought and discipline but had rather fallen into the mild heathenism of the hard-working frontier until just before John's birth. Then, his father relates in quaint Calvinistic patois: "I lived at home in 1782; this was a memorable year, as there was a great revival of religion in the town of Canton. My mother and my older sisters and brother John dated their hopes of salvation from that summer's revival under the ministry of the Eev. Edward Mills. I cannot say as I was a subject of the work ; but this I can say that I then began to hear preaching. I can now recollect most if not all of those I heard preach, and what their texts were. The change in our family was great; family worship set up by brother John was ever afterward continued. There was a revival of singing in Canton and our family became singers. Conference meetings were kept up constantly and singing meetings—all of which brought our family into a very good association— a very great aid of restraining grace."

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