My Little Learning: A Fragment of Autobiography

ONE day, while fording a river a few miles from our home, my father was shot and killed. I was fifteen at the time, large and strong for my age, and the oldest of five children. When the news of my father’s death was brought to us my mother was hanging out the family wash. Without a word of comment she continued her task. When she had finished she quietly removed my rifle from the wall and handed it to me. Words were unnecessary. These things are understood and appreciated in the West Virginia mountains.

Nevertheless, certain things caused me to hesitate. First, I had but recently joined the church, an undertaking not lightly entered into on my part. Secondly, through the kindness of Mr. Roberts, a Sunday School missionary of the Presbyterian faith, I had read a number of good books such as Scott’s Waverley Novels, Tennyson’s Idylls, a translation of Josephus, and the historical sections of the Bible. These influences, however, though powerful in their way, were hardly sufficient to counteract the training of generations, and there is no knowing what the course of my life might have been had not my father’s murderer got into difficulties with the revenue men shortly after the murder, and begun a long sojourn at the state penitentiary.

About the same time my friend Mr. Roberts found a man ready to be interested in me. Without letting me know what he was about, he had written to a number of rich acquaintances in the hope of placing me in a good school, and at last a prominent Washington philanthropist had responded and offered to defray the expenses of my education.

It is difficult to describe my feelings when I learned of this possibility. The problem of providing daily bread for my mother and brothers and sisters was, fortunately, not mine. Although the mountaineers are poor, I have never known a case of actual want. Somehow there is always enough to go round: a few mouths more or less make little difference where large families are the rule. In this emergency an uncle offered my family the shelter of his home. My mother, while not wholly dependent, was in straitened circumstances, and by accepting my uncle’s offer she could at once bestow and receive aid, as my three small cousins had been left motherless the preceding winter. Still my youngest brother was but eight months old; the other children were small, and I fancied that a certain exemplary influence was due from me. This was really the one thing that held me back from immediately accepting Mr. Roberts’s help, for the call of adventure was strong within me, and I had formed from my reading all sorts of fantastic notions about the ‘world beyond.’

Mr. Roberts and I discussed the situation many times. He believed that it was my duty to go, because I could thereby accomplish more good in the world. He never failed to point out what his opportunities for service might have been had he been equipped with a college education. In the end I agreed to prepare myself for the ministry of God, and two months later I had made my first sally into the world about which I had read so much and knew so little, and was matriculated for the second semester of the school year.


Looking back, it seems as if from earliest childhood I had known the time would come, eventually, when I should go forth seeking new worlds to conquer. Our home, a crude, onestory, undressed-plank dwelling, was situated in plain view of Bald Mountain, so named because of the sparse vegetation at its crest. This mountain was celebrated locally for two reasons. First, because of certain mysterious lights, called, by the superstitious, Jim Clark’s Lights: Jim Clark, according to the story, was beheaded by a man with an axe, and Jim’s spirit still searched for his head. The mountain owed its further distinction to the road that zigzagged back and forth across its sides and disappeared over Yellow Gap into the ‘world beyond.’ One of my earliest remembrances is listening to the wails of the screech owls on Bald Mountain and wondering what lay over the top.

College did not suggest itself to me as a practical goal until Mr. Roberts made it possible, but long pondering upon the pages of Ivanhoe, many chapters of which I knew by heart, as well as upon the other books which I have mentioned, had gone far to convince me that my sphere of action was somewhere beyond my native hills.

I was encouraged in this idea by my father, a hearty, good-natured giant of a man who never quite got over his pleasure at having a son who knew more than the village school-teacher. Those were gala days for me when I was permitted to accompany him on foot to the village store. On such occasions he never failed to dwell at length upon the circumstances of his own youthful quest for adventure, and I used to listen breathless to his thrilling stories of life in the Arizona deserts, of barroom encounters with the greasers, of the exploits of the Rough Riders in Cuba. But an unlucky bullet at San Juan Hill brought him back home to convalesce, and finally to marry.

If my mother had any plans for my future, she never divulged them. As I have already indicated, emotion in any contingency was not a part of her make-up. Nor was she given to trafficking in words either in or out of the family. Her extreme reticence in a country where gossip is a vital factor in community life brought her respect but no friends. Even my father never knew what my mother was thinking about, and I am sure I never did. Of the older children, I was the only one to show a predisposition toward learning. A sister, two years younger than I, held my studious aspirations in great contempt. There was a famous lazy man near us named Zeb Barnes, and for two or three years she persisted in addressing me as ‘Mistuh Zeb,’much to my discomfiture. Needless to say, this habit led to many domestic altercations.

A younger sister, who was nine at the time of my father’s death, was sickly from birth, and I believe could neither read nor write her own name. The other children, both boys, were infants when I left home.


My benefactor did not do things by halves. The preparatory school I entered was old in years and traditions. No doubt the old campus clock had looked down upon many strange sights, but I doubt if it had ever seen a stranger sight than I when I arrived. In my hand I proudly carried a brandnew straw-covered suitcase, while on my back reposed an equally new illfitting mackinaw, topped off by an army campaign-hat which had struck me as headgear at once distinctive and useful! For two days I was the butt of all jokes. But after I had emerged victorious from a scramble destined to go down as one of the bloodiest fights in the history of the school, I was left respectfully to myself.

That first term at preparatory school stands out as the one supremely religious period of my life. Separated from friends and loved ones, with no sympathetic understanding of what was going on about me, it was only natural that I should turn to God for comfort. In Him I found that peace of spirit that passeth all understanding. During the warm spring evenings I used to walk far into the country. Darkness often found me sitting on some log in the depths of the forest or listening to the drone of insects in some deserted graveyard. At night especially, when men betook themselves to artificially lighted houses, leaving the great outdoors free from intrusion, I felt a glorious something throbbing within me which I knew was the presence of the Creator. Thus the first term passed. It is, alas, an unfortunate circumstance that so much of our lives is occupied with changing interests. By the opening of the fall term I had learned enough about this world beyond ‘ to know that the surest way to get along was to bow to the wishes of the multitude. Coincident with my arrival there had been a great hullabaloo about a game called football. I went out, practised faithfully, and made the team. From then on a change gradually came over me. I was one of the ‘gang.’ In time I came to like it.

The remainder of my prep-school career was little different from that of the rich men’s sons with whom I associated daily. I had plenty of spending-money, therefore I bought expensive tailored clothes. I learned the accepted haircuts, the latest fads in neckwear, and the art of talking glibly about nothing. To the faculty I gave serious consideration only at examination time. They were scorned as nonentities, who could not make a living in the business world. Strangely enough I never questioned this judgment. Friends of the ‘Glad to see you back’ variety I had in abundance, but not one friend like Mr. Roberts, with whom I could commune soul to soul and be sure of a sympathetic response. An idea of how much I had changed — progressed, perhaps — may be gained from the fact that I was president of my graduating class. And I really felt the serious responsibility of my position!

My social training at preparatory school was a distinct advantage to me later at college. There an exclusive fraternity welcomed me as a brother. Again I made many friendships of the lighter sort. I am not boasting when I say that I believe I had as large a speaking acquaintance among the faculty and students as any man in the University. The way to ‘get things,’ I was informed by a well-meaning senior brother soon after my initiation, was to make myself known. The things he referred to had to do with pins, badges, keys, and emblems of every conceivable shape and design. It was generally conceded in my set that the man who could display the most hardware at graduation was the man whose college career had been the most successful. I collected fifteen of these souvenirs during four years, a very creditable record, and managed to occupy a quarter-page in the class book, but so far these advantages have not aided me in ‘getting the things’ of life.

In my junior year I grew a small moustache, not without thinking how ridiculous I should appear in my own home, and attended a few college dances. These I enjoyed only as a spectator. Somehow, amid the blare of the saxophones, the thumpety-thump of the drums, and the utter abandonment of the dancers to the rhythm of their own bodies, I heard the beat of savage tom-toms and I pondered upon the thing we call Civilization.

If I had any special intellectual bent in college it was in the direction of philosophy. Religion, I found, was freely discussed both in and out of the classroom. Early in my first term I heard a freshman refer to the New Testament, which I had always revered as inspired by God, as the work of a few ‘crackbrain reformers.’ Imagine my surprise when the instructor, instead of reprimanding the student for the unpardonable sin of blasphemy, actually complimented him upon his choice of language! Later I discovered that Christ was not the Son of God sent down to redeem a sinful world, but the originator of a new philosophy of living; that even Heaven and Hell were fanciful myths, since the soul, in all probability, was not immortal! Indeed, it might well be doubted if such a thing as the soul existed!

Consider the effect of these opinions upon a simple and untutored mountainlad whose business in college was to prepare himself to do more good in the world, and you have my predicament. Early in my prep-school days I had begun to eradicate all traces of my origin. My habits, speech, manner of talking, and appearance had been carefully moulded to the popular form. My task, as I saw it, had been and still was to submerge the individual within me and be a Roman in Rome. I may have relied too much on the old adage. Not only did I do as others did, but I began to think as others thought. And my intellect, in this case, while apparently broad enough to absorb the fallacies of the Scriptural text, was not big enough to encompass that ‘larger vision’ of things which, I am told, characterizes a well-balanced mind.

In this quandary I lost all sense of religious and moral values. Good and bad I began to believe were determined by what one could or could not ‘get away with.’ A few excerpts from Nietzsche contributed largely to this growing conviction. Possibly I should have become a confirmed believer in the theory of the superman had I remained in the academic atmosphere. But the time arrived, all too soon for me, when I was adjudged competent to pass as a graduate of the institution. Then I found myself in the unpleasant situation of either disappointing the one person in the world to whom I owed everything or playing the hypocrite.

I tried to do the manly thing. I told Mr. Roberts how I felt; that, while I owed him so much, I could not consistently continue my studies at the Seminary. Instead of berating me for my lack of faith, as I half hoped he would, I found him as sympathetic as ever. God is such an all-wise Being, he told me, that His purposes are not easily fathomed. Perhaps I was passing through a period of doubt in order that my faith might ultimately be strengthened.

The simple faith of this good man, which had so profoundly influenced my early youth, again touched me. In his presence, somehow, doubts seemed to slink away like sickly, crawling things. He was one of those rare persons who convinced without saying mere words. The singular purity of his life and the mystical inspiration that radiated from him were more powerful than all the sermons in the world. I mention this because I had about made up my mind, when I had confessed my shortcomings, to enter business, as nearly all my classmates were doing. If Mr. Roberts had uttered one word of censure, or attempted, ever so little, to point out how ungrateful I was, the chances are that I should be in some broker’s office to-day. Instead, I listened respectfully, and a little shamefacedly, to the few words he said on the subject, and found myself in the end agreeing with him that I ought to settle down among my own people for a year before making a final decision. The village school needed a teacher. No doubt I could have the position.

That was the last time I ever saw Mr. Roberts. Three days later he was crossing the ‘mountain’ to visit one of his Sunday Schools when something happened. His horse appeared riderless at George Courtney’s barn. They found him sitting against the trunk of a tree far up the mountainside. The doctor said it was heart disease.


I took the school. In fact, I am now teaching it. Promptly at nine each morning I ring a large hand-bell to inform the community that school is about to begin. The pupils file in and seat themselves in their assigned places, the small ones at the front near my desk, the large ones at the rear near the door. When I feel that everyone has been sufficiently notified, I leave off ringing, place the bell on the top of my desk, and seat myself facing my pupils. School has begun.

From nine until four, with a recess of one hour at noon, I am busily engaged in the task of education. Those persons who argue that the business man is the most overworked individual in America should take a course in mountain school-teaching. Twenty-seven pupils, ranging from four to twentytwo years of age, and necessitating a total of thirty-two recitations a day, are in themselves sufficient cause for alertness. Add to that the ever-present consciousness that a careless moment may be fatal — running out teachers has long been a favorite outdoor sport in this community — and you can readily see that teaching in the mountains is less a matter of instruction than of discipline. Nevertheless the human element enters here as in every other place. Already I can observe a much less defiant attitude on the part of my protégés. They can be handled, smoothly and skillfully, if they are given to understand from the beginning that a single uncalled-for action or comment will inevitably lead to instantaneous and complete annihilation! Such a statement may sound hopelessly out of date in this enlightened age of the world’s history but, knowing this country as I do, I am convinced that no other procedure would be practicable.

The community life is as unlike that of my college town as is possible on the same continent. Pitching horseshoes, playing checkers, coon-hunting, and occasional fighting are the forms of relaxation most frequently indulged in. This state of affairs, brought about by the isolation of the mountain regions, is, I believe, upon the verge of collapse through the influence of the radio. A progressive citizen has ordered a set and I understand others are to follow. Who knows? The Southern mountaineer with his mediæval ideas of blood and honor may be already a thing of the past.

With me the eternal process of change is at work. Every day I find myself slipping more and more into the ways of those about me. The telltale stride of the mountaineer, that jerky, swinging step acquired by long contact with steep places, is beginning to show in my gait. Even my voice, so carefully trained to another manner at college, is assuming the characteristic Southern drawl. Nor can I bring myself to wish overmuch that it were otherwise. My mother, in spite of her seeming indifference, is genuinely glad to have me at home. My brothers and sisters, although changed beyond recognition, — my older sister is married and lives near by, — still maintain this unperishable quality — they are my brothers and sisters. How poignantly the words of the most familiar of songs come back to me now: —

’Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Contact with the outside world is, naturally, limited. My only means of communication with it are occasional letters from scattered classmates, two periodicals, and my college newspaper. At times when reading these I feel the surge of ambition within me. My place, it seems then, is out there where men are doing things; and, as it was in my boyhood days, I see myself a grayhaired man of action, a power among men, fighting, crushing, conquering. Whether or not these moments of vision will eventually goad me to new fields of endeavor I cannot say. The truth is, I have no more definite idea of what I want to do in life than the man whose face is engraved upon the moon.

For a time after the death of Mr. Roberts I thought I was beginning to have a glimpse of that ‘larger vision.’ Religion, I decided, was instinctive. The place to study it was not in the halls of learning but at home. I attended a revival meeting. The preacher, a rawboned mountaineer, completely crushed his hearers under an avalanche of oratory unknown to the more cultured sections of our country. At the end of two weeks there was a great ‘spiritual uplift.’ Hardened sinners who had led unholy lives since the last revival meeting were brought into the fold. There was great rejoicing among the few faithful, and the preacher departed to picture his visions of glory and eternal damnation elsewhere. With what result? To be absolutely fair I cannot perceive that the inspired apostle left a more permanent mark than two weeks of clever entertainment. In another two weeks the community was ready for another revival.

Is Christianity an impossible religion? Does it really affect our dealings with our fellow men? Or is it a little-understood convenient something that satisfies our natural or acquired cravings for belief in something better than this life affords? Is it not possible that men like Mr. Roberts are endowed with more pronounced cravings than most of us?

These are thoughts which occur to me and I am loath to answer. Verily, a little learning is a dangerous thing.