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Clarence S. Darrow









First digital edition 2018 by Anna Ruggieri



Ibegin this story with the personal pronoun. To begin it in any other way would be only a commonplace assumption of a modesty that I do not really have. It is most natural that the personal pronoun should stand as the first word of this tale, for I cannotremember a time when my chief thoughts and emotions did not concern myself, or were not in some way related to myself. I look back through the years that have passed, and find that the first consciousness of my being and the hazy indistinct memories of mychildhood are all about myself,—what the world, and its men and its women, and its beasts and its plants, meant to me. This feeling is all there is of the past and all there is of the present; and as I look forward on my fast shortening path, I am sure that my last emotions, like my first, will come from the impressions that the world is yet able to make upon the failing senses that shall still connect me with mortal life.

So why should I not begin this tale with the personal pronoun? And why should I not use it over and over again, with no effort to disguise the fact that whatever the world may be to you, still to me it is nothing except as it influences and affects my life and me?

I have been told that I was born a long time ago, back in the State of Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of a little struggling town that slept by day and by night along a winding stream, and between two ranges of high hills that stood sentinel on either side. The valley was very narrow, and so too were all the people who lived in the little town. These built their small white frame houses and barns close to the river-side, for it was only near its winding banks that the soil would raise corn, potatoes, and hay,—potatoes for the people, and hay and corn for the other inhabitants, whowere almost as important to the landscape and almost as close to my early life as the men and women who gathered each Sunday in the large white church, and who had no doubt that they were different from the horses and cattle, and would live in some futureworld that these other animals would never reach. Even then I felt that perhaps, if this was true, the horses and cattle had the best of the scheme of the universe, for the men and women never seemed to enjoy life very much, excepting here and there some solitary person who was pointed out as a terrible example, who would surely suffer in the next world during the eternity which my long-faced sober neighbors would spend in enjoying the pleasures they had so righteously denied themselves while here on earth.

Of course no one will expect me to tell all my life. In fact, much of the most interesting part must be left out entirely, as is the case with all lives that are really worth the writing; andunless mine is one of these, why bother with the story? Politesociety, that buys books and reads them,—at least reads them,—would not tolerate the whole; so this is an expurgated life, or, rather, an expurgated story of a life. Thank God, the life was not expurgated any more than absolutely necessary, sometimes not even so much as that. But so far as I can really tell my story, I shall make a brave endeavor to tell it truthfully, at least as near as the truth can be told by one who does not tell the whole truth,—which, after all, is not so very near.

Lest anyone who might borrow this book and read it should think that I am not so very good, and am putting my best foot foremost, let me hasten to say that if I told the whole truth it would be much more favorable to me than this poor expurgated version will make it seem.I have done many very good things which I shall not dare to set down in these pages, for if I should record them some envious and unkind readers might say that I did these things in order to write them in a book and get fame and credit for their doing, andso after all they were not really good. But even the bad things that I leave out were not so very bad,—indeed, they were not bad at all, if one has my point of view of life and knows all the facts. The trouble is, there are so few who have my point of view, and most of those are bound to pretend that they have not. Then, too, no one could possibly tell all the facts, for one can write only with pen and ink, and long after everything is past and gone, while one lives with flesh and blood, and sometimes tingling blood at that, and only a single moment at a time. So it may be that no one could write a really truthful story if he would, and perhaps the old fogies are right in fixing the line as to what may be set down and what must be left out. At least, I promise that the reader who proclaims his propriety the loudest, and from the highest house-top, need not have the slightest fear—or hope—about this book, for I shall watch every word with the strictest care, and the moment I find myself wandering from the beaten path I shall fetch myself up with the roundest and the quickest turn. And so, having made myself thus clear as to the plans and purposes of my story, there is no occasion to tarry longer at its threshold.

I have always had the highest regard for integrity, and have ever by precept urged it upon other people; therefore in these pages I shall try, as I have said, to tell the truth; still I am afraid that I shall not succeed, for, after all, I can tell about things only as they seem to me,—and I am not inthe least sure that my childhood home, and the boys and girls with whom I played, were really like what they seem to have been, when I rub my eyes and awaken in the fairy-land that I left so long ago. So, to be perfectly honest with the reader,—which I ambound to be as long as I can and as far as I can,—I will say that this story is only a story of impressions after all. But this is doubtless the right point of view, for life consists only of impressions, and when the impressions are done the life is done.

I really do not know just why I am telling this story, for it is only fair to let the reader know at the beginning, so that he need not waste his time, that nothing ever happened to me,—that is, nothing has happened yet, and all my life I have been tryinghard to keep things from happening. But as nothing ever happened, how can there be any story for me to write? I am unable to weave any plot, because there never were any plots in my life, excepting a few that never came to anything, and so were really nopart of my life. What happened to me is nothing more than what happens to everyone; so why should I expect people tobother to read my story? Why should they pay money to buy my book, which is not a story after all?

I hardly think I am writing this for fame. If that were the case, I should tell the things that I leave out, for I know that they would be more talked about than the commonplace things that I set down. But I have always wanted to write a book. I remember when I was very small, and used to climbon a chair and look at the rows of books on my father’s shelves, I thought it must be a wonderful being who could write all the pages of a big book, and I would have given all the playthings that I ever hoped to have for the assurance that some day I mightpossibly write down so many words and have them printed and bound into a book. But my father always told me I could never write a book unless I studied hard,—Latin, Greek, geometry, history, and a lot of things that I knew nothing about then and not muchmore now. As I grew older, I was too poor and too lazy to learn all the things that my good father said I must know if I should ever write a book, but I never gave up the longing, even when I felt how impossible it would be to realize my dream.

I never studied geometry, or history, or Greek, and I studied scarcely any Latin, and not much arithmetic; and I never did anything with grammar, except to study it,—in fact, I always thought that this was the only purpose for which grammar was invented. But in spiteof all this, I wanted to write a book, and resolved that I would write a book. Of course, as I am not a scholar, and have never learned anything out of books to tell about in other books, there was nothing for me to do but tell of the things that had happened to me. So I tell this story because it is the only story I know,—and even this one I do not know so very well. Sometimes I think I am one kind of person, and then sometimes I think I am another kind; and I am never quite sure why I do any particular thing, or why I do not do it, excepting the things I am afraid to do. But there is no reason now why I should not write this book, for I have money enough to get it printed and bound, and even if no one ever buys a copy still I can say that I have written abook. I understand that a great many books are published in this way, and I must have read a number that never would have been printed if the author had not been able to pay for them himself.

But I have put off writing this story for many, many years, until at last I am beginning to think of getting old; and if I linger much longer over unimportant excuses and explanations, I fear that I shall die, and future generations will never know that I have lived. For I am quite certain that no one else will ever write my story, and unless I really get to work, even my name will be forgotten excepting by the few who go back to my old-time home, and open the wire gate of the little graveyard, and go down the winding path between the white headstones until they reachmy mound. I know that they will find it there, for I have already made my will and provided that I shall be carried back to the little Pennsylvania town beside the winding stream where I used to stone the frogs; and I have written down the exact words thatshall be carved upon my marble headstone,—that is, all the words except those that are to tell of the last event, and these we are all of us very willing to leave to someone else.

But this story is about life and action, and boys and girls, and men andwomen; and I really did not intend to take the reader to my grave in the very first chapter of the book.



Iforgot to mention that my name is John Smith. Of course this is a very plebeian name, but I am in no way responsible for it. As long as I can remember, I answered to the call of “John” or “Johnny” many a time in my childhood, and even later, when I would much have preferred not to hear the call. My father’s name was John Smith, too. No doubt he, and his father before him,could see no way to avoid the Smith, and thought it could not make much difference to add the John. The chief trouble that I have experienced from the name has come from getting my letters mixed up with other people’s,—mainly my father’s,—which often caused me embarrassment in my younger days.

I have tried very hard to remember when I first knew my name was John. Indeed, I have often wondered when it was that I first knew that I was I, and how that fact dawned upon my mind. Over and over again I have triedto remember my first thoughts and experiences of life, but have always failed in the attempt. If I could only tell of my first sensations, as I looked at the blue sky, and felt the warm sun, and heard the singing birds in my infancy, I am sure they would interest the reader. But I can give no testimony upon these important points. I have no doubt, however, that when I looked upon the heavens and the earth for the first time I must have felt the same ignorance and awe and wonder that possess my mind to-day when I try to understand the same unexplainable mysteries that have always filled me with queries, doubts, and fears.

Neither can I tell just what I first came to remember; and when I look back to that little home beside the creek I am not quite sure whether the feelings that I have are of things that I actually saw and felt and lived, or whether some imaginings of my young brain have taken the form and semblance of real life.

I was only one of a large family, mostly older than myself; but while I was only one, I was the chief one, and the rest were important only as they affected me. It must have been the rule of our family that each of the children should have the right to give orders to those younger than himself; at any rate, all the older ones told me what to do, and I in turn claimed the same privilege with those younger than myself.

My early remembrances have little sequence or logical connection. I am quite unable to tell which events came first of those that must have happened when I was very young.

Among my earliest impressions is one of a hill in our back yard, and of our going down it to bring water from the well. I am sure that the hill is not a dream, for I have been back sinceand found it there, although not near as long and steep as it seemed in those far-off years. I remember that we children used to slide down this hill and then walk up again. Even then I was willing to do a great deal of work for a very small amount of fun. Somehow, in looking back, it seems as if I were always sliding downhill and tugging my sled back to the top in the dusk of the evening. I cannot quite understand how it is that I remember the evening best, but there it is as I unroll the scroll,—there are the dents in my memory, and there is the little boy pulling his sleduphill and looking in at the lighted kitchen window at the top. There, too, are the older and wiser members of the family,—those who have learned that the short sensation of sliding down the hill is not worth the long tug up; a lesson which, although I amgrowing old and gray, I never have been wise enough to learn. There are the older ones gathered around the table with their books, or busy with their household work,—the old family circle that I see so plainly now in the lamplight through the window, perhaps more plainly for the years that lie between. This magic circle was long since broken and scattered, and lives only in the memory of the man-child who knew so little then of what life really meant, and who knows so little now.

It is strange, but somehowI have no such distinct recollection of our home as I have of the other objects that were familiar to my childish mind. I can see the little muddy brook that ran just back of the garden fence. Down the hill on the edge of the stream stood a log cheese-house,—at least, it seems so now,—and back of this cheese-house beside the brook must have been a favorite spot for me to wade and fish, although I have no remembrance that I ever caught anything, which fact I am happy to record. Beyond the stream was an orchard. I am uncertain whether or not it belonged to my father, although I rather think it must have been owned by somebody else, the apples always looked so tempting and so red,—which reminds me that all through life it has seemed to me that no fruit was quite so sweet as that which was just beyond my reach. Anyhow, this orchard stands out very plainly in my mind. It was a very large orchard,—in fact, a great forest of trees; and I remember that I always stole over the fence intending to get the apples on thenearest tree, but they did not taste so sweet nor look so red as some others farther on, which in turn were passed by for others yet a little farther off, until I had gone quite through the orchard in my endeavor to get the very best. Although I have beengrown up for many a year, somehow this habit of seeing something better further on has clung to me through life. So tenacious is this habit, that I fancy I have missed much that is valuable and good in my eager haste to get something better still. I am notquite certain about the orchard, perhaps it was not so very large after all; at least, when I went back a few years ago there was no cheese-house, and no orchard, and even the brook was grown up to grass and weeds. I know that in my childhood my parents moved from the old house to another slightly better, and nearer town; but though I can clearly remember certain incidents of both, still I have no recollection of our moving, and it is utterly impossible to keep the impressions of each separate and distinct.

My first memory of a schoolhouse seems quite clear. It may be that the things I remember never really happened, although the impression of them is very strong upon my mind. I must have been very young, hardly more than three or four years old, and was doubtless taken to school by an elder brother or sister; certainly I was too young to be a pupil. The schoolhouse was a long way from home,—miles and miles it seemed to me. After being inschool for hours, I must have grown weary and restless, sitting so motionless and still, for I know that I was boxed on the ears either by the teacher’s hand or with a slate. I ran out of the room sobbing and crying, and went down the long white road to my home. I shall never forget that journey in the heat and dust. It musthave been the greatest pain and sorrow I had ever known. Doubtless it was the humiliation of being boxed on the ears before the whole school that broke my heart; at least, I felt as if I never would reach home, and I must have sprinkled every foot of theway with my bitter tears. I remember that teacher’s name to-day, and I never forgave her, until a short time ago, after I read Tolstoi. Now I only realize how stupid and ignorant she was to awaken such hatred in the heart of a little child. In those days whipping was a part, and a very large part, of the regular course of the district school, and I learned in a few years not to mind it very much,—in fact, rather to enjoy it, for it gave me such good standing with the other children of the school.

How full of illusions and delusions we children were! Since I have grown to man’s estate, I have travelled the same road over which I sobbed in that far-off day, and it was really but a very little way,—a short half-mile,—and still, as I look back to that little crying child, it seems as if he must have walked across a desert beneath a tropical sun, and borne all the despair and anguish of the world inside his little jacket.

Another memory that has become a part of my being grows out of the great Civil War. I was probably four or five years old, and was playing under the big maple-trees in our old front yard. The scene all comes back to me as I write. I have a stick or hoop, or perhaps both, in my little hand. No one else is anywhere about. I hear a drum and fife coming over the hill, and I run to the fence and look down the gravelly road. A two-horse wagon loaded with men and boys, whose names and perhaps faces I seem to know, drives past me as I peer through the palings of the fence. They are dressed in uniform, andare proud and gay. In the centre of the wagon is one boy standing up; I see his face plainly, and catch its boyish smile. They drive past the house to the railroad station, on their way to the Southern battle-fields. I must have been told a great deal about these men and about the war, for my people were abolitionists, who looked upon the rebels as some sort of monsters, and had no thought that there could be any side but ours. However, I now remember nothing at all of what was said to me, but I hear the martial music, I see the horses and wagons and men, and clear and distinct from all the rest is this one boy’s face that I knew so well. Even more distinctly do I remember a day some months later. I must then have begun going to the district school, for I remember that there was no school that day. I recall a great throng of people, and among them all the boys and girls from school, and we are gathered inside the burying-ground where they are carrying the young soldier who rode past our house a few months before. I cannot remember what was said at the funeral, but this is the first impression that I can recall of the grim spectre Death. What it meant to my childish mind I cannot now conceive. I remember only the hushed awe and the deep dread that fell upon usall when we realized that they were putting this boy into the ground and that we should never see his face again. Whatever the feeling, I fancy that time and years have not changed or modified it, or made it any easier to reconcile or understand.

But withthe memory of the funeral there lingers an impression that we all thought this young man a glorious, brave, and noble boy, and that his widowed mother and brothersand sisters ought to have felt happy and proud that he was buried in the ground. I remembered the mother for many years, and how she always mourned her son; but it was a long, long time before I came to understand that the fact that the boy was killed upon the field of battle really did not make the sorrow any less for the family left behind. Andit was still longer before I came to realize that it is no more noble or honorable to die fighting on the field of battle than in any other way.


My earliest recollections that I can feel quite sure are real are about my family and home. My father was a miller, and had a little grist-mill by the side of the creek, just in the shade of some large oak-trees. His mill must have been very small, for I always knew that he was poor. Still, it seemed to me that the mill was a wonderful affair, almost as large as the big white church that stood upon the hill. It was run by water when the creek was not too low, which I am sure was very often, as I think it over now. Above the mill was a great dam, which made an enormous pond, larger than the Atlantic Ocean, and much more dangerous to any of us boys venturesome enough to go out upon it in a boat, or even on skates in the winter time. But the most marvellous part of all was the wonderful water-wheel hidden almost underneath the mill. It seemed asif there were a great hollow in the ground, to make room for the wheel; and if I had any opinion on the subject, I must have thought that the wheel grew there, for surely no one could make a monster like that. Often I used to go with my father up to the head of the mill-race, when he lifted the big wooden gate and let the waters come down out of the dam through the race and the wooden flume over the great groaning wheel. I well remember how I used to stand in awe and wonder while my father opened the gate,and then run down the path ahead of the rushing tide and peep through a hole to see the old wheel start. Then I would scamper over the mill, from the cellar with its cogs and pulleys, up to the garret with its white dusty chutes and its incomprehensible machines. Then I played around the great sacks and enormous bins of wheat and corn, and watched the grain as it streamed into the hopper ready to be ground to pieces by the slowly turning stones.

How real, and still how unreal, all this seems to-day! Is it all a dream? and am I writing a fairy-story like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Black Bears”? Surely all these events are as clear and vivid as the theatre party of last week. But while Iso plainly see the little, idle, prattling child, looking with wondering eyes at the great turning wheel, and asking his simple questions of the grave, kind old man in the great white coat, somehow there is no relation between that simple child and the man whom the world has buffeted and tossed for so many years, and with such a rough unfriendly hand, that he cannot help the feeling that this far-off child was really someone else.

My father was a just and upright man,—I can see him now dipping his bent wooden measure into the hopper of grain and taking out his toll, never a single kernel more than was his due. No doubt the suspicious farmers who brought their sacks of wheat and corn often thought that he dipped out more grain than he had a right to take; and even many ofthose who knew that he did not, still thought he was a fool because he failed to make the most of the opportunities he had. As I grew up, I learned that there are all sorts of people in the world, and that selfishness and greed and envy are,to say the least, very common in the human heart; but I never could be thankful enough that my father was honest and simple, and that his love of truth and justice had grown into his being as naturally as the oaks were rooted to the earth along the littlestream.

The old wheel ceased turning long ago. The last stick of timber in its wondrous mechanism has rotted and decayed; the old mill itself has vanished from the earth. The drying stream and the great mills of the new Northwest long since conspired to destroy my father’s simple trade. Even the dam has been washed away, and a tiny thread of water now trickles down over the hill where the rushing flood fell full upon the great turning wheel. Last summer I went back to linger, like a ghost, around the old familiar spot; and I found that even the great unexplored pond had dried up, and a field of corn was growing peacefully upon the soil that once upheld this treacherous sea. And the old miller too, with his kindly, simple, honest face,—the old miller with his great white coat,—he too is gone, gone as completely as his father and all the other fathers and grandfathers who have come and gone; the dear, kind old miller, who listened to my childish questions, and taught me, or rather tried to teach me, what was right and wrong, has grown weary and lain down to rest, and will soon be quite forgotten by the world,—unless this story shall bring his son so much fame that some of the glory shall be reflected back to him.

Somehow the mill seems to have made a stronger impression than the house on my young mind. Perhaps it was because it was the only mill that I had ever seen or known; perhaps because the associations that naturally attached to the mill and its surroundings were such as appeal most to the mind of a littlechild. Of course, from the very nature of things the home and family must have been among my earliest recollections; yet I cannot help feeling that much of the literature about childhood’s home has been written for effect,—or not to describe home as it really is to the child, but from someone’s ideal of what home ought to be.

I know that my mother was a very energetic, hard-working, and in every way strong woman, although I did not know it or think about it then. I know it now, for as I look back to my childhood and see the large family that she cared for, almost without help, I cannot understand how she did it all, especially as she managed to keep well informed on the topics of the day, and found more time for reading and study than any of her neighbors did.

In the main, I think our family was like the other families of the neighborhood, with about the same dispositions, the same ideas and ideals,—if children can be said to have ideals,—that other people had.

There were seven of us children, and we must have crowded the little home, to say nothing of the little income with which my father and mother raised us all. Our family life was not the ideal home-life of which we read in books; the fact is, I have never seen that sort of life amongst children,—or amongst grown people either, for that matter. If we loved each other very dearly, we were all too proud and well-trained to say a word about it, or to make any sign to show that it was true. When a number of us children were together playing thefamiliar games, we generally quarrelled and fought each other much more than was our habit when playing with our neighbors and our friends. In this too we were like all the rest of the families that I knew. It seems to me now that a very small matter was always enough to bring on a fight, and that we quarrelled simply because we liked to hurt each other; at least I can see no other reason why we did.

We children were supposed to help with the chores around the house; but as near as I can remember, each one was always afraid that he would do more than his share. I recall a story in one of our school readers, which I read when very young; it was about two brothers, a large one and a small one, and they were carrying a pail on a pole, and the larger brother deliberately shoved the pail nearer to his end, so that the heavier load would fall on him; but I am sure that this incident never happened in our family, or in any other that I ever knew.

Most home-life necessarily clusters around the mother; and so, of course, it must have been in our family. But my mother died when I was in my earlier teens, and her figure has not that clearness and distinctness that I wish it had. She seems now to have been a remarkable combination of energy and industry, of great kindness, and still ofstrong and controlling will; a woman who, under other conditions of life, and unhampered by so many children and such pressing needs, might have left her mark upon the world. But this was not to be; for she could not overlook the duties that lay nearest her for a broader or more ambitious life.