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Russell Baker is a highly regarded Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist and humorist. While serving on the Washington bureau of the New York Times during the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Baker earned recognition for his wry commentaries on federal bureaucracy. Since 1962, Baker has written the ”Observer” column in the Times. The essays in this column satirize such issues as politics, the economy, and popular culture. He has also published several highly popular memoirs. Baker is especially praised for his insight into the human condition, particularly the daily problems of ordinary people.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up During the Great Depression
American humorist Russell Baker was born in 1925 in Loudoun, Virginia. His father, a blue-collar laborer fond of alcohol, died in an acute diabetic coma when Baker was five. Almost simultaneously, the American stock market crashed, beginning the Great Depression that would leave millions of families—including Baker’s—in desperate economic need. Baker’s mother, Lucy Elizabeth, suddenly widowed and impoverished, accepted her brother’s offer to live with his family in New Jersey. Before moving, Lucy left her youngest daughter, Audrey, in the care of wealthier relatives who could provide the infant with a more comfortable existence than she could. In his memoir Growing Up (1982), Baker bore witness to his mother’s pain over this decision: ”It was the only deed of her entire life for which I ever heard her express guilt.” Nevertheless, throughout his life and work, Baker would express admiration for his mother’s courage during the Depression, often equating her will to survive difficult times with the quintessential American spirit.
Baker’s family lived off the kindness of relatives for years, finally settling in Baltimore, where Lucy eventually remarried. Baker got his first taste of journalistic life at a young age when, at his mother’s insistence, he began selling copies of the Saturday Evening Post. Lucy exerted a strong influence over Baker’s life, serving as ”goad, critic, and inspiration to her son,” in the words of New
York Times Book Review critic Ward Just. Baker’s mother, haunted by her life of poverty, became obsessed with the idea that her son would achieve success. ”I would make something of myself,” Baker wrote in Growing Up, ”and if I lacked the grit to do it, well then she would make me make something of myself.”
Learning about Life in London
Baker pursued this success by attending Johns Hopkins University, where he received his BA in 1947. Although he was a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1945, he did not see active duty during World War II. Hired in 1947 as a writer for the Baltimore Sun, Baker developed a reputation as a fast, accurate reporter and eventually earned a promotion to the post of London bureau chief. Here he witnessed the residents of London rebuild after the multiple blitzes and bombings that destroyed whole areas of the city during the war, and he chronicled the new Europe emerging in the wake of Hitler. Though Baker enjoyed London and would later cite his time there as a period during which he matured both personally and professionally, he moved on to become the Sun’s White House correspondent, a decision he soon regretted. Once in Washington, Baker found the work boring, the atmosphere stifling, and his writing style unappreciated. Writing in The Good Times, Baker acknowledged: I had swapped the freedom to roam one of the world’s great cities and report whatever struck my fancy. And what had I got in return? A glamorous job which entitled me to sit in a confined space, listening to my colleagues breathe.
Americana and Column-writing
Frustrated at the Sun, Baker jumped at an offer to write for the New York Times Washington bureau, although he insisted on covering the Senate, hoping to capture the human side of the country’s leaders. But in time even Congress, with its fawning politicians and controlled press briefings, proved disappointing. Recalling his dissatisfaction with the work, Baker told Time, I began to wonder why, at the age of thirty-seven, I was wearing out my hams waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.” When the Sun attempted to regain Baker’s services with the promise of a column, the Times promptly countered the offer with its own column, a proposal that convinced Baker to stay.
Thus, in 1962 Baker began to write the ”Observer” column for which he is best known. Combining insider knowledge of politics and celebrity with modest and humorous commentary on American life, the column was instantly popular with his audience, and soon syndicated. Baker’s personable portrayals of political heavy-weights like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon intrigued readers; he also offered reflections on American public figures such as William Randolph Hearst, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Mon roe, and Martin Luther King Jr. Baker also profiled some of his fellow journalists, saving his harshest criticisms for those reporters who compromised their professional integrity by letting themselves become seduced by savvy politicians.
Throughout his career, which has spanned over forty years, Baker has witnessed such political upheavals as the American civil rights movement, which sought to achieve social and legal equality for women and minorities in the 1960s and 1970s; the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal, which would force the resignation of President Richard Nixon; and the threat of nuclear warfare in the modern age. Baker wrote often about these topics, frequently satirizing the government and its legal, economic, and military tactics. Though a great number of Baker’s columns concern themselves with the dealings of pompous politicians and the muddled antics of bureaucrats, not all of the author’s essays are political in nature. All manner of human excesses, fads, and trendy behavior have come under Baker’s scrutiny. Among the topics he has satirized are Super Bowl Sunday, the Miss America pageant, and television commercials. Other selections have touched on the author’s anger over the physical and moral decay of urban America.
Many of Baker’s columns have been published in collections, such as No Cause for Panic (1969), Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), and So This Is
Depravity (1980). In 1979 Baker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his columns. He was the first humorist to win the award in that category since its inception in 1970. In 1982 Baker published the enormously popular autobiography Growing Up, which earned him another Pulitzer Prize. He followed the success of Growing Up with a sequel, The Good Times, in 1984. This book was also well received by critics. Baker continues to write his syndicated column and publish books on various subjects pertaining to American popular and political culture.
Works in Literary Context
Throughout his career, Russell Baker has been praised for writing about both the large and small events of American life in a humorous and modest tone. This tone makes his works accessible to a wide variety of readers, perhaps accounting for his column’s wide syndication and long standing popularity with audiences across the country.
Emphasizing the Personal
Throughout Baker’s career as both a journalist and a memoir writer, readers and reviewers have praised his ability to add a common human dimension to seemingly larger-than-life public figures. Also, many critics have lauded Baker’s ability to translate his personal memories into works of universal experience. Critic Jonathan Yardley, for example, affirmed that Baker finds ”shape and meaning in his own life” and ”make[s] it interesting and pertinent to the reader.” In Baker’s autobiography Growing Up, Yardley asserts that he tells ”a story that is deeply in the American grain, one in which countless readers will find echoes of their own.”
The Great Depression and Local Color
Baker’s autobiography Growing Up recounts his childhood and family life during the Great Depression and chronicles the personal and economic hardships Baker and his family withstood during the difficult era of America in the 1930s. The quiet humor and the lack of melodrama in his portrayal of that era prompted critics such as Mary Lee Settle to compare Growing Up to the works of Mark Twain. In a style that is understated yet powerful, Baker describes personal hardships with subtle emotion. Also, he details with humor and humanity both the places and the people that populated his childhood. Reviewers such as New Statesman critic Brian Martin admired the author’s ”sharp eye for the details of ordinary life,” and praised his ability to add this ”local color” to his works.
Works in Critical Context
Regarded by Washington Post Book World critic Robert Sherrill as ”the supreme satirist” of the late twentieth century, Baker has been credited with taking newspaper humor and turning it into ”literature—funny, but full of the pain and absurdity of the age,” according to John Skow of Time magazine.
The “Observer” Column
Armed with a sense of humor described by Washington Post writer Jim Naughton as ”quick, dry, and accessibly cerebral,” Baker has taken aim at a wide range of targets in his ”Observer” column, including the presidency, the national economy, and the military, as well as everyday American home life and such disparate areas of popular culture as beauty pageants and the Super Bowl. Though Baker is certainly esteemed for his political commentary, critics generally reserve their highest praise for his writings on family and everyday society. Spectator critic Joe Mysak, for example, applauded this type of essay, judging its significance to be ”closer to the grain of American life” than Baker’s politically tinged writings, and columns of this sort moved Sherrill to write that ”when it comes to satire of a controlled but effervescent ferocity, nobody can touch Baker.”
Described by Mary Lee Settle in the Los Angeles Times Book Review as ”a wondrous book, funny, sad, and strong,” Growing Up explores the often difficult circumstances of Baker’s childhood with a mix of humor and sadness. Spectator critic Peter Paterson saw the work as ”a tribute” to the women in Baker’s life, first and foremost to his mother, ”who dominates the book as she dominated her son’s existence.”
Many critics of the book found it to be a moving testimony of the realities of life during the 1930s and the Great Depression. In a review for Washington Post Book World, writer Jonathan Yardley writes that Baker ”passed through rites that for our culture are now only memories, though cherished ones, from first exposure to the miracle of indoor plumbing to trying on his first pair of long pants,” and Settle found Baker’s descriptions of such scenes ”as funny and as touching as Mark Twain’s.”
The Good Times
Many critics viewed The Good Times favorably, including New York Times Book Review critic Ward Just, who in his review calls the book ”a superb autobiography, wonderfully told, often hilarious, always intelligent and unsparing.” Some reviewers, however, felt that Baker’s trademark sense of modesty is used to excess in the book. Jim Naughton of the Washington Post, for example, was critical of Baker’s style, asserting that ”his humility weakens the book.” Other reviewers observed that, because of its subject matter, The Good Times necessarily evokes different feelings from its predecessor, Growing Up. ”Some readers may find that this sequel lacks the emotional tug of the original,” Robert Shogan states in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noting that ”what The Good Times offers instead is an insider’s view of modern American journalism that illuminates both the author and his trade.” Baker received much positive criticism for his depictions of iconic figures from the latter half of the twentieth century. Complimenting Baker on his balanced characterizations, Ward Just reports that the author’s ”level gaze is on full display here in the deft, edged portraits” of his congressional contacts, while William French of the Toronto Globe and Mail states that ”Baker’s thumbnail sketches of the Washington movers and shakers of his time are vivid.”
- French, William. Review of The Good Times. Toronto Globe and Mail (June 24, 1989).
- Just, Ward. Review of The Good Times. New York Times Book Review (May 28, 1989).
- Naughton, Jim. Review of The Good Times. Washington Post (July 25, 1989).
- Paterson, Peter. Review of Growing Up. Spectator (February 1984).
- Settle, Mary Lee. Review of Growing Up. Los Angeles Times Book Review (October 10, 1982).
- Shogan, Robert. Review of The Good Times. Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 11, 1989).
- Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Growing Up. Washington Post Book World (October 3, 1982).
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