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Russell Baker

Russell Baker

Russell Baker (born 1925) was one of the most distinguished practitioners of the personal-political essay in the English language.

Russell Baker was born in rural Morrisonville, Virginia on August 14, 1925. His early upbringing was not conducive to the development of the elegant, urbane literary style and trenchant criticism of contemporary city life he was to indulge in later. One of his earliest memories was of being nosed in his crib by an inquisitive cow. There were some pleasant memories of growing up close to nature: "summer days drenched in sunlight, fields yellow with buttercups." However, it was not a very progressive community; Baker's father, a stonemason, died of untreated diabetes when the boy was five, even though insulin had been discovered nearly a decade earlier.

Baker's mother, trained as a schoolteacher, had studied for a year in college and encouraged her son's aptitude for language. During these earliest years there was much contention over child-rearing tactics between mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were strong-willed women. When Baker's father died in 1930, the younger woman took the occasion to leave her husband's large family—and Virginia—for good. Her destitution at the time was attested by the fact that she gave her youngest child, who was still a baby, up for adoption. Baker's mother moved to Newark, New Jersey, with Baker and his younger sister, boarding with her brother, who continued to have a steady job during this Depression era. What started out in 1931 as a temporary arrangement—until his mother should find work—lasted for six years, including a move by the combined families to nearby suburban Belleville. The best Baker's mother could manage was work as a laundress.

During this second phase of his life, Baker exchanged maternal for paternal uncles, resulting in an early exposure to heated political debate in the home, often centering on the relative merits of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. In the Belleville elementary school which he attended at this time, came the first taste of literary success: faced with a writing assignment on produce, the youngster came up with an essay on wheat. An ecstatic teacher read this production to her class, although they appeared to be unmoved

In 1937, on the advice of another brother, Baker's mother took her two children to live in Baltimore, home of a great essayist of that period, H. L. Mencken. The family struggled financially. Baker was able to contribute a bit with a part-time job as newspaper deliverer, but the nightmare of having to go on relief, of having to accept government-surplus food, smuggled surreptitiously into the home under flimsy camouflage, became a reality for these proud people.

By the end of the 1930s, however, the situation had eased. Baker, without any definite prospects of attending college, nevertheless completed secondary school in Baltimore's fine "City College"—a college preparatory school with a rigorous traditional curriculum, including requirements in German, French, and Latin. When Baker was 16, his mother remarried and the family was able to move into a home of its own. At this time Baker remembers that he had only one strong professional ambition—to become a writer—although this did not seem likely to provide a viable livelihood. "It gave me a way of thinking about myself which satisfied my need to have an identity." He was persuaded by a high school classmate to take the entrance examination for Johns Hopkins University, passed, and was admitted on scholarship in the summer of 1942—six months after America's entrance into World War II. Baker was able to complete only one year of college; he enlisted in the navy in 1943, spending the rest of the war in flight training in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

After the war, Baker returned to Johns Hopkins. Visions of becoming another Hemingway obsessed him. After graduation in 1947, with the help of his creative writing teacher, he got a job on the Baltimore Sun. The idea was that this experience would be good training for a fledgling novelist (it had been so for Hemingway). But for two years Baker did not have an opportunity to write a single published sentence. Phoning in stories, he worked as a night police reporter "prowling the slums of Baltimore, studying the psychology of cops, watching people's homes burn, deciphering semiliterate police reports of dented fenders and suicides."

Baker was married in 1950. Four years later his big break came—but for the professional journalist rather than for the novelist. He landed a job with the Washington Bureau of the New York Times covering the White House, Congress, and national politics in general. For more than two decades, starting in 1962, he continuously wrote the "Observer" column for the New York Times, the medium through which he became known to millions of readers. Writing at the rate of two or three columns a week, Baker managed to maintain a level of excellence sustained over comparable time by few others. The hallmarks of his style were irony and understatement, applied to a variety of subjects, political and personal. For example, topics on which he wrote included: stopping smoking, trimming a Christmas tree, the merchandising of presidential images, and the common cold as alibi.

Perhaps over the years there was a shift from the political to the more purely personal, but Baker continued to represent both broad streams of the English essay—the greater formality of 18th century Addison-Steele and the comparative subjectivity of Romantic Charles Lamb. In America, his predecessors were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mencken. Baker was less acerbic than Mencken and more subtle than his only contemporary rival in quality and longevity, Art Buchwald. A unifying theme in all of Baker's writing was the glory of language and the need to safeguard it against depredation of both political jargon and commercial advertising.

In 1979, Baker won the George Polk award for commentary and a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. In 1983 he was awarded a second Pulitzer, in autobiography, for Growing Up. Baker embarked on a new facet of his career—college hall lecturer and wit—in the 1980s. Yet another career change was in the works for him in the early 1990s: PBS asked him to replace Alistair Cooke as host of the program "Masterpiece Theater."

Further Reading

An American in Washington (1961) and No Cause for Panic (1964) are volumes which represent the earlier, more formal Baker. Poor Baker's Almanac (1972) and So This is Depravity (1980) are "Observer" collections of essays which typify his later personal style. Baker can also be heard speaking about humor on a tape available through CBS.

Additional information can be found in "Beyond Words," in Entertainment Weekly (December 31, 1993) and "Master Observer," Time (March 8, 1993). □

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