Baker, Russell 1925–
Baker, Russell 1925–
(Russell Wayne Baker)
PERSONAL: Born August 14, 1925, in Loudoun County, VA; son of Benjamin Rex (a stonemason) and Lucy Elizabeth (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Robinson) Baker; married Miriam Emily Nash, March 11, 1950; children: Kathleen Leland, Allen Nash, Michael Lee. Education: Johns Hopkins University, B.A., 1947.
CAREER: Sun, Baltimore, MD, member of staff, 1947–53, London bureau chief, 1953–54; New York Times, member of Washington, DC, bureau, 1954–62, author of nationally syndicated "Observer" column for the New York Times, 1962–. Host of PBS television series "Masterpiece Theatre," 1993–. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1943–45.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (elected, 1984); American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Frank Sullivan Memorial Award, 1976; George Polk Award, 1979, for commentary; Pulitzer Prize, 1979, for distinguished commentary (in "Observer" column), and 1983, for Growing Up; Elmer Holmes Bobst prize, 1983, for nonfiction; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984; How-land Memorial Prize, Yale University, and Fourth Estate Award, National Press Club, all 1989; H.L.D., Hamilton College, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, Franklin Pierce College, Yale University, Long Island University, and Connecticut College; LL.D., Union College; D.Litt, Wake Forest University, University of Miami, Rutgers University, Columbia University; H.H. D., Hood College.
No Cause for Panic, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1964.
Baker's Dozen, New York Times (New York, NY), 1964.
All Things Considered, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1965.
Poor Russell's Almanac, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972.
So This Is Depravity, Congdon & Lattes (New York, NY), 1980.
The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1983.
Growing Up, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1982.
The Good Times, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
Looking Back, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2002.
(Author of text) Washington: City on the Potomac, Arts, 1958.
An American in Washington, Knopf (New York, NY), 1961.
Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections (fiction), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1968.
The Upside-Down Man (children's book), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1977.
(Editor) The Norton Book of Light Verse, Norton (New York, NY), 1986.
There's a Country in My Cellar, Morrow, 1990.
(Editor) Russell Baker's Book of American Humor, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
(With William Knowlton Zinsser) Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Also coauthor of musical play Home Again, 1979. Contributor to books, including John Brannon Albright, Better Times, Dolphin Books, 1975. Contributor to periodicals, including Saturday Evening Post, New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Ladie's Home Journal, Holiday, Theatre Arts, Mademoiselle, Life, Look, and McCall's.
SIDELIGHTS: Noted humorist Russell Baker has charmed readers for years with his witty, literate observations of the foibles and follies of contemporary life. Baker began his career as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times, where he enjoyed a reputation as a skilled reporter and astute political commentator. The author is perhaps best known for his "Observer" column, which has appeared in the New York Times since 1962 and in syndication in hundreds of other papers across the country. 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 Time's John Skow.
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, including the presidency, the national economy, and the military. In one "Observer" column, Baker spoofed the government's MX-missile plan, a proposal to transport nuclear weapons around the country using the nation's railroads. Baker took the idea even further by proposing the MX-Pentagon plan, a system of mobile Pentagon replicas, complete with a phony president and secretary of defense, that would criss-cross the United States and confuse the nation's enemies. In another essay, Baker suggested that the reason Congress voted against a bill requiring truth-in-advertising labels on defective used cars was the politicians' fear that the same fate would someday befall them: "Put yourself in your Congressman's shoes. One of these days he is going to be put out of office. Defeated, old, tired, 120,000 miles on his smile and two pistons cracked in his best joke. They're going to put him out on the used-Congressman lot. Does he want to have a sticker on him stating that he gets only eight miles on a gallon of bourbon? That his rip-roaring anti-Communist speech hasn't had an overhaul since 1969? That his generator is so decomposed it hasn't sparked a fresh thought in fifteen years?"
Though many of Baker's columns concern themselves with the dealings of pompous politicians and the muddled antics of government 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. In "Such Nice People," Baker examines fellow New Yorkers' reactions to the deterioration of their city, finding a thin veneer of civility masking a barely suppressed rage. "In a city like this," he wrote, "our self-control must be tight. Very tight. So we are gentle. Civilized. Quivering with self-control. So often so close to murder, but always so self-controlled. And gentle." Spectator critic Joe Mysak 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." In addition to having his column appear in newspapers, Baker has published several compilations of selected "Observer" columns.
Baker has also written a fictional story of the 1968 presidential election, Our Next President, as well as a children's book, The Upside-Down Man. In Russell Baker's Book of American Humor, published in 1993, Baker presents a collection of humorous literary pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, from the past 200 years. The book includes one-line snippets as well as poems, short stories, and excerpts from longer essays from the likes of Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor, Mae West, Tom Wolfe, Fran Lebowitz, Abraham Lincoln, Annie Szymanski, and P.J. O'Rourke, among others. Christopher Buckley, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the collection "mostly funny … generous and big-hearted," while Washington Post Book World contributor Burling Lowrey remarked that the pieces in the book "prove the validity of two familiar axioms: (1) We should always treat light things seriously and serious things lightly; and (2) All first-rate humor is subversive." Baker has also edited The Norton Book of Light Verse and coauthored Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.
Along with his writings in the "Observer" and his other humorous literary endeavors, Baker is known for his memoirs, Growing Up and The Good Times. The former chronicles Baker's adventures as a youngster in Depression-era Virginia, New Jersey, and Baltimore, while the latter recounts his career as a journalist, from his early work on the crime beat at the Baltimore Sun to his days as a Washington correspondent with the New York Times. Both books earned critical and popular acclaim for their gentle humor and warm, retrospective narratives.
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. His father, a gentle, blue-collar laborer fond of alcohol, died in an "acute diabetic coma" when Baker was five. 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. In Growing Up, Baker bore witness to his mother's pain and ambivalence over the decision: "It was the only deed of her entire life for which I ever heard her express guilt. Years later, in her old age, she was still saying, 'Maybe I made a terrible mistake when I gave up Audrey.'"
The 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. The loving but tempestuous relationship that existed between mother and son threaded its way through the work, so that Growing Up becomes as much the mother's story as the son's. Baker portrays Lucy as a driven woman, haunted by her life of poverty and 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." Spectator critic Peter Paterson saw the work as "a tribute" to the women in Baker's life, first and foremost to Lucy, "who dominates the book as she dominated her son's existence."
Baker's fully drawn portraits of his mother and other relatives were a result of his extensive research efforts. To gather information for his book, Baker interviewed dozens of family members, collecting a trove of facts about historical America in the process. In a Washington Post interview, the writer once said, "I was writing about a world that seemed to have existed 200 years ago. I had one foot back there in this primitive countrylife where women did the laundry running their knuckles on scrub boards and heated irons on coal stoves. That was an America that was completely dead." In a review of Growing Up, Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley wrote 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."
Many critics also lauded Baker's ability to translate his personal memories into a work of universal experience. New Statesman critic Brian Martin admired the author's "sharp eye for the details of ordinary life," while Yardley offered even stronger praise, affirming that Baker "has accomplished the memorialist's task: to find shape and meaning in his own life, and to make it interesting and pertinent to the reader. In lovely, haunting prose, he has told a story that is deeply in the American grain, one in which countless readers will find echoes of their own, yet in the end is very much his own."
The Good Times continues Baker's story, recounting the author's coming of age as a journalist during the 1950s and 1960s. 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. In the opinion of New York Times reviewer Frank Conroy, the time spent in London made Baker a better reporter and a better writer. Conroy determined that Baker's "ability to take the best from the Brits—who in general write better than we do … was perhaps the key event in his growth as a writer." Though Baker enjoyed London, 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."
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 which convinced Baker to stay.
The Good Times is filled with Baker's portrayals of political heavyweights like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. 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. Complimenting Baker on his balanced characterizations, Just reported 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 stated that "Baker's thumbnail sketches of the Washington movers and shakers of his time are vivid."
Many critics viewed The Good Times favorably, including Just who called 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. In Conroy's opinion, Baker takes too little credit for his early success, "ascribing much to luck and his ability to touch-type." Naughton was more 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 stated in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "what The Good Times offers instead is an insider's view of modern American journalism that illuminates both the author and his trade." Along those lines, Yardley added that "Baker seems to understand that it is one thing to write for public consumption about the distant years of childhood, and quite another to write about the unfinished stories of marriage and parenthood." He concluded, "In the end, though, The Good Times is every bit as much a personal document as was Growing Up."
Looking Back is a collection of essays, each of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. They are reflections on American public figures, among them Lyndon Johnson, William Randolph Hearst, Joe DiMaggio, Barry Goldwater, and Martin Luther King. Reviewing the book for the New York Review of Books, a contributor noted that, "With an elegiac yet shrewd sense of their accomplishments both enduring and ephemeral, he traces the impressions they left on twentieth-century America—and on him."
Describing his writing career to Naughton, Baker downplayed his talents, stating, "I've just had the good luck to escape the meaner reviewers." Readers of his work attribute Baker's success to things altogether different. Skow noted that while Baker most often uses humor to make his point, he "can also write with a haunting strain of melancholy, with delight, or … with shame and outrage." In addition, Baker's consistency and clarity are mentioned as strengths. "There is just a lucidity and a sanity about him that is so distinctive," U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told Time. "He writes clearly because he thinks clearly." Finally, summarizing the opinions of many critics, Mysak declared: "For a look at how we live now … Baker has no superiors, and few peers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baker, Russell, So This Is Depravity, Congdon & Lattes, 1980.
Baker, Russell, Growing Up, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1982.
Baker, Russell, The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1983.
Baker, Russell, The Good Times, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 31, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1987.
Detroit Free Press, June 27, 1989.
Detroit News, November 7, 1982; July 9, 1989.
Economist, January 22, 1994, p. 97.
Entertainment Weekly, December 31, 1993, p. 62.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 19, 1985; June 24, 1989.
Library Journal, May 1, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1980; January 22, 1984; March 17, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 1982; November 30, 1986; June 11, 1989.
New Statesman, March 16, 1984.
Newsweek, September 29, 1980; November 8, 1982.
New Yorker, March 8, 1993, p. 33.
New York Review of Books, August 6, 2004.
New York Times, January 30, 1972; October 6, 1982; May 23, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1972; October 18, 1982; May 28, 1989; July 8, 1990; February 20, 1994, p. 22.
New York Times Magazine, September 12, 1982.
People, December 20, 1982; October 4, 1993, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, January 24, 1972; April 28, 1989.
Spectator, February, 1984; March, 1984.
Time, January 19, 1968; January 17, 1972; June 4, 1979; November 1, 1982; October 4, 1993, p. 81.
Times Literary Supplement, April 6, 1984.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 16, 1987; May 21, 1989.
Washington Post, July 25, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, October 5, 1980; October 3, 1982; October 9, 1983; January 18, 1987; May 28, 1989; December 5, 1993, p. 3.