Russell Baker Essay - Critical Essays

Baker, Russell (Wayne)

Introduction

Russell (Wayne) Baker 1925–

American nonfiction writer.

Baker is a highly regarded, widely read 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 the federal bureaucracy, many of which formed the basis of An American in Washington (1961). 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. Baker is especially praised for his insight into the human condition, particularly the daily problems of ordinary people.

Many of Baker's columns have been published in collections: No Cause For Panic (1969), Poor Russell's Almanac (1972; revised, 1982), and So This Is Depravity (1980). In 1979 Baker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his columns. He is the first humorist to win the award in that category since its inception in 1970. Baker's critically acclaimed autobiography Growing Up (1982) earned him another Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The book chronicles Baker's childhood and family life during the Great Depression. The quiet humor and the lack of melodrama in his portrayal of that era prompted critics to compare Growing Up to the works of Mark Twain. In a style which is understated yet powerful, Baker describes personal hardships with subtle emotion. Growing Up is considered a notable work of Americana. The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams (1983) is a recent collection of Baker's essays.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 11.)

Virginia Kirkus' Service

Russell Baker, a New York Times Washington correspondent, gets a lot off his chest [in An American in Washington] writing about Washington as a tribal entity, filled with bizarre customs. Considerable information is packed into chapters satirizing Society, Bureaucrats, Diplomats, Congress, the Presidency, etc. But the style is difficult, overcrowded with metaphors, and only fairly successful in its humor…. A sketch book, in which the individual scenes are sharper than the end view, and more satisfying in its occasional vignettes and insights. (pp. 765-66).

A review of "An American in Washington," in Virginia Kirkus' Service, Vol. XXIX, No. 16, August 15, 1961, pp. 765-66.

William H. Stringer

The only thing worrisome about [An American in Washington, a] wild Lord Bryce's guide on how Washington's denizens behave, is that someone may regard it as true to life.

That said, one can proceed to report that this Coney-Island-mirror view of the waltzings and posings and peccadilloes of Washington's politicians, hostesses, cocktail-party givers, am-bassadors, congressmen, State Department officials, newsmen and the President himself is witty, sardonic, blasé, irreverent, and often funny.

A lot of American humor these days is not soft and chuckling, poking fun at one's self as well as others, in the Will Rogers tradition. Russell Baker of The New York Times has the wit but not the gentleness. His guidebook portrait of a Washington of rogues, name-droppers, obfuscators and belabored bureaucrats reaches from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, and provides not a dull moment.

Unfortunately, he wrote before the full flavor of the Kennedy administration set in. Much of the Kennedy Washington is thus unmined. And there's this one warning: Washington is more bearable, humane, kindly, even idealistic, than we're told here. This book is, of course, for laughs.

William H. Stringer, "Laughter on Pennsylvania Avenue," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1961, p. 9.

Sidney Hyman

[Russell Baker] has written a book whose laughter better serves the cause of what is truly serious and solemn than any thundering from a pulpit. The author's finely tuned moral and esthetic instincts have been jarred in equal measure by the disfigurements Washington produces in some men, and by the nation's unwarranted fear of its own capital. However, the reformist counter-attack Mr. Baker mounts in "An American in Washington" resembles a prose-cartoon, and not the Book of Deuteronomy. It is fluently drawn, epigrammatically succinct, and by turning every instance of the ludicrous into a "rule of prudence" makes the ludicrous all the more apparent.

To put the matter directly, "An American in Washington" is offered as a "practical guide to survival" in the nation's capital, and as a contribution to "easing the tensions between the United States of America and the District of Columbia." Why this? Well, says Mr. Baker, most Americans look upon Washington as "an unworthy place where men of mean talents but cunning proclivities conspire to inconvenience people beyond its frontiers." In fact, the widely held notion that the place is "more dangerous than Moscow" helps explain why Presidential hopefuls often promise the country that if elected, "they will work American's vengeance on Washington."

Mr. Baker admits that Washington does indeed have its dangers, and not only for the newly arrived American who thinks he has come to a patch of friendly motherland. Even some of Washington's "most famous men have had knives placed so professionally in their backs that they have learned about it only by reading the next morning's newspapers."...

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John Martin

Russell Baker is perhaps the funniest newspaper columnist there is, and, after Murray Kempton, the finest stylist in contemporary journalism. Regrettably, his lyrical and wildly inventive social satire has until now been limited to appearances in the drab and leaden columns of the New York Times. [No Cause for Panic] not only takes him out of the Times but should put him on the shelves of connoisseurs of first-rate humor.

Ninety-four of Baker's best are reprinted here. They are topical and they are choice.

There is the foreign ambassador puzzled by American football: "Huge men repeatedly flung themselves beast-like upon a much smaller man who was holding the prolate spheroid." An American official replies: "That, Mr. Ambassador, is called playing the game." (pp. 84-5)

And there is the inimitable Baker fantasy: "Spring came to Washington this week. Naturally there was a cocktail reception for her."

What's puzzling about reading Baker is that it's hard to be sure whether he stays with you or you stay with him. I left him rolling through a bowl game: "Gumcrack up over the ball. Flanker guards roll left, splitback in motion to the right … field judge and head linesman ready for the short flare, Simian on the handoff…." (p. 85)

John Martin, in a review of "No Cause for Panic," in America, Vol. 112, No. 3, January 16, 1965, pp. 84-5.

Gerald Gottlieb

Baker's method [in No Cause for Panic] is irony rather than whimsy, sarcasm rather than ranting. His material is the entire United States of America and his talent is of matching size. He is capable of parody, poetry, galloping fantasy, wistful poignancy, and the simple sneer. He holds himself in constant contempt of Congress, and with grisly joy predicts a time when that body, clogged and rusted at last into utter immobility, will be made a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. On the subject of government gobbledygook he writes like a scathing James Joyce working the Washington beat. Testy, inventive, sardonic, he polishes off his book with a glorious gabble of disdain for television. All is suffused with a realistic intelligence, a cold humor, and an even colder irony—not the least of which resides in the title.

Gerald Gottlieb, "They Could Laugh Dying," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune, May 16, 1965, p. 16.∗

Virginia Kirkus' Service

Baker's squibs and brief forays have an uncommon ability to touch the center of our private perceptions. His subject [in All Things Considered] is the modern U.S. culture as viewed through the eyes of the New York Times—our 100-eyed cultural Argus…. He revamps the plots of Anna Karenina by Henry Miller, Heidi by Terry Southern, Huckleberry Finn by James Baldwin, A Tale of Two Cities by Joseph Heller, Wuthering Heights by Tennessee Williams, and The Iliad by Norman Mailer, and does it amusingly. Most often, while enjoying Baker, one has the sense of being in even when he is talking about the relative intelligence of dolphins, cats and men. He is quite...

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

Russell Baker, The New York Times "Observer" columnist, is one of the two funniest and more enlightening commentators on the Washington scene. (The other is Art Buchwald.) Mr. Baker's latest book ["Our Next President"] … tells "The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections." It is not the first spoof on the upcoming Presidential campaigns, nor will it be the last….

Mr. Baker's new scenario provokes one or two chuckles, but what is interesting about it is that it is so unfunny. The publishers seem to have recognized this, calling it a "nightmare" and a "political horror story" and wrapping the book in funereal black….

As a spoof, however (which would provide an...

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Erwin D. Canham

For a journalist there's nothing, so to speak, like getting ahead of the news. So [in Our Next President] Russell Baker has written the story of the 1968 presidential election in advance. He does it delightfully. And in many respects, he could be right.

In one or two details, the facts have already caught up with Mr. Baker. He did not anticipate George Romney's pullout. He did not anticipate Senator Eugene McCarthy's strong showing. But let us not be picayune. The crystal ball is bound to be clouded here and there.

Mr. Baker is the humor-affairs columnist of the New York Times' editorial page. Being funny three times a week is a devastating assignment. Mr. Baker keeps up with...

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R. Z. Sheppard

In the old fairy tale, the grumpy king runs a contest to find a jester who can make him laugh. Unsuccessful contestants go to the block. The winner gets a new suit of motley and the next-to-impossible job of making the king laugh again. In journalism, the dyspeptic despot is usually played by an editor who starts off saying something like "This page is too damn dull. It needs some humor." Serious words are then circulated among the clever headline writers and droll city-room pinochle players that there is an opening for a funny columnist.

If the editors and readers are lucky, they may get a durable broad-ax wit like Art Buchwald. If they are very lucky, they find someone like Russell Baker…. At his...

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Phil Elderkin

Reading "Poor Russell's Almanac" is a lot like visiting the Internal Revenue Service—with somebody else's tax return!

If you have ever changed a flat tire in the rain, tripped over the flowers on the rug or spilled gravy on your Aunt Agatha's canary, then this book is for you.

Actually, it is not really a book at all but a collection of essays. Russell Baker, the author, is extremely talented at stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

While Baker tries to pass himself off a genuine character in most interviews, he is really a self-styled one. No man who describes himself as a decaying boy, and still has to duck his head to clear any doorway under six...

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Kirkus Reviews

"Observer" columns from Russell Baker are the perfect light-beer chasers for the hard-stuff of daily news—but few of the short pieces in this pleasant, bland collection [So This Is Depravity] stand up well to the sterner tests of time and hard-cover compilation. The most obvious sufferers from the format, of course, are dated columns on the political scene—lots on Watergate—that are usually common-sensical enough …, yet often over-simplified and a bit preachy. But other pieces that should be less frayed by time—on inflation, language (the "Have a nice day" craze), the sexual revolution, city living (parking, cabs, noise), marriage, parenthood, taxes—also tend to seem rather limp in...

(The entire section is 250 words.)

JOSEPH McLELLAN

You can begin quoting Russell Baker in this collection [So This Is Depravity], as you can begin reading him, almost anywhere. Open at random to "The Humble Dollar" (you will have to track it down; his latest book has no table of contents), and you come up with a small gem:

"The papers keep saying that the dollar is very weak. This is nonsense. The truth is that the dollar is absolutely powerless. I sent one for a pound of cheese the other day and it was thrown out of the store for giving itself airs."

It's all there in that quote: the timeliness, the air of crisis, the sweeping generalization and the quick, absurd illustration that puts everything in context and makes you...

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Mary Lee Settle

What do you say about a memoir that has made you cry, made you laugh, brought back streets, sounds and hours of your own growing up and helped you look at them with more tenderness? In Russell Baker's "Growing Up," that is what can happen to anyone who has known, in childhood, the rural South, when, as the family sat in their rockers in the evening, "nothing new had been said on that porch in a hundred years." This is not the dirt-poor South of easy fiction. With sensuous grace, incisive recall and an evocation of daily language that is the poetry of the inarticulate, he recreates a place where there is dignity and ambition and an inflexible social and economic hierarchy run by women. (p. 1)

There...

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Richard Lingeman

As we all know from reading the higher fan journalism, funny people are really deeply unhappy. They had childhoods that make Charles Dickens's blacking factory seem like Charles Ryder's golden summer with Sebastian at Oxford.

And so I approached Russell Baker's autobiography, "Growing Up," with high anticipation, expecting a heartening read about someone more miserable than I am. Alas, I was deeply disappointed. To come straight out with it, Russell Baker, who writes funny stuff three times a week for his Observer column in The New York Times, ruined my day. This is not the kind of book one can put down with a contented sigh: "That poor son of a bitch." Instead of being a grim tale of drunken...

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Joe Mysak

[In Growing Up] Russell Baker, the New York Times "Observer" columnist, turns his talent to autobiography. The results are as happy as his fellow Baltimorean H. L. Mencken's were when he ventured into the form in his Days books. Baker has shown his readers some of this material before—notably in 1979, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize—but the story is especially well told here…. This is as much the story of Lucy Baker's struggling against the Depression as it is of her son's growing up, and it is often quite moving. The Bakers' circumstances were somewhat unusual, but the story and the characters are familiar ones. Here are the usual assortment of jobs and ne'er-do-well relatives. There is...

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John Lukacs

[Russell Baker] writes serious funny things usually with the purpose of pointing out absurdities, including economists' prevarications, the pretensions of technology, and government prose that has not noticeably improved during the Reagan monarchy. Whatever the targets of his attacks, Russell Baker is a defender of the greatest heritage of this nation—of which conservatives ought to be more respectful than they often are—the American English language. Within the New York Times Russell Baker compares as a grammarian to the house conservative William Safire somewhat as Red Smith compares to Howard Cosell. But Baker is more than a grammarian. He is a master of the American language.

...

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Publishers Weekly

As expected, nothing is immune to Baker's unique comedic observations—the MX missile ("Merrily We Pentagon"), New Yorkers' dogs ("Beastly Manhattan"), Marcel Proust ("Things Passed")—in [The Rescue of Miss Yaskell], the title piece being a charming evocation of boyish fantasy. This gathering will entertain first-time readers, refresh the risibilities of fans and do much to elevate the status of the personal essay.

A review of "The Rescue of Miss Yaskell: And Other Pipe Dreams," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 224, No. 8, August 19, 1983, p. 60.

(The entire section is 82 words.)

A. J. Anderson

Few things soften and grow moldy quicker than collections of stuff written for newspapers. But Baker … [survives] very well when pressed between the covers of a book…. The 100 or so of his columns tied together [in The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams] have nothing in common except that all are written in an easy, slippered prose. Always observant, Baker is in turn reminiscent, fanciful, serious, thought-provoking, and downright funny. Among his topics are Brideshead Revisited, Leo Buscaglia, and "The Male Weepie." Probably there are things that do not interest him, but they must be few and far between….

Many fans will be glad to recover some of their favorite pieces...

(The entire section is 144 words.)