The Good Times
After a lifetime in journalism, Russell Baker in The Good Times takes a retrospective on his career as a reporter, from the childhood experiences that pointed him toward newspaper work until shortly after he became a columnist for The New York Times in 1962. A journalist whose work has brought him critical acclaim, Baker has won two Pulitzer Prizes: one in 1979 for a collection of his Times “Observer” columns and another for the autobiography of his childhood and youth, Growing Up (1982). The Good Times forms a sequel to the earlier volume. Autobiography requires a writer of mature years to re-create his earlier being and relive earlier experiences. In humorous autobiography, the narrative art is split between the viewpoint of an older self recalling distant events and the perspective of the youth who encounters challenges and adversities. Thus, two narrative voices conflict, and the reader can identify with either or both. Usually, autobiography is a defense of or apology for one’s life, a means of ridding oneself of burdens accumulated during a lifetime, or an invitation to others to follow one’s own example. Baker’s work differs markedly from these aims. It is Baker the social critic and detached observer a kindly, tolerant humorist who reveals himself to the reader.
Arranged in loose chronology, the book consists of chapters forming vignettes that mark important stages of Baker’s career. At the center are chapters dealing with the period from 1947, when he joined the Baltimore Sun as a police reporter, until 1963, a year after he became a columnist for the Times. These years, from the early Truman Administration until the death of John F. Kennedy, represented the height of American postwar prosperity and world power. For most Americans, these were times when one wage earner could earn a comfortable living for his family. As Baker explains, they were also the years when the power and influence of newspapers were shifting to television.
The first four chapters recount experiences from his childhood and youth that led to a career in journalism, including his work as a newspaper delivery boy and his stint as managing editor of the Johns Hopkins University campus newspaper. The book’s final chapter skips to 1984 and the funeral of his mother, whose influence on him was profound. The chapter affords an opportunity for reflection on the forces that bind families over long periods of time, on the intertwining of people’s lives over generations.
The chapters narrate significant episodes or portray characters who exerted a strong influence on Baker’s career. “Anglia Days” chronicles his humorous and whimsical experiences in England driving about in an underpowered economy car. “Fathers” presents a series of father figures who served in place of his own father, who died at age thirty-three, when Baker was eight Buck Dorsey and Ed Young of the Baltimore Sun and Gerard Fay of the Manchester Guardian. “Uncle Gene” is an affectionate portrait of his mother’s brother, who lived with the Baker family on Marydell Road in Baltimore following World War II. “Johnson” presents a portrait of the volcanic temperament and personality of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was Senate majority leader when Baker covered the Senate for the Times. Each chapter can stand as a single vignette or personal essay, yet the chapters arc tied together by the narrative persona and by motifs that recur throughout the book.
Among the motifs is the early death of Baker’s father, a loss that impelled him to seek, unconsciously, father substitutes. It also led to an assumption, frequent in those who have lost their fathers early, that he would not live beyond his father’s years. When he did surpass his father’s age, it was as though he had received a new lease on life and could make a fresh start. A more pervasive influence was his indomitable mother. Forced by poverty to give her infant daughter for adoption by childless relatives, she worked at menial jobs during the Depression to support her other two children, Russell and his sister Doris. Constantly urging him to “make something of himself,” she managed with good cheer, pluck, and perseverance. Her nudging him toward a journalism career began when he was eight, with a job she found for him as a hawker of copies of The Saturday Evening Post. Also through her intervention, he had at age twelve a job delivering a Baltimore newspaper. From a theme he wrote during the seventh grade, she surmised that he might become a writer and constantly encouraged him, through her wealth of folksy aphorisms. Another family figure, a remote eminence in the book, is his mother’s first cousin, Edwin James, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Randolph-Macon College and went on to become managing editor of The New York Times. Although at one time Baker’s family lived only ten miles west of James’s Manhattan office, Baker and James never met. “Cousin Edwin,” his mother assured him repeatedly, was no smarter than anyone else; he was perhaps the principal reason that she found newspaper work desirable for her son. Baker’s Depression childhood, a further motif, resulted in a serious preoccupation with money and success.
Yet the book’s greatest appeal is to be found in the persona of the writer himself, who is willing to amuse the reader at his own expense. Like other professionals,...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)