Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Growing Up Analysis - Essay

Russell Baker

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Growing Up Analysis

Vastly entertaining and yet rich in human drama and emotion, Growing Up is a remarkably intelligent and evocative look back at a young boy’s coming of age during a crucial period in American history. Russell Baker manages to capture in his portrait of his early years both the specific, lovingly remembered details of his own life and the larger cultural and historical events which shaped them. To his recollections of a life that, seen from the outside, often appears difficult, Baker brings not a trace of self-pity or maudlin histrionics, offering instead a rare sense of perspective. Warmth and humor are the keynotes of his style, and he brings his past to life with dry wit and an appreciation for the lessons it taught him.

What emerges is a beautifully realized portrayal of family life as a sustaining and motivating force in times of personal misfortune and economic hardship. For young Russell, or “Buddy” as he is called, a house without indoor plumbing or, later, an apartment shared with a half dozen relatives on thirty dollars a week represents the only world he knows; he accepts it with the equanimity of a child too young to measure his own life against outside standards of comparison. The events which stun and shake him are emotional, not economic: his father’s sudden death, his mother’s unexpected remarriage. Secure in the love and protection of his mother and a host of aunts and uncles, he observes the adult world with innocence and curiosity, moving inexorably toward its ranks under Lucy Baker’s watchful eye and stern notions of building character.

The humor with which Baker relates his tales of childhood owes much to Mark Twain, and his stories are wry, good-natured, and characterized by a careful ear for dialogue and colorful colloquialisms. He is often the object of his own jokes, a quiet boy whose mother fears that he might become that most dreaded of characters, “a bump on a log,” and whose younger sister Doris has “enough gumption for a dozen people.” The engaging picture Baker paints of himself throughout the book is that of an unsophisticated boy stumbling wide-eyed through his childhood as he grasps occasional pointers from his more knowing relatives and companions. It is a portrait he expands upon as his story progresses; the seventeen-year-old Russell knows nothing about international politics but follows the fortunes of fighter Joe Louis with avid interest, and at eighteen he leaves for the war exuberant and excited—only to call home by midmorning, badly homesick.

The humor in Growing Up is also tempered by an understanding of the frailties of human nature. All the relatives portrayed in the book are remembered with love and affection despite their shortcomings, a testament to the compassion which time and maturity have given Baker. His...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)