Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
As an award-winning newspaper columnist, Russell Baker is known for his wry, insightful commentaries on a wide variety of subjects, from the vagaries of human nature to the events and fashions of the day. Growing Up represents his first foray into the realm of autobiography, and the book is characterized by the same qualities that serve as the hallmarks of his journalistic style. For Baker’s regular readers and admirers, the book offers an engaging look at the experiences which shaped his outlook as a writer, fleshing out the life of the commentator they have come to know exclusively through his columns.
Baker’s emphasis in his book is on the people and events that helped shape his character rather than on a specific recounting of dates and times. Yet the book is for the most part chronological in its retelling of his early years, and Baker grounds it firmly within a specific era. The result is an autobiography that lets its impressions of its historical setting emerge from the life it is recounting. There are no superimposed descriptions of breadlines, battles, or the Wall Street crash in Growing Up; the Depression and the war exist in the repercussions they cause within Baker’s family.
That Baker succeeds so admirably in his attempt to present history within the context of a young boy’s life is the result primarily of the perspective he has gained with time and reflection. Baker’s ability to see himself so clearly within the context of history is as invaluable as the winning humor with which he relates his stories. Together, these two qualities make him a gifted storyteller within the limits of reasonable accuracy and truth, and the result is an autobiography that is steeped in the traditions of American humor and illuminating in its insights into American life.
As Baker states at its outset, life in the United States before the changes produced since World War II is the true subject of his book, and his touching, humorous, and always perceptive recollections offer a heartwarming portrait of a childhood that serves as a window for his readers into a world which is still an integral part of his character.