Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Russell Baker begins Growing Up in 1981 at the bedside of his mother. She has become feeble, her memory erratic, and Baker uses fragments of her memories as a starting point for placing his own memories into context. He ends the book at her bedside as well, and the visits to his mother bracket this memoir. The body of the book takes place during the years between Baker’s birth in 1925 and his marriage in 1950 and may be roughly divided into four sections.

The first section of Growing Up is set in Morrisonville, Virginia, Baker’s birthplace. He was the oldest of three children born to Benjamin and Lucy Elizabeth Baker. His early years were spent in rural Virginia, living among his many Baker relatives. His grandmother, Ida Rebecca, was the matriarch of a family of thirteen children, most of whom lived nearby.

The next section describes his father’s death from diabetes in 1930, at which time his mother moved the family to Newark, New Jersey, to live with her brother and his wife. Later, the families moved to Belleville, New Jersey, and as the Depression deepened, the group was joined by other relatives. Lucy Baker was determined to have a home of her own, but she was unable to save enough to accomplish that goal. As a result, when she was promised by her brother Hal that he could help them acquire a home if they moved to Baltimore, Lucy packed up the children and moved them there.

The third section of...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Growing Up

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

As a columnist for The New York Times, Russell Baker is public property. According to literary critic R. Z. Sheppard, Baker’s regular readers “wade expectantly toward him through bloated accounts of disaster, inhumanity, avarice and hypocrisy,” seeking in his “Observer” column respite from the news. During the two decades that Baker has been writing the column, this respite has taken varied forms, but in general, Baker follows the tradition of the Horatian satirist, whose urbane and humorous voice points out weaknesses in humans and their institutions and gently insists that they mend their ways. Coming as he does out of this long-established literary tradition, and writing as he does in the most witty of journalistic styles, Baker has earned a devoted following and has won several prizes for commentary, among them, in 1979, a Pulitzer Prize. This prominence alone would seem to justify publication of an autobiography. Baker’s readers may legitimately feel entitled to know something about the development of his wonderfully distinctive voice. Such readers will certainly find in Growing Up a portrait of the columnist as a young man, from his childhood in rural Virginia and, after his father’s death, in New Jersey, to his early adulthood in Baltimore, but Growing Up is more than a personal chronicle. Taken as a whole, the book is an elegiac meditation on time, on the relation of the past to the present and to the future, not only in an individual life but also in the common life that eventually becomes the historical record of a people.

Baker’s concern for connecting past and present arises in part from his conviction that “There has been an important change in the nature of society. Nothing seems to make sense any longer; there is no sequence to anything.” As a child, he knew old men who could remember Lincoln’s presidency; he also knew a black woman, Annie Grigsby, whose chief distinction was that she had been “born in slavery.” “Living so close to Annie, who had been freed by Lincoln himself,” he writes, “made me feel in touch with the historic past.” Young people in the 1980’s, Baker believes, do not have this same clear sense of the past. In both social and personal terms, the young are disconnected from what has gone before; they see themselves as isolated individuals, and they are—understandably—oriented toward the future. Still, Baker writes, “We all come from the past, and children ought . . . to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.” In one sense, then, Growing Up is written for people the age of Baker’s own children—people who are young adults—in an effort to explain the circumstances that made their parents who they are. A child of the Depression, Baker writes on behalf of all who were young in that time, illuminating their values for those who grew up in a more affluent era.

He also writes in homage to his mother, Lucy Elizabeth Robinson Baker. The book is framed by visits to Lucy Elizabeth, for whom historical sequence has irretrievably broken down: she is in a nursing home where, under the power of advanced senility, she makes “free-wheeling excursions back through time.” Growing Up is as much a reconstruction of Lucy Elizabeth’s history and motivations as it is of Baker’s own. Retrospect allows Baker to see that his mother was more than a fierce and opinionated individual; she embodied a tension between two conflicting views of women’s position: “Her modern feminist passion for equality was at war with her nineteenth century idea of women as the purifying, ennobling element of society.” Thus, while recording his mother’s unending insistence that he make something of himself—“For God’s sake, Russell, show a little gumption for once in your life”—Baker never lets the reader forget that in addition to possessing enormous personal strength, Lucy Elizabeth was a product of her times.

He also sympathizes with his mother’s need for a man on whom she could depend economically. Widowed with three small children at the onset of the Depression, she was thrown on the mercy of her brothers, who were themselves struggling to survive. Despite her family’s generosity, Lucy Elizabeth was never comfortable as their dependent, so, armed with a “bottomless supply of maxims,” she set out to rear a son who could eventually protect and support her. Her goal imposed a heavy burden on the young Baker, but reading Growing Up gives one a sense less of the burden’s heaviness than of the good humor with which Baker bore it. On the whole, he treats his mother with the affectionate tolerance afforded by hindsight; at the same time, he implies that he was “subdued . . . by too much melancholy striving to satisfy [his] mother’s notions of manhood.” It is a cruel irony that the family’s entire supply of gumption was allotted to Baker’s younger sister Doris, to whom Growing Up is dedicated. High-spirited and courageous, Doris might have satisfied Lucy Elizabeth’s highest ambitions but for the “defect”...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Newspaper columnist Russell Baker is best known for his “Observer” column, which first appeared in The New York Times in 1962 and for which he received the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Commentary. Growing Up brought to Baker his second Pulitzer in 1983, this time in the field of biography. A popular best-seller, the book traces Baker’s childhood from his birth in Morrisonville, Virginia, in 1925 to his marriage, while still a young reporter for the Baltimore Sun, in 1950.

Baker’s warm and insightful reminiscences are bracketed by visits in 1981 to his ailing mother, Lucy, now a patient in a nursing home. She is senile and near death; her mind wanders through her past, a past about which her son realizes he knows very little. As Baker notes in the first of the book’s eighteen chapters, “Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.” It is a realization that sparks his memories of his own childhood and his decision to set them down for his children to read: “I thought I should try to tell them how it was to be young in the time before jet planes, superhighways, H-bombs, and the global village of television.” Photographs of Baker and members of his family accompany the text, like snapshots in a family album.

He begins with his mother and her passionate determination to see young Russell “make something” of himself. Dismayed by his lackluster efforts at the age of eight as a sales boy for The Saturday Evening...

(The entire section is 656 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Christian Century. XCIX, November 17, 1982, p. 1155.

Grauer, Neil A. “Russell Baker: The Observer,” in Wits and Sages, 1984.

Lingeman, Richard. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (October 7, 1982), p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 10, 1982, p. 1.

Lukacs, John. Review in National Review. XXXV (March 18, 1983), p. 331.

Morrison, Donald. Review in Time. CXX (November 1, 1982), p. 80.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 27, 1982, p. 350.

Social Education. XLVI, November, 1982, p. 470.

Strouse, Jean. Review in Newsweek. C (November 8, 1982), p. 88.

The Washington Monthly. XIV, October, 1982, p. 57.