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”...