Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
Russell Wayne Baker became one of the best-known and well-respected writers of humor in the United States through his wry observations of everything from politics to rural life. His column in The New York Times, “The Observer,” enjoyed enormous success, running for several decades and garnering numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. Baker also won a Pulitzer for the autobiographical Growing Up.
Baker was born in Morrisonville, Virginia, in 1925 to Benjamin and Lucy Baker. His father died of diabetes when Baker was five years old, at which time his mother sent his youngest sister to live with relatives while she took the two older children to find a financially stable future. Russell, his mother, and his other sister moved to several places in Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland. Eventually, with the help of relatives, Baltimore became a home to Lucy Baker and her children.
After a two-year service in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1945, Russell Baker attended The Johns Hopkins University and got his first writing job, for the Baltimore Sun, in 1947. He married Miriam Emily Nash on March 11, 1950, and they had three children, Kathleen, Allen, and Michael.
Baker worked for a time in London, writing a weekly column for the Sun entitled “From a Window on Fleet Street,” and in 1954 he was hired by The New York Times to be a staff reporter covering the White House, Congress, and the State Department. He reported on political activities in Washington for the next several years, until he decided to leave political reporting.
The New York Times offered him his own column as an incentive to stay. His first piece, published in 1962, was a fictional, satirical version of a press conference by John F. Kennedy. His political commentary became quite popular, and he wrote his column from Washington through the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. His columns were published in several books, notably Baker’s Dozen and All Things Considered. Baker’s popularity as a political columnist stemmed from his ability to blend objectivity, respect, and a wry sense of humor that neither denigrated nor exalted his subjects.
For the next twenty years he continued to write “The Observer.” He also published collections of his articles as well as other books, including a children’s book (The Upside Down Man) and a novel (Our Next President). However, Baker’s fictional endeavors did not garner him the same attention and praise as did his nonfiction works.
In 1974, he and The New York Times decided that he would relocate to New York City. In a 1972 interview, he had stated that “I’m basically a guy with a yearning for the past, a time when things were better. Life was better when there were trains. It’s probably a sign of the hardening of the mental arteries, this yearning for boyhood.” After his move to New York, Baker indulged himself in writing about his yearning for simpler times, expounding on life’s foibles with the whimsy of James Thurber, to whom he has often been compared, and with the homespun warmth of Norman Rockwell.
Saying that his children “ought to know what went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone,” Baker wrote the first volume of his memoirs, Growing Up, in 1982. This bittersweet story of his early years with his mother was universally praised, and Baker won his second Pulitzer Prize, in 1983, for the book. It both celebrated and eulogized Depression-era America. It is as much a story of the ability of children to adapt to adversity as it is a story of Baker’s family, warts and all. In 1989, Baker followed Growing Up with a second installment of his autobiography, entitled The Good Times, which was also highly praised. It primarily deals with Baker’s early days as a reporter on the Baltimore Sun, in particular chronicling the time he spent in London.
Throughout his career, whether writing about the foibles of politicians and the American political process or about life in Depression-era Baltimore, Baker has written with a sense that the world is a difficult place. Yet his humor indicates that, although life is often painful, there is joy and beauty to be found.
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