Russell Baker R. Z. Sheppard - Essay

R. Z. Sheppard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the old fairy tale, the grumpy king runs a contest to find a jester who can make him laugh. Unsuccessful contestants go to the block. The winner gets a new suit of motley and the next-to-impossible job of making the king laugh again. In journalism, the dyspeptic despot is usually played by an editor who starts off saying something like "This page is too damn dull. It needs some humor." Serious words are then circulated among the clever headline writers and droll city-room pinochle players that there is an opening for a funny columnist.

If the editors and readers are lucky, they may get a durable broad-ax wit like Art Buchwald. If they are very lucky, they find someone like Russell Baker…. At his best, Baker fills his allotted space opposite the editorial page with bizarre, often bleak fantasies about human foolishness. At his second best, he holds a funhouse mirror up to the nature of the consumer state. Baker's "growing family," for example, does not increase numerically but expands through overweight and the excess tonnage of possessions.

Poor Russell's Almanac, [a] … collection of columns and comment, is composed largely of such ticklish visions. The more painful versions often have to do with a variety of middle-aged, middle-management saps who have congealed in mid-marriage and mid-mortgage. "Misery no longer loves company," says Baker. "Nowadays it insists upon it."…

To use the kind of phrases he lampoons in a piece on reviewers' jargon, Baker is a man of range, sensitive intellect and fertile imagination. He is also a fine stylist whose columns frequently unfurl to defend the language against corruption. But to read 212 pages of him at a sitting is a mistake. He is most effective in his newspaper, where the reader can wade expectantly toward him through bloated accounts of disaster, inhumanity, avarice and hypocrisy. Russell Baker can then best be appreciated doing what a good humorist has always done: writing to preserve his sanity for at least one more day.

R. Z. Sheppard, "Daily Sanity," in Time, Vol. 99, No. 3, January 17, 1972, p. 63.