Russell Baker Sidney Hyman - Essay

Sidney Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Russell Baker] has written a book whose laughter better serves the cause of what is truly serious and solemn than any thundering from a pulpit. The author's finely tuned moral and esthetic instincts have been jarred in equal measure by the disfigurements Washington produces in some men, and by the nation's unwarranted fear of its own capital. However, the reformist counter-attack Mr. Baker mounts in "An American in Washington" resembles a prose-cartoon, and not the Book of Deuteronomy. It is fluently drawn, epigrammatically succinct, and by turning every instance of the ludicrous into a "rule of prudence" makes the ludicrous all the more apparent.

To put the matter directly, "An American in Washington" is offered as a "practical guide to survival" in the nation's capital, and as a contribution to "easing the tensions between the United States of America and the District of Columbia." Why this? Well, says Mr. Baker, most Americans look upon Washington as "an unworthy place where men of mean talents but cunning proclivities conspire to inconvenience people beyond its frontiers." In fact, the widely held notion that the place is "more dangerous than Moscow" helps explain why Presidential hopefuls often promise the country that if elected, "they will work American's vengeance on Washington."

Mr. Baker admits that Washington does indeed have its dangers, and not only for the newly arrived American who thinks he has come to a patch of friendly motherland. Even some of Washington's "most famous men have had knives placed so professionally in their backs that they have learned about it only by reading the next morning's newspapers."...

(The entire section is 685 words.)