A late reminisce for a 20th-century Twain

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

New York Times columnist Russell Baker died five weeks ago. For me to get his autobiography, Growing Up, from an interlibrary loan took a month, but I was happy to have it in hand, however belated. I’d read it when it came out in 1982 because he, along with columnist Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, was my columnist hero, forming my ideas of what a column could be about.

When the book was published, I wrote a column about it. He told the tales of his growing up poor in Virginia during the Depression, how he became a godless cynic when his father died – “At the age of five I had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke.”

He spent the remainder of his childhood struggling to outwit his mom, who was bent on his making something of himself despite his self-considered laziness. His stories of trying to sell magazines or collect money delivering newspapers are painfully honest, describing his shyness coupled with his longing to spend his entire life playing baseball or reading; he was hilarious and heart-rending about the awkwardness and obliviousness of growing up. Such a writer he was to be able to define his idea of life compared to his mother’s.

Baker’s wry touch and sly self-denigration make me smile. He is often a laugh-out-loud read. He wrote 5,000 columns — 3.7 million words, according to his employer, the Times – 750 words two or three times a week for 36 years. He described his job of writing to this strict word count an attempt to manipulate “a ballet in a phone booth.”

He also wrote 15 books, years of articles in the slicks (Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal), and then he hosted Masterpiece Theater for 11 years.

The best thing about him was his mind, the second best was his ability to articulate his offbeat point of view on anything pompous, the third was his obvious disregard for any hubris or self-importance.

The year after his autobiography came out, Baker published a collection of columns. Following is a portion of the column I wrote about it at the time:

“Once a week I read Russell Baker’s column in the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle. That’s not nearly often enough for me, so I bought his latest book, The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and other Pipe Dreams, a collection of 105 New York Times columns from the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Growing Up.

“Baker is capable of writing on any subject with insight and humor. His essays range from mummies to his boyhood bed to the Pentagon. He uses the language with enviable precision and enjoys making fun of the rules of writing. In an April 1981 column he makes up a story about the English Mafia hood who warns him to sharpen up his writing or he’ll be sent to the bottom of the river with the Oxford English Dictionary cemented to his feet. The hit man ‘set fire to my priceless collection of prepositions, which I had been gathering for years to end sentences with.’

“Each sentence is good; some are Baker genius: ‘Like everyone else, I consider myself different from everyone else….’ Shakespeare said this in a slightly different way…but not with that same kind of honesty to say it about himself.

“And each idea fresh: ‘Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, I keep assuring myself that everything from the balance of nuclear terror to frozen onion rings makes good sense and can be rationally explained by people a lot saner than I am.’”

In his humorous explanation of his own growing up he made the connections of “the braided cord” of his parents, his relatives, his beloved Virginia, the times before he was born and the times he himself acutely observed even as a boy. He might have said that he was a youngster doomed to write; we can be thankful for that. He is a national treasure. Baker’s been compared to Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, even the satirical Brit, Jonathan Swift.

That a library would remove him from the stacks at all but especially before he was even dead is my only complaint; it is a kind of thoughtless decision from an institution that I’ve always considered the necessary repository of words, and it’s a slap in the face of history as well as to this remarkable fellow who wrote in Growing Up: “We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, 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.”

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