Growing Up by Russell Baker - Read Online
Growing Up
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Russell Baker won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for this biography/autobiography about growing up in the backwoods of Virginia, in a New Jersey Commuter town, and in the Depression-shadowed urban landscape of Baltimore, all happening between the world wars. Baker introduces us to the people that impacted his early life, and he also discusses powerful love, awkward sex, and courage in the face of adversity. The Great Depression provided the backdrop against success, and to help his mother and family through it, he delivered papers and hustled subscriptions of The Saturday Evening Post, which introduced him to bullies, mentors, and heroes who faced national disaster with hard work and good cheer.


Russell Baker is the winner of the 1979 George Polk Award for Commentary, the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary, and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Growing Up (1982). He served as a long-time columnist for The New York Times, writing the syndicated column “Observer” and hosted the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre. He also wrote a sequel to Growing Up called The Good Times (1989).

He began his career in 1947 at The Baltimore Sun, going on to join the Washington Bureau of The New York Times in 1954, covering national politics, in particular Congress and the White House. “Observer” began in 1962 and covered everything from national controversies to personal experiences. Baker retired from column writing in 1998, after more than three decades of well-loved and well-read writing. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia with his wife, Mimi, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.

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ISBN: 9780795317156
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Growing Up - Russell Baker

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AT the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.

Where’s Russell? she asked one day when I came to visit at the nursing home.

I’m Russell, I said.

She gazed at this improbably overgrown figure out of an inconceivable future and promptly dismissed it.

Russell’s only this big, she said, holding her hand, palm down, two feet from the floor. That day she was a young country wife with chickens in the backyard and a view of hazy blue Virginia mountains behind the apple orchard, and I was a stranger old enough to be her father.

Early one morning she phoned me in New York. Are you coming to my funeral today? she asked.

It was an awkward question with which to be awakened. What are you talking about, for God’s sake? was the best reply I could manage.

I’m being buried today, she declared briskly, as though announcing an important social event.

I’ll phone you back, I said and hung up, and when I did phone back she was all right, although she wasn’t all right, of course, and we all knew she wasn’t.

She had always been a small woman—short, light-boned, delicately structured—but now, under the white hospital sheet, she was becoming tiny. I thought of a doll with huge, fierce eyes. There had always been a fierceness in her. It showed in that angry, challenging thrust of the chin when she issued an opinion, and a great one she had always been for issuing opinions.

I tell people exactly what’s on my mind, she had been fond of boasting. I tell them what I think, whether they like it or not. Often they had not liked it. She could be sarcastic to people in whom she detected evidence of the ignoramus or the fool.

It’s not always good policy to tell people exactly what’s on your mind, I used to caution her.

If they don’t like it, that’s too bad, was her customary reply, because that’s the way I am.

And so she was. A formidable woman. Determined to speak her mind, determined to have her way, determined to bend those who opposed her. In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.

She ran after squawking chickens, an axe in her hand, determined on a beheading that would put dinner in the pot. She ran when she made the beds, ran when she set the table. One Thanksgiving she burned herself badly when, running up from the cellar oven with the ceremonial turkey, she tripped on the stairs and tumbled back down, ending at the bottom in the debris of giblets, hot gravy, and battered turkey. Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the slugabed, the drugstore cowboy, the libertine, the mushmouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind whether people liked it or not. She ran.

But now the running was over. For a time I could not accept the inevitable. As I sat by her bed, my impulse was to argue her back to reality. On my first visit to the hospital in Baltimore, she asked who I was.

Russell, I said.

Russell’s way out west, she advised me.

No, I’m right here.

Guess where I came from today? was her response.


All the way from New Jersey.



No. You’ve been in the hospital for three days, I insisted.

I suggest the thing to do is calm down a little bit, she replied. Go over to the house and shut the door.

Now she was years deep into the past, living in the neighborhood where she had settled forty years earlier, and she had just been talking with Mrs. Hoffman, a neighbor across the street.

It’s like Mrs. Hoffman said today: The children always wander back to where they come from, she remarked.

Mrs. Hoffman has been dead for fifteen years.

Russ got married today, she replied.

I got married in 1950, I said, which was the fact.

The house is unlocked, she said.

So it went until a doctor came by to give one of those oral quizzes that medical men apply in such cases. She failed catastrophically, giving wrong answers or none at all to What day is this? Do you know where you are? How old are you? and so on. Then, a surprise.

When is your birthday? he asked.

November 5, 1897, she said. Correct. Absolutely correct.

How do you remember that? the doctor asked.

Because I was born on Guy Fawkes Day, she said.

Guy Fawkes? asked the doctor. Who is Guy Fawkes?

She replied with a rhyme I had heard her recite time and again over the years when the subject of her birth date arose:

"Please to remember the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot."

Then she glared at this young doctor so ill informed about Guy Fawkes’ failed scheme to blow King James off his throne with barrels of gunpowder in 1605. She had been a schoolteacher, after all, and knew how to glare at a dolt. You may know a lot about medicine, but you obviously don’t know any history, she said. Having told him exactly what was on her mind, she left us again.

The doctors diagnosed a hopeless senility. Not unusual, they said. Hardening of the arteries was the explanation for laymen. I thought it was more complicated than that. For ten years or more the ferocity with which she had once attacked life had been turning to a rage against the weakness, the boredom, and the absence of love that too much age had brought her. Now, after the last bad fall, she seemed to have broken chains that imprisoned her in a life she had come to hate and to return to a time inhabited by people who loved her, a time in which she was needed. Gradually I understood. It was the first time in years I had seen her happy.

She had written a letter three years earlier which explained more than hardening of the arteries. I had gone down from New York to Baltimore, where she lived, for one of my infrequent visits and, afterwards, had written her with some banal advice to look for the silver lining, to count her blessings instead of burdening others with her miseries. I suppose what it really amounted to was a threat that if she was not more cheerful during my visits I would not come to see her very often. Sons are capable of such letters. This one was written out of a childish faith in the eternal strength of parents, a naive belief that age and wear could be overcome by an effort of will, that all she needed was a good pep talk to recharge a flagging spirit. It was such a foolish, innocent idea, but one thinks of parents differently from other people. Other people can become frail and break, but not parents.

She wrote back in an unusually cheery vein intended to demonstrate, I suppose, that she was mending her ways. She was never a woman to apologize, but for one moment with the pen in her hand she came very close. Referring to my visit, she wrote: If I seemed unhappy to you at times— Here she drew back, reconsidered, and said something quite different:

If I seemed unhappy to you at times, I am, but there’s really nothing anyone can do about it, because I’m just so very tired and lonely that I’ll just go to sleep and forget it. She was then seventy-eight.

Now, three years later, after the last bad fall, she had managed to forget the fatigue and loneliness and, in these free-wheeling excursions back through time, to recapture happiness. I soon stopped trying to wrest her back to what I considered the real world and tried to travel along with her on those fantastic swoops into the past. One day when I arrived at her bedside she was radiant.

Feeling good today, I said.

Why shouldn’t I feel good? she asked. Papa’s going to take me up to Baltimore on the boat today.

At that moment she was a young girl standing on a wharf at Merry Point, Virginia, waiting for the Chesapeake Bay steamer with her father, who had been dead sixty-one years. William Howard Taft was in the White House, Europe still drowsed in the dusk of the great century of peace, America was a young country, and the future stretched before it in beams of crystal sunlight. The greatest country on God’s green earth, her father might have said, if I had been able to step into my mother’s time machine and join him on the wharf with the satchels packed for Baltimore.

I could imagine her there quite clearly. She was wearing a blue dress with big puffy sleeves and long black stockings. There was a ribbon in her hair and a big bow tied on the side of her head. There had been a childhood photograph in her bedroom which showed all this, although the colors of course had been added years later by a restorer who tinted the picture.

About her father, my grandfather, I could only guess, and indeed, about the girl on the wharf with the bow in her hair, I was merely sentimentalizing. Of my mother’s childhood and her people, of their time and place, I knew very little. A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs. It was useless now to ask for help from my mother. The orbits of her mind rarely touched present interrogators for more than a moment.

Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and their children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them. If a parent does lift the curtain a bit, it is often only to stun the young with some exemplary tale of how much harder life was in the old days.

I had been guilty of this when my children were small in the early 1960s and living the affluent life. It galled me that their childhoods should be, as I thought, so easy when my own had been, as I thought, so hard. I had developed the habit, when they complained about the steak being overcooked or the television being cut off, of lecturing them on the harshness of life in my day.

In my day all we got for dinner was macaroni and cheese, and we were glad to get it.

In my day we didn’t have any television.

In my day …

In my day …

At dinner one evening a son had offended me with an inadequate report card, and as I leaned back and cleared my throat to lecture, he gazed at me with an expression of unutterable resignation and said, Tell me how it was in your days, Dad.

I was angry with him for that, but angrier with myself for having become one of those ancient bores whose highly selective memories of the past become transparently dishonest even to small children. I tried to break the habit, but must have failed. A few years later my son was referring to me when I was out of earshot as the old-timer. Between us there was a dispute about time. He looked upon the time that had been my future in a disturbing way. My future was his past, and being young, he was indifferent to the past.

As I hovered over my mother’s bed listening for muffled signals from her childhood, I realized that this same dispute had existed between her and me. When she was young, with life ahead of her, I had been her future and resented it. Instinctively, I wanted to break free, cease being a creature defined by her time, consign her future to the past, and create my own. Well, I had finally done that, and then with my own children I had seen my exciting future become their boring past.

These hopeless end-of-the-line visits with my mother made me wish I had not thrown off my own past so carelessly. 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.

I thought that someday my own children would understand that. I thought that, when I am beyond explaining, they would want to know what the world was like when my mother was young and I was younger, and we two relics passed together through strange times. I thought I should try to tell them how it was to be young in the time before jet planes, superhighways, H-bombs, and the global village of television. I realized I would have to start with my mother and her passion for improving the male of the species, which in my case took the form of forcing me to make something of myself.

Lord, how I hated those words. …


I began working in journalism when I was eight years old. It was my mother’s idea. She wanted me to make something of myself and, after a levelheaded appraisal of my strengths, decided I had better start young if I was to have any chance of keeping up with the competition.

The flaw in my character which she had already spotted was lack of gumption. My idea of a perfect afternoon was lying in front of the radio rereading my favorite Big Little Book, Dick Tracy Meets Stooge Viller. My mother despised inactivity. Seeing me having a good time in repose, she was powerless to hide her disgust. You’ve got no more gumption than a bump on a log, she said. Get out in the kitchen and help Doris do those dirty dishes.

My sister Doris, though two years younger than I, had enough gumption for a dozen people. She positively enjoyed washing dishes, making beds, and cleaning the house. When she was only seven she could carry a piece of short-weighted cheese back to the A&P, threaten the manager with legal action, and come back triumphantly with the full quarter-pound we’d paid for and a few ounces extra thrown in for forgiveness. Doris could have made something of herself if she hadn’t been a girl. Because of this defect, however, the best she could hope for was a career as a nurse or schoolteacher, the only work that capable females were considered up to in those days.

This must have saddened my mother, this twist of fate that had allocated all the gumption to the daughter and left her with a son who was content with Dick Tracy and Stooge Viller. If disappointed, though, she wasted no energy on self-pity. She would make me make something of myself whether I wanted to or not. The Lord helps those who help themselves, she said. That was the way her mind worked.

She was realistic about the difficulty. Having sized up the material the Lord had given her to mold, she didn’t overestimate what she could do with it. She didn’t insist that I grow up to be President of the United States.

Fifty years ago parents still asked boys if they wanted to grow up to be President, and asked it not jokingly but seriously. Many parents who were hardly more than paupers still believed their sons could do it. Abraham Lincoln had done it. We were only sixty-five years from Lincoln. Many a grandfather who walked among us could remember Lincoln’s time. Men of grandfatherly age were the worst for asking if you wanted to grow up to be President. A surprising number of little boys said yes and meant it.

I was asked many times myself. No, I would say, I didn’t want to grow up to be President. My mother was present during one of these interrogations. An elderly uncle, having posed the usual question and exposed my lack of interest in the Presidency, asked, "Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

I loved to pick through trash piles and collect empty bottles, tin cans with pretty labels, and discarded magazines. The most desirable job on earth sprang instantly to mind. I want to be a garbage man, I said.

My uncle smiled, but my mother had seen the first distressing evidence of a bump budding on a log. Have a little gumption, Russell, she said. Her calling me Russell was a signal of unhappiness. When she approved of me I was always Buddy.

When I turned eight years old she decided that the job of starting me on the road toward making something of myself could no longer be safely delayed. Buddy, she said one day, I want you to come home right after school this afternoon. Somebody’s coming and I want you to meet him.

When I burst in that afternoon she was in conference in the parlor with an executive of the Curtis Publishing Company. She introduced me. He bent low from the waist and shook my hand. Was it true as my mother had told him, he asked, that I longed for the opportunity to conquer the world of business?

My mother replied that I was blessed with a rare determination to make something of myself.

That’s right, I whispered.

But have you got the grit, the character, the never-say-quit spirit it takes to succeed in business?

My mother said I certainly did.

That’s right, I said.

He eyed me silently for a long pause, as though weighing whether I could be trusted to keep his confidence, then spoke man-to-man. Before taking a crucial step, he said, he wanted to advise me that working for the Curtis Publishing Company placed enormous responsibility on a young man. It was one of the great companies of America. Perhaps the greatest publishing house in the world. I had heard, no doubt, of the Saturday Evening Post?

Heard of it? My mother said that everyone in our house had heard of the Saturday Evening Post and that I, in fact, read it with religious devotion.

Then doubtless, he said, we were also familiar with those two monthly pillars of the magazine world, the Ladies Home Journal and the Country Gentleman.

Indeed we were familiar with them, said my mother.

Representing the Saturday Evening Post was one of the weightiest honors that could be bestowed in the world of business, he said. He was personally proud of being a part of that great corporation.

My mother said he had every right to be.

Again he studied me as though debating whether I was worthy of a knighthood. Finally: Are you trustworthy?

My mother said I was the soul of honesty.

That’s right, I said.

The caller smiled for the first time. He told me I was a lucky young man. He admired my spunk. Too many young men thought life was all play. Those young men would not go far in this world. Only a young man willing to work and save and keep his face washed and his hair neatly combed could hope to come out on top in a world such as ours. Did I truly and sincerely believe that I was such a young man?

He certainly does, said my mother.

That’s right, I said.

He said he had been so impressed by what he had seen of me that he was going to make me a representative of the Curtis Publishing Company. On the following Tuesday, he said, thirty freshly printed copies of the Saturday Evening Post would be delivered at our door. I would place these magazines, still damp with the ink of the presses, in a handsome canvas bag, sling it over my shoulder, and set forth through the streets to bring the best in journalism, fiction, and cartoons to the American public.

He had brought the canvas bag with him. He presented it with reverence fit for a chasuble. He showed me how to drape the sling over my left shoulder and across the chest so that the pouch lay easily accessible to my right hand, allowing the best in journalism, fiction, and cartoons to be swiftly extracted and sold to a citizenry whose happiness and security depended upon us soldiers of the free press.

The following Tuesday I raced home from school, put the canvas bag over my shoulder, dumped the magazines in, and, tilting to the left to balance their weight on my right hip, embarked on the highway of journalism.

We lived in Belleville, New Jersey, a commuter town at the northern fringe of Newark. It was 1932, the bleakest year of the Depression. My father had died two years before, leaving us with a few pieces of Sears, Roebuck furniture and not much else, and my mother had taken Doris and me to live with one of her younger brothers. This was my Uncle Allen. Uncle Allen had made something of himself by 1932. As salesman for a soft-drink bottler in Newark, he had an income of $30 a week; wore pearl-gray spats, detachable collars, and a three-piece suit; was happily married; and took in threadbare relatives.

With my load of magazines I headed toward Belleville Avenue. That’s where the people were. There were two filling stations at the intersection with Union Avenue, as well as an A&P, a fruit stand, a bakery, a barber shop, Zuccarelli’s drugstore, and a diner shaped like a railroad car. For several hours I made myself highly visible, shifting position now and then from corner to corner, from shop window to shop window, to make sure everyone could see the heavy black lettering on the canvas bag that said THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. When the angle of the light indicated it was suppertime, I walked back to the house.

How many did you sell, Buddy? my mother asked.


Where did you go?

The corner of Belleville and Union Avenues.

What did you do?

"Stood on the corner waiting for somebody to buy a Saturday Evening Post."

You just stood there?

Didn’t sell a single one.

For God’s sake, Russell!

Uncle Allen intervened. I’ve been thinking about it for some time, he said, "and I’ve about decided to take the Post regularly. Put me down as a regular customer." I handed him a magazine and he paid me a nickel. It was the first nickel I earned.

Afterwards my mother instructed me in salesmanship. I would have to ring doorbells, address adults with charming self-confidence, and break down resistance with a sales talk pointing out that no one, no matter how poor, could afford to be without the Saturday Evening Post in the home.

I told my mother I’d changed my mind about wanting to succeed in the magazine business.

If you think I’m going to raise a good-for-nothing, she replied, you’ve got another think coming. She told me to hit the streets with the canvas bag and start ringing doorbells the instant school was out next day. When I objected that I didn’t feel any aptitude for salesmanship, she asked how I’d like to lend her my leather belt so she could whack some sense into me. I bowed to superior will and entered journalism with a heavy heart.

My mother and I had fought this battle almost as long as I could remember. It probably started even before memory began, when I was a country child in northern Virginia and my mother, dissatisfied with my father’s plain workman’s life, determined that I would not grow up like him and his people, with calluses on their hands, overalls on their backs, and fourth-grade educations in their heads. She had fancier ideas of life’s possibilities. Introducing me to the Saturday Evening Post, she was trying to wean me as early as possible from my father’s world where men left with their lunch pails at sunup, worked with their hands until the grime ate into the pores, and died with a few sticks of mail-order furniture as their legacy. In my mother’s vision of the better life there were desks and white collars, well-pressed suits, evenings of reading and lively talk, and perhaps—if a man were very, very lucky and hit the jackpot, really made something important of himself—perhaps there might be a fantastic salary of $5,000 a year to support a big house and a Buick with a rumble seat and a vacation in Atlantic City.

And so I set forth with my sack of magazines. I was afraid of the dogs that snarled behind the doors of potential buyers. I was timid about ringing the doorbells of strangers, relieved when no one came to the door, and scared when someone did. Despite my mother’s instructions, I could not deliver an engaging sales pitch. When a door opened I simply asked, "Want to buy a Saturday Evening Post?" In Belleville few persons did. It was a town of 30,000 people, and most weeks I rang a fair majority of its doorbells. But I rarely sold my thirty copies. Some weeks I canvassed the entire town for six days and still had four or five unsold magazines on Monday evening; then I dreaded the coming of Tuesday morning, when a batch of thirty fresh Saturday Evening Posts was due at the front door.

Better get out there and sell the rest of those magazines tonight, my mother would say.

I usually posted myself then at a busy intersection where a traffic light controlled commuter flow from Newark. When the light turned red I stood on the curb and shouted my sales pitch at the motorists.

"Want to buy a Saturday Evening Post?"

One rainy night when car windows were sealed against me I came back soaked and with not a single sale to report. My mother beckoned to Doris.

Go back down there with Buddy and show him how to sell these magazines, she said.

Brimming with zest, Doris, who was then seven years old, returned with me to the corner. She took a magazine from the bag, and when the light turned red she strode to the nearest car and banged her small fist against the closed window. The driver, probably startled at what