Remembering Russell Baker

Russell Baker at his Leesburg, Virginia, home in 2012. (Photo by Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I thought about it more than a couple of times, but I never went to visit him. He lived not too far from me. But I felt his privacy was more important than me wanting a picture with Mr. Baker. By the time I’d come to admire Russell Baker’s work he’d long since been out of the public eye and it had been over a decade or more since Baker published a book. I guess I felt the likely-hood of Baker having fans show up at his door was pretty darn low. In fact, very few people I knew had heard of him. So maybe he’d welcome the reminder that there were still many great admirers of his masterly pen. But still, it didn’t feel right and I wasn’t about to bother him in his retirement.

I discovered the writings of Russell Baker, I’m guessing, about 15 or so years ago. I was reading another book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, written by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. That book was a fascinating analysis of style in writing and instruction in how you develop a particular style of writing they called Classic Style. It was a style I’d recognized and admired in the writings of authors like Mark Twain and John Keegan.

Thomas and Turner had provided examples of Classic Style in their book, but there weren’t any examples (as I recall) of more recent biographies or autobiographies written in Classic Style. So I emailed Mark Turner and asked him if he would recommend some authors and titles. Turner emailed me back a small list. I don’t recall any of the others on the list, but Russell Baker was one of the names Turner provided. And so I picked up a Copy of Baker’s 1983 pulitzer prize winning memoir Growing Up.

The memoir is a lovely and hauntingly moving story of Baker’s “growing up” years during the Depression era. It’s a story that began to take root in Baker’s mind many years later while he was visiting his dying mother at the hospital. Senility had taken hold of her mind. As he sat looking at this woman who’d made him so much of what he was, he began thinking about the distance between them and about her life and what went into the making of her and him:

Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own 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.

The above paragraph is underlined in my copy. I’ve had similar thoughts floating around in my mind about my parents over the years, and as a veteran parent myself, I’ve wondered if one day my boys might experience this same curiosity about me and my wife before it’s too late to know. Most children don’t experience this deep curiosity about their parents; not because they don’t care, but more from the fact that life is too busy and the past is, well, past.

But like Baker, I think exploring and understanding the past and where we came from is a form of connecting (or reconnecting) with those people and things and events that shaped us for better or worse. I’m one of those who still stops the car, when back home visiting, to take pictures of the homes I grew up in and some of the other memorable places of my childhood and teenage years. Nostalgia is the rust of memory it’s been said, and I’ve always had a good bit of the rust. I started this blog in partial hope of leaving behind for my kids something of myself beyond what little material things I might pass on, so that one day, maybe, if my kids become interested in their dad’s personal history this blog might be of some help.

“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.”

Baker wrote a sequel to Growing Up called The Good Times (1989). Baker began his career as a reporter in Baltimore and achieved his fame, and his first pulitzer prize, writing his observer column (1962 – 1998) for the New York Times. He published about a half-a-dozen or so other books…all of which I have a copy of with underlinings throughout.

Russell Baker passed away at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 21st. He was 93.

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