A writer who made a difference
This is a story about a writer who has made a real difference in my life. Though I never had the pleasure of clasping his hand or looking directly into his eyes, I think of him as a true friend - someone with whom I can share my deepest concerns, someone with whom I can share joy in all the big and little wonders that are part of this earth we call our home.Skip to next paragraph
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The man is Ray Stannard Baker. He was born in 1870, lived through 1946, saw and reported the struggles of ordinary people for a decent life through many of those years. Some, familiar with his name, link him with Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, fellow reporters who exposed the ills of their day. Others know him best for his many-volumed biography of Woodrow Wilson. Still others, not at all familiar with the name of Baker, know and love him for writings he did under the name of David Grayson. In seemingly simple stories of wanderings, musings, and daily living he somehow helps us understand the wonder of ourselves, the like wonder in people the world over, each of us gifted with the ability to enjoy a world rich in beauty and variety.
I first met Mr. Baker in a series of small, blue-covered books in the mid-'30 s while in high school. These were depression years made worse by the news of the rise of Nazism and all of its brutality. Somehow what I read of Baker's writings as he explored problems in American democracy lifted my spirits, made me feel things would work out. I wanted to get to know this man better.
I turned to his writings again after the collapse of the Progressive Party of 1948. I had been involved in the effort to elect Henry Wallace, a movement that seemed to point to a way of using our energies for peaceful change. I thought Baker's writings might help me understand where we had gone wrong - what we might still do.
As I read Baker's autobiography I learned of a man who had grown up on the frontier, enjoyed the hardships and rugged beauty of that life and the feelings of individuality and self-reliance it had developed. I learned how he had gone on to become a reporter because he had to see for himself what the world was like outside his frontier community - why it was the newspapers were so full of stories of labor unrest, of violence between workers and the corporate giants that controlled most of the jobs.
Baker was fortunate in having two college professors who taught him the importance of seeing things firsthand - of looking at all sides of a subject before jumping to conclusions. When I decided to look closer at his reportorial writings, I felt that good fortune extended to me and any who might care to know this country firsthand at the turn of the century.
Chicago played host to the World's Fair when young Ray Baker took his hopes and ambitions there in June 1892. A nationwide depression had resulted in widespread joblessness. Many felt that the World's Fair meant jobs, but Chicago was unable to deliver.
In his hunt for a job Baker got to know the city, especially the South and West Sides, home to the poor. He met Jane Addams, the ''saint of the slums.'' Not only did she initiate and maintain Hull House, a settlement that offered nurseries, gymnasiums, and self-help discussions to those most in need. She also campaigned for an eight-hour workday, tenement reform, sanitation, and laws limiting child labor. The example of what one caring person could do stayed with Baker.