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.
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.
When Ray Baker finally became a reporter for the Chicago News Record, a perceptive editor assigned him stories about people caught in an ever-widening depression.
I shared a sense of firsthand participation when I read the stories he sent back from Massillon, Ohio, where he was dispatched early in March 1894 to cover the story of a ''queer chap named Coxey'' (Jacob S. Coxey) who was getting up an army of the unemployed to march on Washington. Early stories told of Baker's disbelief that any such venture would ever get underway.
Later, as Ray walked beside the men, he told how he found them to be genuine farmers and workers. He wrote of their goals, which included a $500 million issue of Treasury notes to be used to set men to work macadamizing roads all over the United States. He wrote of the support the marchers found at each town as people came forward with food and supplies. At the nation's capital he saw them dispersed with billy clubs and charging horses, their appeals to their government apparently falling on deaf ears. Some years later, however, he was to write that the causes raised by Coxey's Army had indeed been crystallized by the march - that they were to become rallying points for later political campaigns, and, in due time, laws of the land.
Back from Washington, he was sent to cover the Pullman strike - a violent strike, with workers overthrowing the luxury cars they had built. He went down to Pullman's ''model village'' to see how the strikers fared. Hunger and desperation abounded. His stories of individual families caught up in the strike and the pressures put on them by Pullman brought forth a flood of money - funds he used to purchase food and other necessities for grateful families. After that , he not only reported the bad things he saw but appealed to the well of goodness that was ready to change things for the better.
Later in his life Baker found that being a reporter didn't always mean a chance to cover the stories he felt important. He was pushed to the point of exhaustion, separated from his wife and family for long stretches of time, unsure of what he wanted to do or who he was. Close to mental and physical exhaustion, he took time out to recuperate, to come to grips with who he was and what it was he most wanted to do. Out of that crisis came the pen name David Grayson and the much loved ''Adventures'' and other story essays that told the wonders of this ''well flavored earth.''
Today we are living through difficult times, but Baker's writings still help me believe that there is a well of goodness in people, that most of us, regardless of nationality or political preference, share a desire for a good life for ourselves and those around us. If we reach out to each other in search of ways of overcoming the fear and anger that seem to dominate, we can still find ways of using our newfound technology to meet the needs of the many, including the need to develop all we are capable of as human beings, the ability to share through word and song and dance all the joys and longings common to people the world over.