Journalism students quickly learn of the line between newspapers and literature when they enter college. The news-gathering classes are taught on one part of campus, with literature usually reserved for the hallowed halls of the English and languages departments.
But Russell Baker, the retired columnist for The New York Times who died on Jan. 21, collapsed that boundary; his celebrated columns and memoirs invited readers to wonder if the mission of newsroom scribes and so-called creative artists really differed that much in the first place.
Baker won his first Pulitzer in 1979 for his Times columns – often humorous and sometimes poignant essays in the tradition of E.B. White. His second Pulitzer came in 1983 for “Growing Up,” a memoir, published the year before, that’s still hailed as a classic. Baker’s autobiographical books, which also included “The Good Times,” a 1989 account of his career, affirmed his stature as a man of letters – a reputation enhanced when he hosted public television’s “Masterpiece Theatre” from 1993 to 2004. Fittingly, he succeeded Alistair Cooke, another newspaperman whose prose was widely regarded as literary, too.
Memoirs have mushroomed as a cultural fixture since “Growing Up” first appeared, but when Baker made his entry into the genre, not everyone was writing them. Baker’s tenderly evoked recollections of his Depression-era origins in rural Virginia set a standard – and helped created an audience – for many memoirists to come. Long before “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s iconic 1996 portrait of his long-suffering Irish mother, Baker’s “Growing Up” had revealed how a matriarch could be rendered in all her emotional complexity.
Although Baker is the ostensible center of “Growing Up” and “The Good Times,” the real star of his memoirs is the headstrong and poverty-stricken widow who raised him, a woman whose insistent striving – her primary virtue – was also her biggest vice, according to her son.
With humor and more than a little pathos, Baker recalls his mom’s persistently voiced desire that he “make something of himself,” an admonition that lingered even after he’d reached the top echelons of journalism. In 1954, learning that her son had been named a White House correspondent at 29, her reaction was typical: “Well, Russ, if you work hard at this White House job you might be able to make something of yourself.”
Baker continued to rise, eventually becoming a regular on the Times opinion page. His best columns, assembled in collections such as “So This Is Depravity,” touched on everything from his inept gardening to Watergate to the travails of grocery shopping.
After his retirement from The Times in 1998, Baker wrote occasional book reviews for The New York Review of Books, some of them collected in “Looking Back,” a 2002 book that showed Baker the writer was a perceptive reader, too.
In “Looking Back,” Baker casually observed that “the adult American male’s dream of paradise is eternal boyhood.” Baker’s own paradise, of course, was rattled by his mother’s running reminder to make something of himself.
The many fans who treasure his work are proof that he answered his mother’s call.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”