Autobiographical works tell the story of their authors by compiling antic dotes and accolades. Most autobiographies are that of famous authors or other celebrities and provide a synopsis of life according to them. Russell Baker’s autobiography, Growing Up, achieves all these things as well, but, it does more than just tell of his life. As American citizens, history is a big part of our identity not only as Americans but as individuals. Russell Baker lived through a depression, a world war, a Utopia, a sexual revolution, and a lost cause of conflict, among other things. If one were to study either the Great Depression or the Second World War, Russell Baker’s autobiography would prove to be a valuable resource. Baker’s autobiography provides a screen through which readers can view historical events in American history through one boy’s eyes.
As a newspaper columnist, Russell Baker has the ability to recall newsworthy events and tell of them in a professional, telling fashion. Early on in the book, Russell discusses his career as a magazine salesman and a newspaper delivery boy. It is hard to believe that Baker does not believe in some way these careers he had as a young boy did not shape his character. These two careers also provided him with a chance to read about events before anyone else did and thus recall these moments in time with a more focused image than most people of his generation. His strong aptitude for writing coupled with his early career-induced knowledge of historical events provides an autobiography of not only a man but an era. The era in which these careers emanated from was the Great Depression. Baker tells of his family’s struggles and really provides the reader great understanding by recalling exact prices and so forth. He tells of a time when his stern and proud mother gave in to relief.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $10
This was what the program of government handouts of food was known as. Relief was seen as a shameful thing to rely on and tells of this relief candidly as well as matter-of-factly, “Pulling the wagon back toward Lombard Street, with Doris following behind to keep the edible proof of our disgrace from falling off, I knew my mother was far worse of than I’d suspected. She’d never accept such shame otherwise. I studied her as she walked along beside me, head high as always, not a bit bowed in disgrace, moving at her usual quick, hurry-up pace. If she’d given up on life, she didn’t show it, but on the other hand, she was unhappy about something. I dared to mention the dreaded words only once on that trip home.” (Baker, 1982, 158). Later in the same chapter, Baker discusses the suit that was financed for his entrance into manhood due to the minuscule budget his family existed under, as well as a bike that was bought for him that Christmas and what a sacrifice it was for his mother to afford it. Describing his family’s trials during this time serves as a microcosm to most families in that time frame.
Baker’s newspaper delivery/sales job served as an excellent example of what a war-time economy did to our nation. Deliberate or not, this particular recollection demonstrated what a war can do to a nation’s economy beautifully. Baker told of a time at the dinner table when his mother was reprimanding him for not selling his extra papers shortly after the war started. “For God’s sake, Russell, show a little gumption for once in your life. This is a world war. An idiot could sell newspapers today.” (198). Baker goes on to tell of his success when he finally did get up and half-heartedly offer newspapers to strangers, which every one of them took. This is a great illustration of how war can spark business, jobs and success even on such a small scale as selling newspapers.
Baker recalls a late-night delivery shift in which he read about the imminent war in Europe, “Lately it had been more and more about Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Stalin. The chanceries of war in Europe. War in the air, and so forth, and so on.” (152). This not only provides a reader with either knowledge or a refresher of historical leaders of the time but also provides a basis on which Baker displays his feelings on the subject or lack thereof. Baker goes on to discuss an insane dissector that held more of his attention in the paper than that of approaching war in a far-off land. This provides the reader with not only a historical setting as well as a perspective of the events of that time. Later on, in Baker’s life as well as in his book, America’s involvement in the war provides Russell with a chance to live out a dream of being a heroic pilot the likes of his own heroes which he mentions and historians will recall them to be famous aviators of the day (i.e. Charles A. Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Roscoe Turner).
As well as tell of childhood heroes, this once again provides historical knowledge. Russell does indeed become a pilot, although he never does get into the actual fighting. He tells of his experience in the service in the 1940s and also describes flying the planes of the day. Another aspect of the World War II-era was the soldier’s wives. Baker recalls a time when his two Navy buddies and himself were given a place to stay by three Navy wives. Baker’s pesky virginity at the time was almost destroyed by a lonely soldier’s wife. A very common adolescent mountain to climb, Baker’s clinging virginity was almost loved away by a married woman, a soldier’s wife at that. He told of why he didn’t allow a lonely lover of a patriotic hero deflower him, “It was all right to wallow in lust with bad women not with a good woman, not with a woman who was married to a man, possibly a Navy hero facing death for his country, for his wife, for me, in the far-away Pacific.” (226). This quote alone shows the patriotism of the day, the mere idea of every young man in the country begging for the chance to go out and fight for and possibly die for his country is a far cry from that of Vietnam or even today with the situation in Iraq.
Russell’s disappointment of never getting into the fighting is illustrated with the statistical description of the end of the Pacific campaign with the two ‘big bombs’ dropped on Japan, ultimately forcing a surrender. Once again, Russell Baker blends historical facts with personal emotions exquisitely. He also uses his mother’s ho-hum letters to portray her fear of Russell at war and the terrifying possibility of losing her son to war. He provides exact dates for these events “The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6” (228), “On August 9 the second atomic bomb was on Nagasaki.” (230), “Eight days after Hiroshima, four days after Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito, having determined that Japan must ‘endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable,’ ordered the Japanese to cease fighting. It was August 14, my twentieth birthday.” (230). These dates as well as people acquire Baker’s credibility as a writer and as a storyteller.
The contrast of the nation elated with the end of a world war and Russell’s secret discontent with the inescapable fact that he would not be able to engage himself in any of the heroic fightings is an interesting perspective and one that not many have heard before. Many movies have been produced in different time frames and either surface around the individual or the events of that era. Stories focused around an individual are usually more efficient in showing the sentiment of those that lived during those events than showing the events themselves would be. Russell Baker’s Growing Up is no different than the emotion drawing movies of Hollywood. Baker did in words what Hollywood producers do with expensive images and he even succeeds in what Hollywood producers cannot do, forcing the audience to experience everything as if they were him.