Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Growing Up ()

It has become extremely fashionable to speak of the cohort of Americans who grew up during the Depression and fought World War II as "The Greatest Generation".  I've made it abundantly clear elsewhere that I think this wildly overstates the case (see Orrin's review).  However, at the same time I find it just appalling to listen to people bitch about how hard their lives are when in reality the hardships they face pale in comparison to the truly hard times endured by their parents and grandparents (and now great-grandparents).  In particular, our national discourse reached an all time low in 1992 when Bill Clinton based his Presidential campaign on the total canard that the economy was the worst it had been since the Great Depression.  Russell Baker's fine memoir stands as a rebuke to those who think the corporate downsizing of the late 80's was brutal and offers an object lesson in self improvement for those who think it is necessary for government to intervene to improve the lot of the poor.  Baker is not wholly a self made man, his willful and often difficult mother saw to it that he made something of himself.  But the important point is that it was through will power and hard work (and of course ability) that he got himself an education and realized his dream of becoming a newspaper columnist, that he grew up and got ahead.

In truly superior prose he tells the story of his hardscrabble upbringing--born out of wedlock; his father drank himself to death; his mother and paternal grandmother battled over him; his mother ended up giving his little sister to relatives to raise; they are forced to rely on the kindness and generosity of reluctant family; ne'er do well uncles crop up and stay on; and Mom's gentleman friends offer not merely companionship but a possible escape from grinding poverty.  And through it all, Baker and his mother are continually at loggerheads, the final confrontations coming when he meets his prospective wife and finally has to assert himself regardless of the consequences.

This book was a surprising but well deserved mega best seller when it came out almost twenty years ago now.  If you haven't read it be sure to track down a copy.  Baker's is a great American life, in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Booker T. Washington (see Orrin's review), and this memoir should endure in the same way theirs have.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Russell Baker Links:
    -MEMOIR OF A SMALL-TOWNBOYHOOD (adapted from Growing Up)(Russell Baker, NY Times Magazine)
    -REVIEW : May 17, 2001 Russell Baker: Mr. Right, NY Review of Books
       Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein
       Suburban Warriors by Lisa McGirr
       Right-Wing Populism in America:Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons
    -REVIEW: Jul 16, 1998 Russell Baker: The Exile, NY Review of Books
       Nixon in Winter by Monica Crowley
       Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes edited by Stanley I. Kutler
       Nixon's Economy: Booms, Busts, Dollars, and Votes by Allen J. Matusow
    -REVIEW: of  GROWING UP By Russell Baker (Richard Lingeman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GROWING UP. By Russell Baker (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE GOOD TIMES By Russell Baker (WARD JUST, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Good Times By Russell Baker (Frank Conroy, NY Times Book Review)
    -The Depression News: The 1930's

Book-related and General Links:


I read the book twenty years ago and found it most delightful. The reason I am reviewing it here is that an excerpt of it is included for my students to read in a basic writing class at a local university.

It so much reminded me of my own childhood, albeit the setting for Out of the Cotton Fields: and into the Classroom occurred in Southeast Alabama, a copy of which I gave to each of my students.

I found Baker's book compelling; it is a book I would read over and over, that is, if I didn't have other books I want to read.

- Horace Danner

- Jan-24-2007, 12:04


It was a good book, no doubt about that, but somewhat random. I understand he was trying to show us life in that timeperiod, but nothing monumental happened to him, he basically just learned how to not be such a pushover. Just seemed random, but I did enjoy it as I have an interest in that time period.

- Jag G

- Aug-12-2006, 22:50


i read some of this book. I appreciated its irrelevance to anything substantial. It was the simplest of all stories and had no real meaning to it. I do not appreciate, however, my ignorant teacher that forced me to read it.

- chuck

- Oct-30-2005, 21:31


I love Growing Up. The characterizations of family members are wonderful. I could get under their skin and feel what they are about. Russell Baker did not sugar coat his human flaws and his tribute to his mother who played such a part in his "making something of himself" was humorous and heart warming. Oh, to have such a mother. One other book reaches such a place in my heart, When Montana and I Were Young, by Margaret Bell.

- dianne

- Sep-20-2004, 09:33


i only read 3 pages of the book. It was ok but nothing to go crazy about

- micki

- Mar-24-2004, 20:51


I read rhis book and I found it interesting.

- john

- Dec-10-2003, 07:47



- Dec-10-2003, 07:45


I think the review could have been more detailed. I do not think it is talking about the book as a whole.

- Danie Brown

- Dec-01-2002, 16:24