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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: