Growing Up

Growing Up

by Russell Baker, Gilbert Riswold

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Reissue)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451168382
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/1992
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 78,445
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.95(d)
Lexile: 1090L (what's this?)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Russell Baker has been charming readers for years with his astute political commentary and biting cerebral wit. The noted journalist, humorist, essayist, and biographer has written or edited seventeen books, and was the author of the nationally syndicated “Observer” column for the New York Times from 1962 to 1998. Called by Robert Sherrill of the Washington Post Book Word, “the supreme satirist of this half-century,” Baker is most famous for turning the daily gossip of most newspapers into the stuff of laugh-out-loud literature. John Skow of Time described Baker's work as “funny, but full of the pain and absurdity of the age...he can write with a hunting strain of melancholy, with delight, or...with shame or outrage.” Baker received his first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1979, in recognition of his "Observer" column. Baker received his second Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for his autobiography, Growing Up (1983).

In addition to his regular column and numerous books, Baker has also edited the anthologies, The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993). From 1993 to 2004 he was the regular host of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre. Baker is a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times MagazineSports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. One of his columns, How to Hypnotize Yourself into Forgetting the Vietnam War, was dramatized and filmed by Eli Wallach for PBS.

Read an Excerpt


At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.

"Where's Russell?" she asked one day when I came to visit at the nursing home.

"I'm Russell," I said.

She gazed at this improbably overgrown figure out of an inconceivable future and promptly dismissed it.

"Russell's only this big," she said, holding her hand, palm down, two feet from the floor. That day she was a young country wife with chickens in the backyard and a view of hazy blue Virginia mountains behind the apple orchard, and I was a stranger old enough to be her father.

Early one morning she phoned me in New York. "Are you coming to my funeral today?" she asked.

It was an awkward question with which to be awakened. "What are you talking about, for God's sake?" was the best reply I could manage.

"I'm being buried today," she declared briskly, as though announcing an important social event.

"I'll phone you back," I said and hung up, and when I did phone back she was all right, although she wasn't all right, of course, and we all knew she wasn't.

She had always been a small woman — short, light-boned, delicately structured — but now, under the white hospital sheet, she was becoming tiny. I thought of a doll with huge, fierce eyes. There had always been a fierceness in her. It showed in that angry, challenging thrust of the chin when she issued an opinion, and a great one she had always been for issuing opinions.

"I tell people exactly what's on my mind," she had been fond of boasting. "I tell them what I think, whether they like it or not." Often they had not liked it. She could be sarcastic to people in whom she detected evidence of the ignoramus or the fool.

"It's not always good policy to tell people exactly what's on your mind," I used to caution her.

"If they don't like it, that's too bad," was her customary reply, "because that's the way I am."

And so she was. A formidable woman. Determined to speak her mind, determined to have her way, determined to bend those who opposed her. In that time when I had known her best, my mother had hurled herself at life with chin thrust forward, eyes blazing, and an energy that made her seem always on the run.

She ran after squawking chickens, an axe in her hand, determined on a beheading that would put dinner in the pot. She ran when she made the beds, ran when she set the table. One Thanksgiving she burned herself badly when, running up from the cellar oven with the ceremonial turkey, she tripped on the stairs and tumbled back down, ending at the bottom in the debris of giblets, hot gravy, and battered turkey. Life was combat, and victory was not to the lazy, the timid, the slugabed, the drugstore cowboy, the libertine, the mushmouth afraid to tell people exactly what was on his mind whether people liked it or not. She ran.

But now the running was over. For a time I could not accept the inevitable. As I sat by her bed, my impulse was to argue her back to reality. On my first visit to the hospital in Baltimore, she asked who I was.

"Russell," I said.

"Russell's way out west," she advised me.

"No, I'm right here."

"Guess where I came from today?" was her response.


"All the way from New Jersey."



"No. You've been in the hospital for three days," I insisted.

"I suggest the thing to do is calm down a little bit," she replied. "Go over to the house and shut the door." Now she was years deep into the past, living in the neighborhood where she had settled forty years earlier, and she had just been talking with Mrs. Hoffman, a neighbor across the street.

"It's like Mrs. Hoffman said today: The children always wander back to where they come from," she remarked.

"Mrs. Hoffman has been dead for fifteen years."

"Russ got married today," she replied.

"I got married in 1950," I said, which was the fact.

"The house is unlocked," she said.

So it went until a doctor came by to give one of those oral quizzes that medical men apply in such cases. She failed catastrophically, giving wrong answers or none at all to "What day is this?" "Do you know where you are?" "How old are you?" and so on. Then, a surprise.

"When is your birthday?" he asked.

"November 5, 1897," she said. Correct. Absolutely correct.

"How do you remember that?" the doctor asked.

"Because I was born on Guy Fawkes Day," she said.

"Guy Fawkes?" asked the doctor. "Who is Guy Fawkes?"

She replied with a rhyme I had heard her recite time and again over the years when the subject of her birth date arose:

"Please to remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot."

Then she glared at this young doctor so ill informed about Guy Fawkes' failed scheme to blow King James off his throne with barrels of gunpowder in 1605. She had been a schoolteacher, after all, and knew how to glare at a dolt. "You may know a lot about medicine, but you obviously don't know any history," she said. Having told him exactly what was on her mind, she left us again.

The doctors diagnosed a hopeless senility. Not unusual, they said. "Hardening of the arteries" was the explanation for laymen. I thought it was more complicated than that. For ten years or more the ferocity with which she had once attacked life had been turning to a rage against the weakness, the boredom, and the absence of love that too much age had brought her. Now, after the last bad fall, she seemed to have broken chains that imprisoned her in a life she had come to hate and to return to a time inhabited by people who loved her, a time in which she was needed. Gradually I understood. It was the first time in years I had seen her happy.

She had written a letter three years earlier which explained more than "hardening of the arteries." I had gone down from New York to Baltimore, where she lived, for one of my infrequent visits and, afterwards, had written her with some banal advice to look for the silver lining, to count her blessings instead of burdening others with her miseries. I suppose what it really amounted to was a threat that if she was not more cheerful during my visits I would not come to see her very often. Sons are capable of such letters. This one was written out of a childish faith in the eternal strength of parents, a naive belief that age and wear could be overcome by an effort of will, that all she needed was a good pep talk to recharge a flagging spirit. It was such a foolish, innocent idea, but one thinks of parents differently from other people. Other people can become frail and break, but not parents.

She wrote back in an unusually cheery vein intended to demonstrate, I suppose, that she was mending her ways. She was never a woman to apologize, but for one moment with the pen in her hand she came very close. Referring to my visit, she wrote: "If I seemed unhappy to you at times —" Here she drew back, reconsidered, and said something quite different:

"If I seemed unhappy to you at times, I am, but there's really nothing anyone can do about it, because I'm just so very tired and lonely that I'll just go to sleep and forget it." She was then seventy-eight.

Now, three years later, after the last bad fall, she had managed to forget the fatigue and loneliness and, in these free-wheeling excursions back through time, to recapture happiness. I soon stopped trying to wrest her back to what I considered the real world and tried to travel along with her on those fantastic swoops into the past. One day when I arrived at her bedside she was radiant.

"Feeling good today," I said.

"Why shouldn't I feel good?" she asked. "Papa's going to take me up to Baltimore on the boat today." At that moment she was a young girl standing on a wharf at Merry Point, Virginia, waiting for the Chesapeake Bay steamer with her father, who had been dead sixty-one years. William Howard Taft was in the White House, Europe still drowsed in the dusk of the great century of peace, America was a young country, and the future stretched before it in beams of crystal sunlight. "The greatest country on God's green earth," her father might have said, if I had been able to step into my mother's time machine and join him on the wharf with the satchels packed for Baltimore.

I could imagine her there quite clearly. She was wearing a blue dress with big puffy sleeves and long black stockings. There was a ribbon in her hair and a big bow tied on the side of her head. There had been a childhood photograph in her bedroom which showed all this, although the colors of course had been added years later by a restorer who tinted the picture.

About her father, my grandfather, I could only guess, and indeed, about the girl on the wharf with the bow in her hair, I was merely sentimentalizing. Of my mother's childhood and her people, of their time and place, I knew very little. A world had lived and died, and though it was part of my blood and bone I knew little more about it than I knew of the world of the pharaohs. It was useless now to ask for help from my mother. The orbits of her mind rarely touched present interrogators for more than a moment.

Sitting at her bedside, forever out of touch with her, I wondered about my own children, and their children, and children in general, and about the disconnections between children and parents that prevent them from knowing each other. Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they were parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them. If a parent does lift the curtain a bit, it is often only to stun the young with some exemplary tale of how much harder life was in the old days.

I had been guilty of this when my children were small in the early 1960s and living the affluent life. It galled me that their childhoods should be, as I thought, so easy when my own had been, as I thought, so hard. I had developed the habit, when they complained about the steak being overcooked or the television being cut off, of lecturing them on the harshness of life in my day.

"In my day all we got for dinner was macaroni and cheese, and we were glad to get it."

"In my day we didn't have any television."

"In my day ..."

"In my day ..."

At dinner one evening a son had offended me with an inadequate report card, and as I leaned back and cleared my throat to lecture, he gazed at me with an expression of unutterable resignation and said, "Tell me how it was in your days, Dad."

I was angry with him for that, but angrier with myself for having become one of those ancient bores whose highly selective memories of the past become transparently dishonest even to small children. I tried to break the habit, but must have failed. A few years later my son was referring to me when I was out of earshot as "the old-timer." Between us there was a dispute about time. He looked upon the time that had been my future in a disturbing way. My future was his past, and being young, he was indifferent to the past.

As I hovered over my mother's bed listening for muffled signals from her childhood, I realized that this same dispute had existed between her and me. When she was young, with life ahead of her, I had been her future and resented it. Instinctively, I wanted to break free, cease being a creature defined by her time, consign her future to the past, and create my own. Well, I had finally done that, and then with my own children I had seen my exciting future become their boring past.

These hopeless end-of-the-line visits with my mother made me wish I had not thrown off my own past so carelessly. We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.

I thought that someday my own children would understand that. I thought that, when I am beyond explaining, they would want to know what the world was like when my mother was young and I was younger, and we two relics passed together through strange times. I thought I should try to tell them how it was to be young in the time before jet planes, superhighways, H-bombs, and the global village of television. I realized I would have to start with my mother and her passion for improving the male of the species, which in my case took the form of forcing me to "make something of myself."

Lord, how I hated those words....


I began working in journalism when I was eight years old. It was my mother's idea. She wanted me to "make something" of myself and, after a levelheaded appraisal of my strengths, decided I had better start young if I was to have any chance of keeping up with the competition.

The flaw in my character which she had already spotted was lack of "gumption." My idea of a perfect afternoon was lying in front of the radio rereading my favorite Big Little Book, Dick Tracy Meets Stooge Viller. My mother despised inactivity. Seeing me having a good time in repose, she was powerless to hide her disgust. "You've got no more gumption than a bump on a log," she said. "Get out in the kitchen and help Doris do those dirty dishes."

My sister Doris, though two years younger than I, had enough gumption for a dozen people. She positively enjoyed washing dishes, making beds, and cleaning the house. When she was only seven she could carry a piece of short-weighted cheese back to the A&P, threaten the manager with legal action, and come back triumphantly with the full quarter-pound we'd paid for and a few ounces extra thrown in for forgiveness. Doris could have made something of herself if she hadn't been a girl. Because of this defect, however, the best she could hope for was a career as a nurse or schoolteacher, the only work that capable females were considered up to in those days.

This must have saddened my mother, this twist of fate that had allocated all the gumption to the daughter and left her with a son who was content with Dick Tracy and Stooge Viller. If disappointed, though, she wasted no energy on self-pity. She would make me make something of myself whether I wanted to or not. "The Lord helps those who help themselves," she said. That was the way her mind worked.

She was realistic about the difficulty. Having sized up the material the Lord had given her to mold, she didn't overestimate what she could do with it. She didn't insist that I grow up to be President of the United States.

Fifty years ago parents still asked boys if they wanted to grow up to be President, and asked it not jokingly but seriously. Many parents who were hardly more than paupers still believed their sons could do it. Abraham Lincoln had done it. We were only sixty-five years from Lincoln. Many a grandfather who walked among us could remember Lincoln's time. Men of grandfatherly age were the worst for asking if you wanted to grow up to be President. A surprising number of little boys said yes and meant it.

I was asked many times myself. No, I would say, I didn't want to grow up to be President. My mother was present during one of these interrogations. An elderly uncle, having posed the usual question and exposed my lack of interest in the Presidency, asked, "Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I loved to pick through trash piles and collect empty bottles, tin cans with pretty labels, and discarded magazines. The most desirable job on earth sprang instantly to mind. "I want to be a garbage man," I said.

My uncle smiled, but my mother had seen the first distressing evidence of a bump budding on a log. "Have a little gumption, Russell," she said. Her calling me Russell was a signal of unhappiness. When she approved of me I was always "Buddy."

When I turned eight years old she decided that the job of starting me on the road toward making something of myself could no longer be safely delayed. "Buddy," she said one day, "I want you to come home right after school this afternoon. Somebody's coming and I want you to meet him."

When I burst in that afternoon she was in conference in the parlor with an executive of the Curtis Publishing Company. She introduced me. He bent low from the waist and shook my hand. Was it true as my mother had told him, he asked, that I longed for the opportunity to conquer the world of business?

My mother replied that I was blessed with a rare determination to make something of myself.

"That's right," I whispered.

"But have you got the grit, the character, the never-say-quit spirit it takes to succeed in business?"

My mother said I certainly did.


Excerpted from "Growing Up"
by .
Copyright © 1982 Russell Baker.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Growing Up 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
sleepbomb on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Excellent time piece, more insightful that a history. You get a glimpse of the nuances of life during the Great Depression, the hopes, dreams, shortfalls, and the disappointments that make up real life. i would highly recommend this book to anyone but especially to history buffs interested in America in the early to mid 20th century, not for its factual construction of the era but for its intimate details that are lost in between the facts.
lunamonty on LibraryThing 8 months ago
A terrific autobiography ¿ even if you¿ve never heard of journalist Russell Baker. His account of growing up in the 1930¿s and 40¿s is very funny, poignant, sometimes tragic, and honest. Baker avoids the easy sentimental route, and really brings to life personal and historic events. A Pulitzer Prize winner and a classic.
edwin.gleaves on LibraryThing 8 months ago
One of those seminal books through which one can connect with with the childhood and coming of age of another. It inspired me, more than any other book, to write my own memoirs--with no expectation of the success achieved by this marvelous book.
Anonymous 9 months ago
He’s such a wonder storyteller. I loved reading about his childhood, and it gave me a chance to reflect on my own.
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Growing Up is the story of Russell Baker's childhood during which he lived in a poor Virginia house that had no electricity or running water, moved to a city and lived with other family members during the Great Depression, and finally a house in the suburbs. His family had little to no money during the Great Depression and Russell is forced to sell newspapers at the age of eight. His mother pushes him to become something and to rise out of poverty. He gets his chance when he graduates high school in the middle of WWII and enlists. He shares his memoirs of struggle and maturing into a man during WWII. His mother encourages him to become something after the war and Russell becomes a writer. This book describes the struggle during the Great Depression and the relief of it as WWII begins. At the end of the book, Russell Baker is fully grown up.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
My rationale for selecting this book is that it is very easy to read and understand. I enjoyed reading about Russell's childhood experiences. The greatest impact that this book has on society today is the importance of learning about your past and then passing it on to your children and other generations. Because we all come from our past and this knowledge should be shared to help society understand the reasons for some of our actions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Baker uses dry humor and emotion to take readers on a revealing and powerful journey through the hardships of the Great Depression. Baker is very strong-willed. When you read about his childhood, you can tell that he is able to cope with many difficult situations. His mother also teaches him the motivation to better himself that everyone should be taught. You should read this book if you enjoy historical facts coalesced with real emotions and family anecdotes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
if you wanna learn about the great depression you must read this book for the reason that it shows the very aspects of lives of people during the great depression.and the autobiographal style, use of 'I' is very crucial..i say it again you must read this wonderful book...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Growing Up is an okay story. Baker goes on too much about his aunts and uncles. He is sort of a dry writer. Not a great book, but not the worst either. would recommend for adults, not teens.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Growing Up helps you learn valuable life lessons and makes you feel like you can do anything you put your mind to. Although slightly boring at parts, this books is overall well-written, interesting, and sends strong messages to readers giving them advice on several different things. I would reccomend this book to anyone who enjoys to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Russell Baker¿s Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, Growing Up, takes the reader on a compelling journey through Great Depression. It follows iron willed Russell Baker who struggles through adversity to become the renowned writer he is today. Baker¿s no holds barred honesty, and detailed character description bring his eccentric but relatable family to life. With his mix of humor and emotion, Baker has a style that engages his readers. You will have a hard time putting this book down once you pick it up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Growing up is an Awesome book that taught me that no matter what you may still has more sh&* to throw at you! Either you get out there and fight for your dignity ,work hard and be happy or you will fail.Gumption...That's it...Gumption! Linda Henderson(Community College of Vermont) Student..used in our classroom 'Dimensions of Learning' College Course- Instructor : Gary Steller.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is awful. It's easy enough for a 1st grader to read. It's so vague its hilarious. Don't buy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to say i stole this book from my im glad i did because its become one of my favorite ones in my library. The book is so well written, and it was interesting to read, it kept me wanting to read it all at once.Great book i reccomment it.I also stole 'The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and other Pipe dreams' from Baker, but i have not gotten to it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book is Chinese translation and the book was lost long time ago(about 5 years ago) since I lent it to somebody. That year, 1998, I quitted my job which I hated but became out of work. In the book, Baker's mother told him must promote the magazine even the poorest, I thought it funny because my character like Baker, hate promoting job! But his sister was daring, just tap the window od one man's car and she succeeded sold newspaper. But depression Era, even college graduate women had nothing to do with career. The only thing do to is find a man(better be rich man) to solve their economic problem. If Baker's character exchange with his sister, it would be awful!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book when I was in college and I have said this is my favorite book ever since. I couldn't put it down and so love Mr. Baker's gift for writing. Do yourself a favor and read this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Russell Baker writes his life story through vignettes and episodes that captures your interests and imagination. You can't put the book down once you start reading. You wished you didn't have to eat and sleep. This is a must-read book for anyone who wishes to write a good life story. He is an excellent story teller....he is the host of the weekly series, Masterpiece Theatre.