Monday, March 27, 2000, 2 p.m. EST
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World. Leading the discussion is Washington Post book critic and columnist Jonathan Yardley. This month's selection is Russell Baker's "Growing Up."
Jonathan Yardley was born in Pittsburgh in 1939 and is a 1961 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before joining The Post in 1981 he worked for the New York Times, the Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News, the Miami Herald and the Washington Star. He is the author of six books: Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner (1977), Our Kind of People: The Story of an American Family (1989), Out of Step: Notes from a Purple Decade (1991), States of Mind: A Personal Journey Through the Mid-Atlantic (1993), Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley (1997) and Monday Morning Quarterback(1998). In 1968-69 he held a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and in 1981 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Jonathan Yardley: I'd like to open this discussion by quoting what seems to me in some respects the essential paragraph from Growing Up. Inexplicably, in reading the book originally in 1982 and reviewing it then, I completely missed this. It occurs on page 138, where Baker is discussing his Uncle Harold, who was incapable of telling the truth:
"It didn't matter that my mother called him 'the biggest liar God ever sent down the pike.' In spite of his reputation for varnishing a fact, or maybe because of the outrageousness with which he did the varnishing, I found him irresistible. It was his intuitive refusal to spoil a good story by slavish adherence to fact that enchanted me. Though poorly educated, Uncle Harold somehow knew that the possibility of creating art lies not in reporting but in fiction."
Ten pages later, Baker looks back fondly on "those years when [Uncle Harold] was showing me the pleasures to be had from setting imagination -- even a limited imagination -- free to play." Obviously both of these statements should be read with an eye to what Baker himself has done in Growing Up. I'd be interested in comments on this specifically or, more generally, on the question of memoirs and veracity.
Why did you choose this particular book?
Jonathan Yardley: I can speak only for myself, but in making my selections for the book club I am limiting myself to books I admire and care about deeply. Growing Up is one of these. It is also, I think, an exemplary memoir, and a model to be examined at a time when the genre is being taken in what I regard as highly questionable directions, most of them having to do with self-indulgence.
Why didn't the author give any coverage to his productive time with the New York Times, because the story seems to end abruptly? What is the explanation for the time hiatus of 31 years between the last two chapters? Can you tell us anything about Russell Baker's life since 1983 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography?
Jonathan Yardley: Baker wrote a second autobiographical volume -- The Good Times is, if memory serves me well, the title -- which takes him from the Baltimore Sun to the years at the New York Times before he became a columnist. I suspect that Baker himself would say that once he became a columnist he no longer lived a life that would be of interest to anyone except himself and (possibly) his family and friends. As I can say from four decades' experience at writing book reviews, editorials and columns, this sort of work is largely reflective rather than reportorial and thus does not produce the sort of anecdotes and experiences out of which memoirs can be fashioned. I know nothing about Baker's life since 1983 except that some years ago he moved from New York City back to a part of Northern Virginia not far from where he grew up. I believe that he treasures his privacy and that this deserves respect.
Big Stone Gap, Virginia:
I recently read and very much enjoyed your book, States of Mind. Having grown up in Virginia, but now living in Maryland, you are certainly quite familiar with both states. You, no doubt, have seen recent articles in the Post contrasting the two states politically, socially, and otherwise. My question to you is, are there any similarities between the two these days? Wasn't your contention in your book that there is a common theme in the mid-atlantic states?
Jonathan Yardley: This conversation is supposed to be about Growing Up and not about me, but I'm happy to try to deal with this question since much of Russell Baker's life has been lived in Virginia or Maryland. As I recall -- and it's been nearly a decade since I wrote States of Mind -- I argued that the Middle Atlantic states are united exactly in their "middleness," which ranges from a middling sort of climate to a middling kind of politics to a middling kind of society. Extremes are not avoided -- they rarely can be -- but they are seldom welcomed. Ditto for confrontations.
Thanks for reading States of Mind. Upon publication in (I think) 1993, it sank like the proverbial rock. It certainly is not the best of my books, but it has a few chapters of which I'm fond, and it is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.
The quotation you presented about writing memoir or autobiography echoes Mark Twain, "Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth." Willie Morris also used this idea in his introduction to Good Old Boy.Both Morris and Baker -and, of course Twain-created wonderfully inviting books. Perhaps we wonder about veracity, but the experiences these authors created make the truth both obvious and irrelevant!
Jonathan Yardley: Right. I don't have it in front of me, but in the issue of Book World for April 9 I am reviewing Saul Bellow's fine new novel, Ravelstein, which is "about" his late friend Allen Bloom, best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind. I mention in the review that Bellow chose to write a novel about Bloom rather than a memoir because it would permit him to focus not on facts but on truths.
Obviously the memoirist invents, or perhaps re-invents is the more pertinent word. That Growing Up is inherently truthful seems to me a given, but when he quotes line upon line of dialogue uttered when he was a boy, one must assume that he is recreating at least as much as he is remembering.
In reading and reviewing memoirs I always try to make allowances for this and to ask myself: Does this have the ring of truth? Growing Up most certainly does. By contrast, to cite a glaring example, Kathyrn Harrison's The Kiss does not.
I, too, was caught by Uncle Harold's dedication to the story over the truth. I have been told my stories must be taken with a "block" of salt and enjoy listening to those related by the six-year-old in our neighborhood that have a basis in fact but that is all. Without the Uncle Harolds of this world there would be no bedtime stories or fantasies or prize-winning fiction.
Jonathan Yardley: Thanks for the comment. You're right, of course.
Being born in 1947 into a middle-class city-suburban home, I found the value in Growing Up to be in his recreation of the Depression era in both rural and urban environments. I was overwhelmed by the difficulties his family faced and yet completely charmed by his beautiful descriptions. On pages 42 and 43 he describes the silence of a broiling afternoon when the men were working and the women napping."The creak of a proch swing...the swish of a horse's tail..that tin roofs crackle under the power of the sun." Did Baker write short stories, perhaps, or longer fiction? What an ear he has!
Jonathan Yardley: Doesn't Baker say toward the end of Growing Up that as a young man he wrote a long, dreadful novel and then threw it away? I'm sure he's tried his hand at fiction and I'm sure he learned from his experiments. It seemed to me that many of his best columns over the years had an invented, story-telling quality far closer to fiction (and literature) than to mere journalism.
Silver Spring, MD:
Please give us your definition of what makes a good memoir and how R.Baker exemplifies these characteristics? Also, please expand on what you mean by today's memoirs and the tendency toward self-indulgence. Give recent examples.
Jonathan Yardley: You sound as if you're giving me an assignment for freshman English! I'll try:
A good memoir first of all must tell a good story, i.e., must arouse the reader's interest and draw the reader in; the same, that is, as a good novel. It must make the life and character of the writer connect to the reader; it can't assume that because the writer thinks he is infinitely interesting so too will the reader, but must work hard to make that connection. It must walk the fine line between introspection and modesty.
Growing Up does all of this. The story of rising above hardship is a universal one to which almost everyone can connect. Baker tells his story with a beguiling mixture of pride and self-effacement, and he never misses an opportunity for self-mockery. His skill at drawing characters would be the envy of most novelists, and his prose is graceful without calling attention to itself.
I've written so much about self-indulgent memoirs, in both reviews and columns, that I have no appetite for beating that poor dead horse again, and I don't want to start citing chapter and verse. I have a poor memory and would not want to pick on two or three bad books without failing to mention the dozen or more bad books that I've simply -- and mercifully -- managed to forget. I will say that I find it calamitous that memoir-writing is now taught in schools of "creative writing." The practice is encouraging people to tell their life stories long before they have any stoires to tell.
Russell's mother's correspondence with Olaf and the decline of their relationship was one of the most powerful and moving stories of the effects of the Depression I have read. I think Growing Up deserved all its awards based on this episode alone. But it seemed so neat--the letters fit so well into the story Baker was trying to tell. Which came first, the story or the evidence, or does it matter? Would Baker himself want us to think of him as Uncle Harold or is Growing Up the "truth?"
Jonathan Yardley: Yes, the story of Oluf is indeed sad and instructive. As to Uncle Harold, I think Baker wrote that paragraph as a caveat to the reader, saying in effect that, yes, not everything in here is "true" but I'm trying to tell, as you say, the "truth."
Mr. Yardley: I would come out on the side of factual memoirs--to the extent that our memories permit--leaving fabrication to fiction. I really enjoyed "Growing Up"--may have never read it had it not been for the bookclub. Thanks.
Memoirs of talented people certainly can move without enhancement. John Updike's A Soft Spring Night in Shillington from his Self-Consciousness has always moved me so much. -Incidentally, he claims he had moved from Shillington to Ipswich in part to be closer to Ted Williams.- Returning to his home town years later after becoming famous and walking around in a soft rain -killing time due to an Allentown airport mixup-, he said things like "I loved Shillington not as one loves Capri or New York . . . but as one loves one's own body and consciousness." "All those years in Shillington I had waited to be admired, waited patiently, for there was considerable pleasure in the waiting, the lying low . . . I would "show them. I would . . . " Well, of course, he did show them and it was fun making the prideful, yet melancholy and humble walk with him. I see he's bringing out a Rabbit Remembered.
Jonathan Yardley: Thanks. I confess that on the whole I am not an Updike admirer, but for longer than I care to remember I have loved his essay about Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." I find his early work far more engaging than the work of the later period when he had become a Literary Personage and when everything he wrote was/is given a free pass by the reviewers.
I thought that the most poignant parts of Growing Up were the episodes concerning Audrey. The first was that her mother gave her up! The second was the time Audrey was brought as a 6-year-old to Baltimore to meet her sister.It is interesting that Baker never describes his mother's feelings, yet that is all I could focus on as I read these two scenes.
Jonathan Yardley: The episodes about Audrey are poignant indeed. I found myself wanting to know more about her, but I'm sure that Baker kept her presence in the book small to reflect her presence in his life at that period.
It's about time for this session to wrap up. I'd like to thank those who participated and I'd like all of you to come back at the same time on the last Monday in April when Marie Arana will discuss that month's book club selection, Maxine Hong Kingston's superb memoir, The Woman Warrior. If you're interested in other worthwhile American memoirs, I'd direct you to Willie Morris's North Toward Home, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and H.L. Mencken's Happy Days.
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