HERE ARE TWO sentences, each of which opens a memorable, distinctively American autobiography:
* "I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father."
* "At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time."
The first surely needs no identification; it is from James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times. The second, though new to our literature, seems destined to find a similarly permanent place therein; it is the beginning of Russell Baker's account of his formative years, Growing Up, a work as deeply rooted in what we know as the "American experience" as anything Thurber wrote; moreover, it leaves no doubt that Baker must not merely be compared with Thurber, as he has been in the past, but ranked with him as well. As the sentences quoted above make clear, there is a Thurberesque tone to Baker's prose in this volume, more pronouncedly so than in most of his previous work, but not for a moment should the reader surmise that Growing Up is a work of imitation; Baker is his own stylist, his own memorialist and his own man, and here he moves beyond the boundaries of his newspaper column to establish a place for this book among the most enduring recollections of American boyhoods--those of Thurber and Mencken, Aldrich and Twain.
Baker's story, in its barest outline, is the stuff of American legend. He was a child of the hardscrabble countryside who eventually moved to the big city, where as an adult he made his mark. He was the son of a decent, boozy, feckless father and a bright, ambitious, feisty mother. His family was not poor, at least by the standards of the Depression, but a penny candy or a movie ticket was a luxury. He was tall, skinny, gangling, bookish but no egghead, shy with girls. He passed through rites that for our culture are now only memories, though cherished ones, from first exposure to the miracle of indoor plumbing to trying on his first pair of long pants. And as he looks back on his boyhood, he locates in it an undercurrent of predestination, a series of omens that pointed him to precisely the position he now occupies.
That position is of course as author of the "Observer" column published by The New York Times and widely syndicated through its news service, a column for which he won one of the more richly deserved Pulitzer Prizes in the history of that award. It is a sophisticated column, though never brittle; mordant, though never bitter or despairing; witty and amusing, though never broad or uproarious. In sum, the work of an urbane fellow who has seen enough of the world to roll with its punches and to occupy what Thurber described as "his own personal time, circumscribed by the short boundaries of his pain and his embarrassment, in which what happens to his digestion, the rear axle of his car, and the confused flow of his relationships with six or eight persons and two or three buildings is of greater importance than what goes on in the nation or in the universe."
His road to this eminence began 57 years ago in the northern Virginia hamlet of Morrisonville, "a poor place to prepare for a struggle with the twentieth century, but a delightful place to spend a childhood." His mother was "small" but "formidable"; his father, a stonemason, inhabited a world "where men left with their lunch pails at sunup, worked with their hands until the grime ate into the pores, and died with a few sticks of mail-order furniture as their legacy." But Baker came to understand this later; as a boy in Morrisonville, deep in the bosom of the extended Baker family and surrounded by a landscape of breathtaking beauty, he was blissfully happy. Thus it was all the more shattering when, at the age of 33, his father died of "acute diabetic coma":
"After that I never cried again with any conviction, nor expected much of anyone's God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me deeply in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke."
No doubt that skepticism has served Baker well -- it is the foundation upon which his newspaper column rests -- yet it remains that his life, as he describes it, has with this single sad exception been notably blessed. His youth was spent in various states of need, but he seems always to have been in households where people loved him and (in varying degrees) each other. He learned the hard and valuable lessons taught by the Depression, but they did not crush or demoralize him as they did so many others. He lived in three instructively contrasting places: rural Virginia, a commuter town in New Jersey, urban Baltimore. When his mother remarried, it was to a man with the forbearance to ride out a 14-year-old stepson's hostility. He won a scholarship to a distinguished university. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the wartime Navy but not, through circumstances he claims to regret, the hazards of combat. He was hired for his first job by The Baltimore Sun, at the time arguably the country's most distinguished newspaper. And, his mother's opposition notwithstanding, he married the woman he loved. The rest of the story is a matter of record.
It is also, Baker implies, a matter of fate. Though he merely sets his evidence down, allowing it to speak quietly for itself, it does suggest a prefigured life. There was, for example, the formidable presence -- though never an actual physical one -- of his cousin, Edwin James, the managing editor of The New York Times during Baker's residency in New Jersey: "One Sunday Uncle Allen opened to Cousin Edwin's column and beckoned to me. 'Look here,' he said. 'When you get your name printed there like your cousin Edwin you'll be able to say you've made something of yourself.' " There was also his response, under the category of "ambition," to his high-school yearbook's questionnaire: "To be a newspaper columnist" -- notwithstanding that "I hadn't the least interest in journalism and no ambition whatever to be a newspaper columnist."
There is of course the possibility that Baker is pulling our legs, spoofing the Horatio Alger mythology, but I think not. Exercising the autobiographer's license, which in crucial respects is as large as the poet's or novelist's, Baker has chosen as a central theme of his memoir the seemingly haphazard nature of his discovery of vocation. Not merely does he represent newspapering as something toward which he was drawn by influences quite beyond his control or ken, but he takes evident pleasure in depicting it as a convenient escape from more onerous lines of work. When he was 11 years old, his mother suggested that "maybe you could be a writer." He recalls his response as immediate:
"I clasped the idea to my heart. I had never met a writer, had shown no previous urge to write, and hadn't a notion how to become a writer, but I loved stories and thought that making up stories must surely be almost as much fun as reading them. Best of all, though, and what really gladdened my heart, was the ease of the writer's life. Writers did not have to trudge through the town peddling from canvas bags, defending themselves against angry dogs, being rejected by surly strangers. Writers did not have to ring doorbells. So far as I could make out, what writers did couldn't even be classified as work."
Don't believe it for a minute. Perhaps as a boy Baker indeed saw the writer's life as one of easeful repose; it's a common enough misperception, and one that Baker has sought to perpetuate in interviews, describing his journalism as a rather offhand endeavor. Sorry about that: I don't believe it of his column, and I certainly don't believe it of Growing Up. Surely Baker knows that Gene Fowler wasi right: "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." Growing Up is a small, incandescent work of memory, imagination and artistry, and such a book does not come easily. With what I suspect was far greater effort than he would let on, Baker has accomplished the memorialist's task: to find shape and meaning in his own life, and to make it interesting and pertinent to the reader. In lovely, haunting prose, he has told a story that is deeply in the American grain, one in which countless readers will find echoes of their own, yet in the end is very much his own.