Title: Growing Up
Author: Russell Baker
Publication Date: June 1982
Length: 278 pages
Russell Baker’s memoir, Growing Up, is a heartfelt memoir that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Baker writes about growing up as a young boy during the Depression and his experience fighting in World War II as a Navy pilot. He was raised in poverty by a single mom for a majority of his childhood. He felt the pressure to be the “man of the family.” His family lived with aunts and uncles because that is the only way they could survive the Depression. Baker describes his relationship with his paternal grandmother, Ida Rebecca, a strong, domineering woman that raised 13 children in rural Virginia. She never accepted Baker’s mom, Lucy, and the two fought continuously over how to raise children. When Baker’s father passed away, Lucy moved her son and daughter to New Jersey to live with her extended family until their move to Baltimore. Uncle Harold and Aunt Sister, Ida Rebecca’s only daughter, lived in Baltimore as well in an apartment across the street from them. Uncle Harold was a huge influence in Baker’s life. He entertained Baker with stories about his time in the war. Lucy eventually met her second husband through Uncle Harold. Herb, Lucy’s second husband, was a good man who took care of the family. Baker was 14 when his mother remarried and he did not take to it kindly. He felt Herb was an intruder. Herb was a gentle, loving man who always had patience with Baker. He accepted Baker and ended up being a primary influence in Baker’s life. Herb purchased a home for the family in the 1940’s where his mother lived for 35 years.
Baker struggled in school and had no interest in the business world. His mother told him he would make a great writer, but he was embarrassed by his skill because he did not view writing as real work. Baker viewed writing as a skill for those that had other ways of making a living. Lucy didn’t think Baker “showed enough gumption.” She forced him into a job selling newspapers to help the family earn additional money. He didn’t think he would be good at sales. He complained to her once that the extra papers he was given weren’t selling and that people didn’t want to read the news anyways. His mother said, “For God’s sake, Russell, show a little gumption for once in your life. This is a world war. An idiot could sell newspapers today.” Another one of her favorite sayings was “The Lord helps those that help themselves.” He wasn’t able to collect money from clients that owed him for newspaper deliveries. Lucy became frustrated and collected every penny from them herself. She had no time for laziness or complaining.
Baker didn’t think he would be able to attend college due to lack of financial resources. One of his best friend’s from high school told him about scholarships. Baker tested into John Hopkins and was able to attend on scholarship tuition free. He eventually found success as a published author and journalist. His first Pulitzer Prize was for his column in the Observer. He was also a contributor for The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post and McCalls.
Read more about Russell Baker here.