Russell Baker was not a humorist, although he could be hilarious.
He was not a professional funny man, although he could make newspaper readers laugh.
He was not a comic, although he was often the first to see what was funny about a person or a situation.
However, journalism loves nothing better than categories and labels. Baker, who died on Monday at the age of 93, got tagged as the humor writer for The New York Times, one of the most oxymoronic titles ever. He kept that gig for three decades, and during that time was indeed reliably funny, reliable enough to win a 1979 Pulitzer prize for commentary. (The Pulitzer committee, although it too loves pigeonholes and categories, does not dole out prizes for humor.)
He was a lot of other things, though, as his fans all noticed over the years. He was sometimes serious and sometimes merely whimsical. He once made up a whole column about hiring a sherpa guide to help him read Proust. He could tell a good story when he wanted to and sometimes wrote well enough to make a grown man cry. But no matter how versatile he may have been, he was stuck with the humorist label. People made the same mistake about Mark Twain. Maybe that was some consolation.
Then, in 1982, he published his memoir Growing Up about his childhood in Virginia and Baltimore during the Depression. Before long hundreds of thousands of readers were discovering what Baker’s diehard fans had known all along. He wasn’t just funny. He wasn’t just anything. He was an extraordinarily talented and even more extraordinarily versatile storyteller. He wrote about childhood without sentimentality. He wrote about his family with no ax to grind. He recalled the events of his life in prose so lucid that at times his childhood became more vivid than your own.
He won a Pulitzer for that book, too, and after that no one ever dismissed Baker as just a humorist.
Honestly, no one was prepared for how good Growing Up turned out to be, although there were hints and harbingers for years in his newspaper columns.
In 1979, I was writing editorials for The Greensboro Daily News in North Carolina, when one day a co-worker came into my office and said, “You should read this,” and handed me a story. It was Baker’s next column, entitled “Summer Beyond Wish,” and it had just come through from the New York Times wire service.
My colleague had tears in her eyes when she handed me the story, and by the time I’d finished reading the piece, so did I.
It was a deceptively simple column. It began, “A long time ago I lived in a crossroads village of northern Virginia and during its summer enjoyed innocence and never knew boredom, although nothing of consequence happened there.”
Most of the story was spent supplying evidence to support that last claim. He lived in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. Dreams and desires, “mostly about shotguns and bicycles,” were inspired by a close reading of the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue in the outhouse. The road past his house was unpaved. Sometimes he and his cousin went fishing in the creek, and one day they killed a copperhead.
“With no electricity, radio was not available for pacifying the young,” he wrote. “One or two people did have radios that operated on mail‐order batteries about the size of a present‐day car battery, but these were not for children, though occasionally, you might be invited in to hear ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy.’
“All I remember about Amos ‘n’ Andy at that time is that it was strange hearing voices come out of furniture. Much later I was advised that listening to Amos ‘n’ Andy was racist and was grateful that I hadn't heard much.”
There was nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in. The most exciting event of any given day was a car passing. Who’s coming? And then: Who was that driving? Could you see?
Grown ups were too busy to be bothered, and their conduct was mostly a puzzle: “I knew a few of their secrets, such as who kept his whisky hidden in a mason jar behind the lime barrel, and what they were really doing when they excused themselves from the kitchen and stepped out into the orchard and stayed out there laughing too hard.
“I also knew what the women felt about it, though not what they thought. Even then I could see that matters between women and men could become very difficult and, sometimes, so difficult that they spoiled the air of summer.”
In a few hundred words, Baker managed to conjure the intoxicating, almost limitless feeling of freedom a child is sometimes privileged to enjoy, even in the face of hardship. He closed with this:
“One night I was allowed to stay up until the stars were in full command of the sky. A woman of great age was dying in the village and it was considered fit to let the children stay abroad into the night. As four of us sat there we saw a shooting star and someone said, ‘Make a wish.’
“I did not know what that meant. I didn’t know anything to wish for.”
There, in embryo, is Growing Up. The book isn’t better, in fact. It’s just longer. In “Summer Beyond Wish,” Baker had found the tone and dispassionate but loving point of view that would see him through a longe. My co-worker who shared that story wrote him a fan letter, and I am happy to say that he wrote back and thanked her. His mother, as fans of Growing Up know well, was a piece of work, but she raised him right.
Baker wrote another memoir, The Good Times, about his life in the newspaper business, first at the Baltimore Sun papers, where he ultimately became the London bureau chief, and then the Times, where he was a Washington correspondent. It’s a good book although nowhere near as good as Growing Up.
He does tell one great story, about getting his column at the Times. The paper made him a columnist because he was a great reporter, and his editors expected that he would hold forth on the events of the day. waxing wise as reporters turned columnists usually did. Instead, Baker strayed. He began writing funny stuff, a little here and there at first and then more and more. His bosses, who had never seen the need to have even editorial cartoons or comics in the paper, were flummoxed. But the column proved popular, so they let him continue, writing about whatever he liked however he wanted to. But it was, he observed, nothing but a happy accident.
When he stopped writing the column in 1998, the Times did not replace him. How could they?