Russell Baker’s Pulitzer Prizer-winning memoir of his Depression era childhood, Growing Up (1981) offers a wonderful gateway to study the period between 1900 and 1945. There is no free online text for this book, but on this page, students will also find a map of key events with excerpts from the text as well as some additional resources featured below.
- Chapters 1 – 4: Russell Baker opens his memoir by describing the challenges his mother is facing as she endures senility while recovering from a fall at a nursing home. Her living memories of the past then trigger his own memories of his childhood, which he begins to describe in great detail. However, Baker also pivots back to a reconstruction of his mother’s and father’s childhoods in early twentieth-century rural Virginia. He describes how they met and struggled to overcome various challenges as a young family.
- Chapters 5 – 9: Baker describes the death of his father from diabetes in 1930 and how the tragic circumstances which then affected his mother and his sisters. Ultimately, Russell’s mother Lucy brought him and his younger sister Doris to Newark, NJ to live with her brother and his wife. This was in the heart of the Great Depression during the early 1930s. Russell describes life in New Jersey during this period, from his perspective as a child and also through the letters of his mother and her new boyfriend, Oluf. Eventually, Lucy Baker decides to follow one of her other brothers, Hal, to Baltimore, bringing Russell and Doris with her to start a new life on their own.
- Chapters 10-12: The Bakers moved to Baltimore in 1937, and almost immediately their personal circumstances worsened. However, by 1939, Lucy Baker had remarried and their economic conditions finally stabilized. Russell Baker spends these three chapters describing various scenes from this period, during his teenage years, culminating with his mother’s marriage to Herb Orrison, a change he resisted at first.
- Chapters 13-18: The final chapters of the memoir cover Russell Baker’s education and struggle to go to college, his sometimes-comical experiences training to become a navy pilot, and finally his eventual marriage after World War II to Mimi Nash. Along the way, Baker offers a series of powerful snapshots of American political and cultural life, including the civil rights demonstration he witnessed after boxer Joe Louis defeated German fighter Max Schmeling in 1938 and the complexity of emotions he felt at the end of the war with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.
Cast of Characters
Russell Baker (1925-2019): born in Morrisonville, Virginia; raised in Virginia, New Jersey and Baltimore; family nickname, Buddy; served in Navy Air Corps during World War II; became a journalist for the Baltimore Sun; married Mimi Nash
Benjamin Baker (1897-1930): Russell’s father; died of complications from diabetes
Lucy Elizabeth Robinson (1897- ?): Russell’s mother; remarried to Herb Orrison in 1939
Doris Baker (1927-? ): Russell’s sister
Audrey Baker (1930- ?): Russell’s sister
Mary Leslie Orrison (1940- ?): Russell’s step-sister
Ida Rebecca Brown (1861-1933): Russell’s grandmother on his father’s side
George Baker (1855-1907): Russell’s grandfather on his father’s side
Mimi Nash (1927- ): Russell’s wife; married in 1950
EXTENDED FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Baker Family: Uncle Irvey (oldest brother), Uncle Harry, Uncle Etch, Uncle Tom and Aunt Goldie (adopted Audrey), Uncle Harvey, Uncle Lewis, Uncle Miller, Raymond, Selba (Aunt Sister) and Uncle Harold (AEF veteran)
Morrisonville neighbors: Ep Ahalt (owned farm where parents met), Annie Grigsby (born in slavery)
Robinson Family: Uncle Allen and Aunt Pat (boarded Russell’s family), Uncle Hal (lumber business), Uncle Charlie (intellectual), Uncle Willie (California)
Friends and acquaintances: New Jersey… Oluf (mother’s boyfriend), Walter (bully), Frankie, Nino and Jerry (Italian friends); Uncle Jack (Aunt Pat’s brother), Baltimore … Mr. Fleagle (teacher); Charlie Sussman (Hopkins); Navy … T.L. Smith (“Total Loss”)
Short profile of Russell Baker (Encyclopedia Virginia)
Russell Baker reviews books about Franklin Roosevelt (New York Review of Books)
1995 Commencement Address by Russell Baker (Connecticut College)
Mapping Russell Baker’s Baltimore (Baltimore Authors)
Images courtesy of Penguin Group, Time Inc., Baltimore Sun, Library of Congress, National Archives and Wikipedia
Here is an oral history interview with Russell Baker conducted in 2010 by the Loudoun (VA) Times-Mirror.