Growing Up

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 11th grade November 2001

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¡§For God sake, Russell, you¡¦ve got a good mind and you¡¦re destroying it reading that trash.¡¨ Uncle Charlie tells his nephew upon seeing him read westerns and fantasies. Tossing a copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in his direction, Uncle Charlie says, ¡§Here, read something worthwhile.¡¨ Young Russell Baker reads Franklin¡¦s biography only until his Uncle leaves the room, at which point, he put it aside in boredom.(110) Yet, the future Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times reveals in his memoir, Growing Up, that the Franklin could have provided a model for his own success. Like Franklin, Baker rises from rags to something very close to riches.

If Russell himself lacks the confidence and initiative necessary to make his way in the world, Lucy Elizabeth has enough for both of them, and she emerges as the most Franklinian figure in the book. But a faint touch of Franklin appears in some of the supporting characters in Baker¡¦s life as well.

Like the man who jokingly claimed in his essay, he Ephemera, ¡§that he could understand all the inferior animal tongues¡¨(922), Uncle Harold knows that the truth without a touch of fiction isn¡¦t't always a lie as much as it is a way to make life more interesting than it was...¡¨ (144). So Russell listens as Harold tells him that, in Haiti, he saw the dead set up out of their shrouds and dance the Charleston,¡¨ giving Russell a conspiratorial wink after insisting to the truth. There is also a touch of Franklin in Uncle Charlie, who reads and rereads the Autobiography, as well as The Federalist Papers, and is described by one relation as almost a genius. With a mind like that he could have done almost anything¡¨ (106). In spite of his intelligence, Uncle Charlie, who slept, read, smoked, and drank coffee,¡¨ is a lay about and a financial burden to his family (108). Then there, Uncle Hal, "a man of large entrepreneurial vision, who disdains the intellectual life, and believes it is a man¡¦s duty to make something of himself by scoring big in business(110). Franklin, of course, was both businessman and intellectual, and he emphasized more than coring big? Financially. Nor was Franklin a chronic bookworm like Uncle Charlie or a chronic liar like Uncle Harold, but if Franklin was, as his biographer, Carl Van Doren, said, more than any single man: a harmonious human multitude. (782) Harold, Charlie, and Hal could likely have been a part of him.

If Harold, Charlie, and Hal are Franklinian in a minor sense, and, ultimately, not the best role models for building the kind of character Franklin and Lucy Elizabeth see as essential to succeeding in the world, others whom the young Russell meets are worthier of imitation. The executive of the company that publishes the Post interviews the eight-year old and asks if he has the grit, the character, the never-say-quit spirit it takes to succeed in business(11), and goes on to praise Russell in words that suggest he is acquainted with Franklin¡¦s sixth virtue: Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions. Too many young men thought life was all play, Russell recalls him saying. Those young men would not go far in this world(12).

As he makes his uncertain way to maturity, Russell has other mentors and role models: Mr. Fleagle, the teacher who reads the aspiring writer¡¦s essay to his classmates as an example of the very essence of the essay, praise that encourages both Russell and his mother for whom it represents a possible way for the boy to succeed (189). If success as a writer seems improbable, there¡¦s Edwin James, a distant relative who is the managing editor of the New York Times (120). Edwin James wasn¡¦t smarter than anybody else, his mother says. ¡§If (he) can do it, so can you? ¡§(121). Russell even joins his mother in a campaign to defeat Herbert Hoover, by plastering posters for Roosevelt in the neighborhood. He felt like a hero of liberty, Baker remembers. He had discovered the joys of politics (93). The Navy, college, his courtship of, and eventual marriage to, Mimi, and his first professional newspaper job lie ahead, and all make contributions to forming the character of Russell Baker and leading him to the success of which Benjamin Franklin would undoubtedly approve, but no one is more responsible for the man than the mother who raised the boy, and she did so while adhering closely to the vision of Franklin.