With the death of Russell Baker on Jan. 21, America lost one of its great journalists.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist had not written regularly for many years, and some obituaries referred to him as a humor columnist, which is a mischaracterization.
Baker was an essayist who wrote humor quite well, but was so versatile he could write, with wit and compassion, about anything — politics, journalism, history, current events or language.
Upon his death, what bears mentioning is his unmatched ability to write about how time and culture pass away. One example serves to illustrate.
In 1997, Baker wrote the foreword for a book of obituaries and farewells by The New York Times called “The Last Word.” In our current age of fake news and Twitter, his observations are more true than ever.
In the foreword he wrote, “As youth turns into middle age, and middle age turns into grayness and failing vision, the cultural collapse accelerates. It becomes routine to arrive at the obituaries and find another part of your past has been moved out during the night. At a certain age, the past starts vanishing so fast that it is impossible to keep track any longer of who is dead and who is alive.”
He realized that, in some measure, death results in a societal loss of knowledge by pointing out trivial examples: hand-cranking a car on a cold morning, butchering a hog, baking a cake from scratch.
Obviously, fewer and fewer people know how to do these things, and in most ways it really doesn’t matter. But Baker understood in some profound sense that there was a more serious aspect to this loss of knowledge that comes with death.
“More alarming is the loss of knowledge of old realities. Each day death takes another batch of people who experienced the time of Hitler and his war. This is a serious loss, for many of their replacements have been encouraged to think of Nazis as sources of entertainment. Sitcoms have portrayed them as comical bunglers. Film has spread a romantic taste for those smashing Nazi uniforms. Those beautiful ankle-length leather coats! Those fantastic red-and-black armbands.
Here is a case where death is robbing us of valuable knowledge. The Nazis were not entertaining, they were not comical and not bunglers. They were fine soldiers and dangerous, terrifying, dreadful people. In their enchanting red, black and leather, they were as romantic as the machine-gunning of a mass grave.”
Where to turn? The obituary.
Baker wrote that “obituaries often provide the only pleasure to be had from the daily newspaper and should be savored slowly, for leisurely reading over the last cup of breakfast coffee. To plunge into them first thing, before having endured the rest of the day’s news, is like eating the dessert before taking a fried-liver dinner. What blessed relief they provide after the front page — people butchering the neighbor’s wives and children to serve God, right injustice, and display cultural superiority; science announcing that everything you love to do, eat, or drink will kill you ... then at last the obituaries. Oases of calm in a world gone mad. Stimulants to sweet memories of better times, to philosophical reflection, to discovery of life’s astonishing richness, variety, comedy, sadness, of the diverse infinitude of human imagination that it takes to make this world. What a lovely part of the paper to linger in ... for long thoughts and easy living it’s the obituaries every time.”
It is worth contemplating whether, in our digital age, we will lose this refuge to which he alludes.
And what set Baker apart from other writers who tackle the passage of time, albeit not as well, was that he was no maudlin nostalgist. No “back to the good old days” for him — he was upbeat about it.
“I am amused to realize that half the present population of the United States will not recognize (most of) the names that made up the environment in which my life was lived. From their viewpoint I am a creature from another planet. This is a rather pleasant feeling. I have been to a place the young can never know. It provides a harmlessly spiteful pleasure to realize that though my culture is vanishing the new culture can never know the pleasures of chewing Jujubes in the Lord Baltimore Theater while Charlie Chan scolds Keye Luke, of falling in love with Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden, remembering when Leo ‘the Lip’ Durocher taught me the roguish joys of irreverence by preaching that nice guys finish last.”
Interested readers can locate these arcane references through Google, but fair warning — it won’t be the same.
Now Baker has joined that distant planet.
Unfortunately, younger people will never have the privilege to enjoy the same pleasant place he described.
Some advice to you steeped in social media or those who refuse to watch black-and-white movies, do yourselves a favor. Read something by Russell Baker. You’ll enjoy it — and he would have too.