Mr. Claro Modern Nonfiction
Reading Selection by Russell Baker
From 1962 to 1998, Russell Baker (b. 1925) wrote the “Observer” column in the New York Times, a column that is syndicated to over four hundred and fifty newspapers across the nation. Baker’s articles on contemporary American politics, culture, and language are consistently funny and often sharply satiric. Collections of his articles have been published in several volumes, including So This Is Depravity (1980) and There’s a Country in My Cellar (1990). He is also the author of fiction and children’s literature. Baker hosted Masterpiece Theater on public television until his retirement in 1998. Among other professional honors, he has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, in 1979 for commentary and in 1983 for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982), from which the selection
“Gumption” is taken, and was awarded the George Polk Career Award in 1998. Baker’s second volume of memoirs, The Good Times, was published in 1989. Baker engaged in extensive research efforts in preparation for writing these memoirs. After all, he explains, “I was writing about a world that seemed to exist 200 years ago. I had one foot back there in this primitive country life where the women did the laundry running their knuckles on scrub boards and heated irons on coal stoves.”
I began working in journalism when I was eight years old. It was my mother’s idea. She wanted me to “make something” of myself and, after a levelheaded appraisal of my strengths, decided I had better start young if I was to have any chance of keeping up with the competition.
The flaw in my character which she had already spotted was the lack of “gumption.” My idea of a perfect afternoon was lying in front of the radio rereading my favorite Big Little Book, Dick Tracy Meets Stooge Viller. My mother despised inactivity. Seeing me having a good time in repose, she was powerless to hide her disgust. “You’ve got no more gumption than a bump on a log,” she said. “Get out in the kitchen and help Doris do those dirty dishes.”
My sister Doris, though two years younger than I, had enough gumption for a dozen people. She positively enjoyed washing dishes, making beds, and cleaning the house. When she was only seven she could carry a piece of short-weighted cheese back to the A&P, threaten the manager with legal action, and come back triumphantly with the full quarter-pound we’d paid for and a few extra ounces thrown in for forgiveness. Doris could have made something of herself if she hadn’t been a girl. Because of this defect, however, the best she could hope for was a career as a nurse or schoolteacher, the only work that capable females were considered up to in those days.
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This must have saddened my mother, this twist of fate that had allocated all the gumption to the daughter and left her with a son who was content with Dick Tracy and Stooge Viller. If disappointed, though, she wasted no energy on self-pity. She would make me make something of myself whether I wanted to or not. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” she said. That was the way her mind worked.
She was realistic about the difficulty. Having sized up the material the 5 Lord had given her to mold, she didn’t overestimate what she could do with it. She didn’t insist that I grow up to be president of the United States.
Fifty years ago parents still asked boys if they wanted to grow up to be president, and asked it not jokingly but seriously. Many parents who were hardly more than paupers still believed their sons could do it. Abraham Lincoln had done it. We were only sixty-five years from Lincoln. Many a grandfather who walked among us could remember Lincoln’s time. Men of grandfatherly age were the worst for asking if you wanted to grow up to be president. A surprising number of little boys said yes and meant it. I was asked many times myself. No, I would say, I didn’t want to grow up to be president. My mother was present during one of these interrogations. An elderly uncle, having posed the usual question and exposed my lack of interest in the presidency, asked, “Well, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I loved to pick through trash piles and collect empty bottles, tin cans with pretty labels, and discarded magazines. The most desirable job on earth sprang instantly to mind. “I want to be a garbage man,” I said.
My uncle smiled, but my mother had seen the first distressing evidence of a bump budding on a log. “Have a little gumption, Russell,” she said. Her calling me Russell was a signal of unhappiness. When she approved of me I was always “Buddy.”
When I turned eight years old she decided that the job of starting me 10 on the road toward making somethi~g of myself could no longer be safely delayed. “Buddy,” she said one day, “I want you to come home right after school this afternoon. Somebody’s coming and I want you to meet him.”
When I burst in that afternoon she was in conference in the parlor with an executive of the Curtis Publishing Company. She introduced me. He bent low from the waist and shook my hand. Was it true as my mother had told him, he asked, that I longed for the opportunity to conquer the world of business?
My mother replied that I was blessed with a rare determination to make something of myself.
“That’s right,” I whispered.
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“But have you got the grit, the character, the never-say-quit spirit it takes to succeed in business?”
My mother said I certainly did.
“That’s right,” I said.
He eyed me silently for a long pause, as though weighing whether I could be trusted to keep his confidence, then spoke man-to-man. Before taking a crucial step, he said, he wanted to advise me that working for the Curtis Publishing Company placed enormous responsibility on a young man. It was one of the great companies of America. Perhaps the greatest publishing house in the world. I had heard, no doubt, of the Saturday Evening Post?
Heard of it? My mother said that everyone in our house had heard of the Saturday Post and that I, in fact, read it with religious devotion.
Then doubtless, he said, we were also familiar with those two monthly pillars of the magazine world, the Ladies Home Journal and the Country Gentleman.
Indeed we were familiar with them, said my mother.
Representing the Saturday Evening Post was one of the weightiest honors that could be bestowed in the world of business, he said. He was personally proud of being a part of that great corporation.
My mother said he had every right to be.
Again he studied me as though debating whether I was worthy of a knighthood. Finally: “Are you trustworthy?”
My mother said I was the soul of honesty.
“That’s right,” I said.
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The caller smiled for the first time. He told me I was a lucky young man. He admired my spunk. Too many young men thought life was all play. Those young men would not go far in this world. Only a young man willing to work and save and keep his face washed and his hair neatly combed could hope to come out on top in a world such as ours. Did I truly and sincerely believe that I was such a young man?
“He certainly does,” said my mother.
“That’s right,” I said.
He said he had been so impressed by what he had seen of me that he was going to make me a representative of the Curtis Publishing Company. On the following Tuesday, he said, thirty freshly printed copies of the Saturday Evening Post would be delivered at our door. I would place these magazines, still damp with the ink of the presses, in a handsome canvas bag, sling it over my shoulder, and set forth through the streets to bring the best in journalism, fiction, and cartoons to the American public.
He had brought the canvas bag with him. He presented it with a rev- 30 erence fit for a chasuble. He showed me how to drape the sling over my left shoulder and across the chest so that the pouch lay easily accessible to my right hand, allowing the best in journalism, fiction, and cartoons to be swiftly extracted and sold to a citizenry whose happiness and security depended upon us soldiers of the free press.
The following Tuesday I raced home from school, put the canvas bag over my shoulder, dumped the magazines in, and, tilting to the left to balance their weight on my right hip, embarked on the highway of journalism.
We lived in Belleville, New Jersey, a commuter town at the northern fringe of Newark. It was 1932, the bleakest year of the Depression. My father had died two years before, leaving us with a few pieces of Sears, Roebuck furniture and not much else, and my mother had taken Doris and me to live with ore of her younger brothers. This was my Uncle Allen. Uncle Allen had made something of himself by 1932. As salesman for a soft-drink bottler in Newark, he had an income of $30 a week; wore pearl-gray spats, detachable collars, and a three-piece suit; was happily married; and took in threadbare relatives.
With my load of magazines I headed toward Belleville Avenue. That’s where the people were. There were two filling stations at the intersection with Union Avenue, as well as an A&P, a fruit stand, a bakery, a barbershop, Zuccarelli’s drugstore, and a diner shaped like a railroad car. For several hours I made myself highly visible, shifting position now and then from corner to corner, from shop window to shop window, to make sure everyone could see the heavy black lettering on the canvas bag that said
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THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. When the angle of the light indicated that it was suppertime, I walked back to the house.
“How many did you sell, Buddy?” my mother asked.
“Where did you go?”
“The corner of Belleville and Union Avenues.”
“What did you do?”
“Stood on the corner waiting for somebody to buy a Saturday Evening Post.”
“You just stood there?”
“Didn’t sell a single one.”
“For God’s sake, Russell!”
Uncle Allen intervened. “I’ve been thinking about it for some time,” he said, “and I’ve about decided to~, take the Post regularly. Put me down as a regular customer.” And I handed him a magazine and he paid me a nickel. It was the first nickel I earned.
Afterwards my mother instructed me in salesmanship. I would have to ring dootells, address adults with charming self-confidence, and break down resistance with a sales talk pointing out that no one, no matter how poor, could afford to be without the Saturday Evening Post in the home.
I told my mother I’d changed my mind about wanting to succeed in 45 the magazine business
“If you think I’m going to raise a good-for-nothing,” she replied, “you’ve got another thing coming.” She told me to hit the streets with the canvas bag and start ringing doorbells the instant school was out the next day. When I objected that I didn’t feel any aptitude for salesmanship, she asked how I’d like to lend her my leather belt so she could whack some sense into me. I bowed to superior will and entered journalism with a heavy heart.
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My mother and I had fought this battle almost as long as I could remember. It probably started even before memory began, when I was a country child in northern Virginia and my mother, dissatisfied with my father’s plain workman’s life, determined that I would not grow up like him and his people, with calluses on their hands, overalls on their backs, and fourth-grade educations in their heads. She had fancier ideas of life’s possibilities. Introducing me to the Saturday Evening Post, she was trying to wean me as early as possible from my father’s world where men left with their lunch pails at sunup, worked with their hands until the grime ate into the pores, and died with a few sticks of mail-order furniture as their legacy. In my mother’s vision of the better life there were desks and white collars, well-pressed suits, evenings of reading and lively talk, and perhaps – if a man were very, very lucky and hit the jackpot, really made something important of himself-perhaps there might be a fantastic salary of $5,000 a year to support a big house and a Buick with a rumble seat and a vacation in Atlantic City.
And so I set forth with my sack of magazines. I was afraid of the dogs that snarled behind the doors of potential buyers. I was timid about ringing the doorbells of strangers, relieved when no one came to the door, and scared when someone did. Despite my mother’s instructions, I could not deliver an engaging sales pitch. When a door opened I simply asked, “Want to buy a Saturday Evening Post?” In Belleville few persons did. It was a town of thirty thousand people, and most weeks I rang a fair majority of its doorbells. But I rarely sold my thirty copies. Some weeks I canvassed the entire town for six days and still had four or five unsold magazines on Monday evening; then I dreaded the coming of Tuesday morning, when a batch of thirty fresh Saturday Evening Posts was due at the front door.
“Better get out there and sell the rest of those magazines tonight,” my mother would say.
I usually posted myself then at a busy intersection where a traffic 50 light controlled commuter flow from Newark. When the light turned red I stood on the curb and shouted my sales pitch at the motorists.
“Want to buy a Saturday Evening Post?”
One rainy night when car windows were sealed against me I came back soaked and with not a single sale to report. My mother beckoned to Doris. “Go back down there with Buddy and show him how to sell these magazines,” she said.
Brimming with zest, Doris, who was then seven years old, returned with me to the corner. She took a magazine from the bag, and when the light turned red she strode to the nearest car and banged her small fist against the closed window. The driver, probably startled at what he took to be a midget assaulting his car, lowered the window to stare, and Doris thrust a Saturday Evening Post at him.
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“You need this magazine,” she piped, “and it only costs a nickel.”
Her salesmanship was irresistible. Before the light changed half a dozen times she disposed of the entire batch. I didn’t feel humiliated. To the contrary. I was so happy I decided to give her a treat. Leading her to the vegetable store on Belleville Avenue, I bought three apples, which cost a nickel, and gave her one.
“You shouldn’t waste your money,” she said. “Eat your apple.” I bit into mine.
“You shouldn’t eat before supper,” she said. “It’ll spoil your appetite.”
Back at the house that evening, she dutifully reported me for wasting a nickel. Instead of a scolding, I was rewarded with a pat on the back for having the good sense to buy fruit instead of candy. My mother reached into her bottomless supply of maxims and told Doris, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
By the time I was ten I had learned all my mother’s maxims by heart. Asking to stay up past normal bedtime, I knew the refusal would be explained with, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” If I whimpered about having to get up early in the morning, I could depend on her to say, “The early bird gets the worm.”
The one I most despised was, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This was the battle cry with which she constantly sent me back into the hopeless struggle whenever I moaned that I had rung every doorbell in town and knew there wasn’t a single potential buyer left in Belleville that week. After listening to my explanation, she handed me the canvas bag and said, “If at first you don’t succeed.
Three years in that job, which I would gladly have quit after the first day except for her insistence, produced at least one valuable result. My mother finally concluded that I would never make something of myself by pursuing a life in business and started considering careers that demanded less competitive zeal.
One evening when I was eleven I brought home a short “composition” on my summer vacation which the teacher had graded with an A. Reading it with her own schoolteacher’s ej~, my mother agreed that it was top-drawer seventh grade prose and complimented me. Nothing more was said about it immediately, but a new idea had taken life in her mind. Halfway through supper she suddenly
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interrupted the conversation.
“Buddy,” she said, “maybe you could be a writer.”
I clasped the idea to my heart. I had never met a writer, had shown no previous urge to write, and hadn’t a notion how to become a writer, but I loved stories and thought that making up stories must surely be almost as much fun as reading them. Best of all, though, and what really gladdened my heart, was the ease of a writer’s life. Writers did not have to trudge through the town peddling from canvas bags, defending themselves against angry dogs, being rejected by surly strangers. Writers did not have to ring doorbells. So far as I could make out, what writers did couldn’t even be classified as work.
I was enchanted. Writers didn’t have to have any gumption at all. I did not dare tell anybody for fear of being laughed at in the schoolyard, but secretly I decided that what I’d like to be when I grew up was a writer.
The Reader’s Presence
1. Baker writes that his sister “could have made something of herself if she hadn’t been a girl. Because of this defect, however, the best she could hope for was a career as a nurse or schoolteacher, the only work that capable females were considered up to in those days” (paragraph 3). How would you describe Baker’s tone in this passage? Do you think he really believes his sister’s gender is a “defect”?
2. Baker’s autobiographical essay is sprinkled with maxims and clich6s (for example, “an apple a day,” “bump on a log”). Such language is usually considered a flaw in writing; how can you tell that Baker is using these phrases intentionally? What effect on the reader do you think they are intended to have?
3. What sort of word is gumption? What synonyms can you think of for the term? How does Baker convey what his mother meant by the word without resorting to definitions? Do you believe Baker when he says in the final paragraph that writers don’t need any gumption at all?
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