Growing Up Summary and Study Guide

Russell Baker

Growing Up

  • 56-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 18 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a English instructor with a PhD from NYU
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Growing Up Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 56-page guide for “Growing Up” by Russell Baker includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Power of Storytelling and Coming of Age during the Depression and World War II.

Plot Summary

Russell Baker (b. August 14, 1925) is an American newspaper columnist, humorist, political satirist, and author. He earned a B.A. from Johns Hopkins in 1947 and began his career at the Baltimore Sun as a police reporter. He was a columnist at the New York Times from 1962 to 1998 and host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre from 1992 to 2004.

His Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Growing Up (1982), recounts his childhood and adolescence during the Great Depression and World War II. Alongside his story is that of his mother, Ruth, and her strong influence on Baker. He also shares anecdotes and character sketches featuring his large, extended family, which includes his wife Mimi.

In her old age, Ruth becomes senile, inspiring Baker to reflect on how little he knows of her past and howregretful he is of his youthful disinterest in it. Baker’s own children betray a similar disinterest in his past, though he suspects one day they will want to know, as he now does. Baker resolves to tell his stories while he is still able, saying children should know where they came from and that they are part of a larger tapestry of experiences.

Baker’s story begins in rural Virginia, where he is born to Benny, a diabetic alcoholic, and Ruth, a teacher. Ruth both resents male privilege and believes women serve a civilizing force in society, guiding brutish men to “make something of themselves.” She repeats this phrase throughout the book and applies it rigorously to Baker. His idyllic early childhood contrasts with the hard life of the adults around him, who have yet to benefit from the technological advancements that will change their world.

After his father’s death in 1931, Baker’s family—Ruth, Baker, and his younger sister Doris—moves to Newark, New Jersey to live with his mother’s brother, Allen, and his wife, Pat. The Depression is deepening, and Ruth struggles to find a job. Baker is preoccupied with adapting to the restrictions and dangers of city life. His journalism career begins when he is eight, when he begins selling the Saturday Evening Post. His timidity and lack of aggressiveness limit his sales, and his mother worries about finding him an appropriate career. When he brings home an “A” on a written composition, she suggests he become a writer, and the idea enchants him.

After six years in New Jersey, Baker, Ruth, and Doris move to Baltimore. Ruth’s brother Hal engineers the move with promises of business opportunities that never materialize. Baker again struggles to adapt, while Ruth struggles to earn a living. Baker meets Harold, the husband of Baker’s aunt. Harold tells outlandish stories and is called a liar. Baker gradually realizes storytelling allows Harold to brighten an otherwise dreary life. From Harold, Baker learns to value the power of storytelling.

Ruth’s aspirations for Baker to have a better life than his predecessors lead her to enroll him at a competitive high school. There, Baker meets boys with white collar backgrounds. While his classmates debate intellectual and economic theories, members of Baker’s blue-collar community worry about surviving day-to-day. As Baker’s education exceeds his mother’s, he develops intellectual arrogance, yet he straddles two economic classes, never fitting entirely into either. He is too educated for the blue-collar world and too behind on politics and world events to be accepted into the Honor Society at school. He earns a scholarship to Johns Hopkins but struggles to keep up academically.

In 1943, Baker turns eighteen and joins the Navy Air Corps, having harbored romantic fantasies of becoming a pilot since first hearing of famed pilot Charles Lindbergh. He spends eighteen months in training and never sees battleduring World War II. After the war, Baker returns to Baltimore where he meets Mimi, the woman he will marry. They date for four years, with Baker unable to commit to marriage. He is hampered by idealized fantasies of the “good woman” he internalized from his mother. Mimi is uneducated but a modern woman who supports herself and loses patience with Baker’s indecision. After dating a pedigreed woman of debauched character, Baker appreciates Mimi’s dignity, and the two marry.

Baker’s final chapter returns to the nursing home. He and Mimi are on a trip visiting their son, his wife, and their baby granddaughter. In the book’s final line, Ruth says she has never heard of Russell and…

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