Writing: The newspaper columnist again finds himself at Johns Hopkins University, 50 years after his graduation. He went on to become a writer. And how.

A FEW WORDS WITH RUSSELL BAKER

September 25, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Russell Baker's name has been invoked at least once to defend programs such as the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater. If writing majors can produce writers like Baker, the argument goes, they must be doing something right.

One small problem: Baker didn't actually attend the Writing Seminars. Do the math. He graduated with a B.A. in English literature in 1947, and has been invited back this week to speak as part of the program's sedate 50th anniversary celebration. How could he be a product of Hopkins' famed degree program?

But Baker did attend classes in a forerunner of the program, which went on to produce such writers as Louise Erdrich and John Gregory Brown. On the faculty side, novelist John Barth, also a graduate, was a mainstay for years, while Robert Stone and Julian Barnes have taught as visiting professors. Stephen Dixon carries a full class load even as he continues to produce novels and short story collections, including two National Book Award nominees.

"I was in what was called the Writing Course when it was created at Hopkins, by a man named Elliott Coleman," Baker says by telephone from Nantucket, where he is spending the last days of summer. Coleman encouraged his students to abandon Hemingway for Proust and, in the case of a gangly scholarship student from Southwest Baltimore, to let his fictional tough guys stop and smell the occasional rose.

"By the time I graduated, the writing department still hadn't come into existence," Baker continues. "I did, however, do half a semester in the graduate division of the writing program. It was not that important to me. Elliott was, but not the academic, the bureaucratic side of it."

Whatever his degree, Baker is indisputably one of the best-known and most honored writers with a Hopkins degree of any stripe. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize -- for his New York Times column, which he has written since 1962, and his first volume of memoirs, "Growing Up." Four years ago, he replaced Alistair Cooke as host of public television's "Masterpiece Theatre," and his long-time readers suddenly had a voice and lanky frame to match to his dry, understated style. "The Jimmy Stewart of journalism," as he was dubbed in one profile.

His first newspaper job was at The Sun, where he started as a police reporter, later serving as London correspondent and a White House reporter, ultimately moving to the New York Times Washington bureau. Those were "The Good Times," as his second memoir was titled, a time when the realities and responsibilities of adult life had not yet intruded.

In the early 1960s, when The Sun tried to lure him back with the promise of a column, the Times counter-offered. For the first few months, his name appeared in small type at the end of his twice-weekly Op-Ed piece. Then it began to appear as the heading and, as Baker says with characteristic understatement, "I knew I was home free."

Earlier this summer, the Times cut him back to a column a week. Baker says he was already officially retired anyway and hints he may disappear entirely from the Times' pages early next year.

Although he initially seems wary ("So this is going to be a real interview? You're not going to ask me how I feel?"), Baker quickly settles into a comfortable conversational groove, telling stories on himself that he has been telling for almost 25 years now. Do you know what you're going to speak about tonight?

You know I haven't thought about it. It's going to be extemporaneous. When they first asked me to do this, they wanted me to read something, and I thought no one wants to be read to for more than five minutes.

As a senior in high school, you accidentally predicted your future, didn't you?

They sent around the form for a yearbook, asking for your ambition, and the truth was I didn't have any ambition. So I turned to the guy behind me, and said what did you put in for ambition? "To be a newspaper reporter," he said.

I think what he said was "foreign correspondent," according to "Growing Up."

Was it? At any rate, I wanted to do something a little different from his, so I wrote "newspaper columnist."

Did you even read the newspaper then, or follow any columnist?

I had no interest in editorial work, in journalism, not when I was in high school or college. I delivered the Hearst paper, the News-Post, for several years, and of course I'd look at it -- I was selling the damn thing.

Still, to have the career you've had, you couldn't be without ambition.

I didn't have a specific answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" That's the worst question in the world. No kid wants to be asked that. But I had friends who could answer that. They wanted to be doctors, lawyers, play the violin. I didn't have any of that. I couldn't pass science courses, I was musically tone-deaf, so when people asked me what I wanted to be, I had no answer. Of course until the very end of high school, I had no idea of going to college.

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