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Baker is the eldest of three children born to Benny and Lucy Elizabeth Baker in Morrisonville, Virginia. He has two full sisters, Doris (b. 1927) Audrey (b. 1930) and one half-sister, Mary Leslie (b. 1940) from his mother's second marriage to Herbert Orrison. When Baker was five years old his father died of diabetes. Poor during the Depression, his mother gave Audrey up for adoption to her brother-in-law and his wife; she then moved the family to Belleville, New Jersey to live with her brother and sister-in-law. Later they moved to urban Baltimore, where he graduated from the Baltimore City College high school in 1943 and received his B.A. from the Writing Seminars in the School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1947.
At the age of eleve,n as a self-professed "bump on a log," he made the decision to become a writer since he figured "what writers did couldn't even be classified as work." He went on to become an essayist, journalist, and biographer, as well as the host of the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre from 1992 to 2004. Baker wrote the nationally syndicated "Observer" column for the New York Times from 1962 to 1998. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. In addition, the noted journalist, humorist, essayist, and biographer has written or edited seventeen books. Baker's first Pulitzer was for distinguished commentary for his "Observer" columns (1979) and the second one was for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982). He wrote a sequel to his autobiography in 1989, called The Good Times.
In addition to his regular column and numerous books, Baker has also edited the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993). In 1993, he replaced Alistair Cooke to become the regular host of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre until his own retirement in 2004. During his long career, Baker was a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. While still hosting Masterpiece Theatre, he moved to Leesburg, Virginia (not far from his birthplace) where he remains.
Neil Postman, in the preface to Conscientious Objections, describes Baker as "like some fourth century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire's collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end. He is, in my opinion, a precious national resource, and as long as he does not get his own television show, America will remain stronger than Russia." (1991, xii)
Noam Chomsky accused Baker of "genocide denial with a vengeance" after the latter praised the work of Edmund Morgan, who wrote: "In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants." Chomsky notes that Morgan's figure of one million is "off by many tens of millions", meaning he and Baker are denying the genocide of many millions of indigenous Americans.
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