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At the age of eleven, as a self-professed "bump on a log," Baker decided 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. During his long career, he was a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993.
Baker wrote 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. His other works include An American in Washington (1961), No Cause for Panic (1964), Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination (2002), and various anthologies of his columns. He edited the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993).
Baker wrote the libretto for the 1979 musical play Home Again, Home Again, starring Ronny Cox, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Barbara Fried, choreography by Onna White, and direction by Gene Saks. After an unsuccessful tryout at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, the show closed in Toronto and never made it to Broadway. "That was a great experience," Baker said in a 1994 interview with the Hartford Courant. "Truly dreadful, but fun. I was sorry [the show] folded because I was having such a good time. But once is enough."
In 1993, Baker replaced Alistair Cooke as the regular host of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre. "That's talking-head stuff," he said. "Television is harder than I thought it was. I can't bear to look at myself. I fancied that I was an exceedingly charming, witty and handsome young man, and here's this fidgeting old fellow whose hair is parted on the wrong side."
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 Baker praised the writings of American colonial historian Edmund Morgan. In a summary of Morgan's essays, Baker wrote of pre-colonial North America: "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 noted that Morgan's figure of one million is "off by many tens of millions," implying that Morgan, and therefore Baker, are both denying the genocide of many millions of indigenous Americans.
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