NYC Branch Team: Kevin Baker

Kevin Baker, Working Group Member

Photo credit: Nina Subin

With a tripartite career as a journalist, author, and historian, Kevin Baker is a longtime admirer of the New Deal. What took place in the country during the 1930s into the early 1940s was nothing short of an “American Renaissance,” he says, as the nation made major strides in the arts, design, technology, and above all, democracy.

Baker is now at work on his 12th book—The Invention of Paradise, a history of the US between the two world wars, in which the New Deal figures prominently. The Guggenheim fellowship he received in 2017 allows him to devote significant time to the writing of the new book, which will likely be published in 2023.

Like a river, history runs through Baker’s fiction, nonfiction, and journalism. He developed the history habit in childhood, when his parents taught him to read at an early age and fostered his interest in the Civil War, American history in general, and world history.

“It was a time during the Cold War when America was history-crazy,” he recalls, remembering how kids could get free, multi-volume sets of books at the supermarket if their parents spent enough money there.

His writing career began in earnest when Baker was still in the eighth grade.

“I plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my first piece of paid writing this spring,” he says. “An editor at the Gloucester Daily Times (in Gloucester, Mass.) hired me to write articles about high school sports,” he says. “I was the student manager for three varsity teams, and I had a reputation for knowing a lot of sports statistics. I was paid $10 a pop for the stories I wrote, which was a lot of money back then. My mother taught me how to type—that was part of the job, after all—on a Smith Corona portable I still have.”

Although Baker considers Rockport, Mass., his hometown, he was born in Englewood, New Jersey, not far from New York City, where he has lived for the past 45 years, ever since he arrived on the scene to attend Columbia University. After earning his B.A. in political science, he set out to become a published novelist.

Baker recalls giving himself the following deadline: “If I’m 30 and not published, I’ll go to law school.” He ended up selling his first novel, Sometimes You See It Coming, at age 33. His readers count themselves lucky that he didn’t meet his deadline, as he has written four more novels since the first one, most of them set in New York’s past.

Baker continues to return to the New Deal in his writing and also in real life through his involvement with the New York City Chapter of the Living New Deal. He has always found New Deal-style policies personally meaningful as well: “When my parents got divorced, my family struggled to keep our home. Federal programs helped us hang on, and federal loans helped me afford college—which were all part of the New Deal legacy. That experience made me realize what a difference these programs, this philosophy made in the lives of so many people like us.”

The novelist and historian is also widely admired as a journalist and pundit—the third arm of his career. He is a contributing editor to Harper’s and, briefly, The New Republic, and he has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, and many more. He is a member of the board of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, as well as The Living New Deal.

Baker lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, playwright Ellen Abrams.

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