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The Roots of My Ambition


The Roots of My Ambition 我的雄心壮志之源 by Russell Baler 我的雄心壮志之源 - Russell Baler 是美国的一位著名报人,一位著名的专栏作家。这是他晚 年写的一篇文章,回忆往昔,谈论自己事业成功的背景。 (Read Article) My mother, dead now to this world but still roaming free in my mind, wakes me some mornings before daybreak. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a quitter." I have heard her say that all my life. Now, lying in bed, coming awake in the dark, I feel the fury of her energy fighting the good-for-nothing idler within me who wants to go back to sleep instead of tackling the brave new day. Silently I protest: I am not a child anymore I have made something of myself. I am entitled to sleep late. "Russell, you've got no more initiative than a bump on a log." She has hounded me with these battle cries since I was a boy in short pants. "Make something of yourself!" "Don't be a quitter!" "Have a little ambition." The civilized man of the world within me scoffs at materialism and strivers after success: He has?read the philosophers and social critics. He thinks it is vulgar and unworthy to spend one's life pursuing money, power, fame, and - "Sometimes you act like you're not worth the powder and shot it would take to blow you up with." Life had been hard for my mother ever since her father died, leaving nothing but debts. The family house was lost, the children scattered. My mother's mother, fatally ill with tubercular infection, fell into a suicidal depression and was institutionalized. My mother, who had just started college, had to quit and look for work. Then, after five years of marriage and three babies, her husband died in 1930, leaving my mother so poor that she had to give up her baby Audrey for adoption. Maybe the bravest thing she did was give up Audrey, only ten months old, to my Uncle Tom and Aunt Goldie. Uncle Tom, one of my father's brothers, had a good job with the railroad and could give Audrey a comfortable life. My mother headed off with my other sister and me to take shelter with her brother Allen, poor relatives dependent on his goodness. She eventually found work patching grocers' smocks at ten dollars a week in a laundry.

Mother would have like it better if I could have grown up to be President or a rich businessman, but much as she loved me, she did not deceive herself. Before I was out of primary school, she could see I lacked the gifts for either making millions or winning the love of crowds. After that she began nudging me toward working with words. Words ran in her family. There seemed to be a word gene that passed down from her maternal grandfather. He was a school-teacher, his daughter Lulie wrote poetry, and his son Charlie became New York correspondent for the Baltimore, Maryland, Herald. In the turn-of-the-century American South, still impoverished by the Civil War, words were a way out. The most spectacular proof was my mother's first cousin Edwin. He was managing editor of the New York Times. He had traveled all over Europe, proving that words could take you to places so glorious and so far from the place you came from that your own kin could only gape in wonder and envy. My mother used Edwin as an example of how far a man could go without much talent. "Edwin James was no smarter than anybody else, and look where he is today," my mother said, and said, and said again, so that I finally grew up thinking Edwin James was a dull clod who had a lucky break. Maybe she left that way about him, but she was saying something deeper. She was telling me I didn't have to be brilliant to get where Edwin had go to, that the way to get to the top was to work, work, work. When my mother saw that I might have the word gift, she started trying to make it grow. Though desperately poor, she signed up for a deal that supplied one volume of "World's Greatest Literature" every month at 39 cents a book. I respected those great writers, but what I read with joy were newspapers. I lapped up every word about monstrous crimes, dreadful accidents and hideous butcheries committed in faraway wars. Accounts of murderers dying in the electric chair fascinated me, and I kept close track of last meals ordered by condemned men. In 1947 I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and learned that the Baltimore Sun needed a police reporter. Two?or three classmates at Hopkins also applied for the job. Why I was picked was a mystery. It paid $30 a week. When I complained that was insulting for a college man, my mother refused to sympathize. "If you work hard at this job," she said, "maybe you can make something of it. Then they'll have to give you a raise." Seven years later I was assigned by the Sun to cover the White House. For most reporters, being White House correspondent was as close to heaven as you could get. I was 29 years old and puffed up with pride. I went to see my mother's delight while telling her about it. I should have known better.

"Well, Russ," she said, "if you work hard at this White House job, you might be able to make something of yourself." Onward and upward was the course she set. Small progress was no excuse for feeling satisfied with yourself. People who stopped to pat themselves on the back didn't last long. Even if you got to the top, you'd better not take it easy. "The bigger they come, the harder they fall" was one of her favorite maxims. During my early years in the newspaper business, I began to entertain childish fantasies of revenge against Cousin Edwin. Wouldn't it be delightful if I became such an outstanding reporter that the Times hired me without knowing I was related to the great Edwin? Wouldn't it be delicious if Edwin himself invited me into his huge office and said, "Tell me something about yourself, young man?" What exquisite vengeance to reply, "I am the only son of your poor cousin Lucy Elizabeth Robinson." What would one day happen was right out of my wildest childhood fantasy. The Times did come knocking at my door, though Cousin Edwin had departed by the time I arrived. Eventually I would be offered one of the gaudiest prizes in American journalism: a column in the New York Times. It was not a column meant to convey news, but a writer's column commenting on the news by using different literary forms: essay devices, satire, burlesque, sometimes even fiction. It was?proof that my mother had been absolutely right when she sized me up early in life and steered me toward literature. The column won its share of medals, including a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1979. My mother never knew about that .the circuitry of her brain had collapsed the year before, and she was in a nursing home, out of touch with life forevermore. I can only guess how she'd have responded to news of the Pulitzer. I'm pretty sure she would have said, "That's nice. It shows if you buckle down and work hard, you'll be able to make something of yourself one of these days." In time there would be an attack on the values my mother preached and I have lived by. In the 1960s and '70s, people who admitted to wanting to amount to something were put down as materialists idiotically wasting their lives in the "rat race." I tried at first to roll with the new age. I decided not to drive my children, as my mother had driven me, with those corrupt old demands that they amount to something. The new age exalted love, self-gratification and passive philosophies that aimed at helping people resign themselves to the status quo, March of this seemed preposterous to me, but I conceded that my mother might have turned me into a coarse materialist (one defect in her code was its emphasis on money and position), so I kept my heretical suspicious to myself.

And then, realized I had failed to fire my own children with ambition, I broke. One evening at dinner, I heard my self shouting, "Don't you want to amount to something?" The children looked blank. Amount to something? What a strange expression. I could see their thoughts: That isn't Dad yelling. That's those martinis he had before dinner. It wasn't the gin that was shouting. It was my mother. The gin only gave me the courage to announce to them that yes, by God, I had always believed in success, had always believed that without hard work and self-discipline you could never amount to anything, and didn't deserve to. It would turn out that the children's bleak school reports did not forebode failure, but a refusal to march to the drumbeat of the ordinary, which should have made me proud. Now they are grown people with children of their own, and we like one another and have good times when we are together. So it is with a family. We carry the dead generations within us and pass them on to the future aboard our children. This keeps the people of the past alive long after we have taken them to the graveyard. "if there's one thing I can't stand, Russell, it's quitter." Lord, I can hear her still.


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