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Glimpses

Let Me Finish puts me in mind of an elderly, rather distinguished-looking man rummaging in a trunk full of old snapshots. It is not clear what he is looking for. Maybe he is not looking for anything at all. Sometimes it is simply pleasurable to visit bygone times. But if absolutely everything must be justified, let us say that he is exploring the mystery of memory.

Why does one forty-year-old memory, seemingly trivial, survive as vividly as yesterday’s dented fender while a life-changing event of twenty years ago takes intense effort to remember, even inaccurately? Because reviewers have treated Roger Angell’s book as a memoir, it is tempting to suppose that he is looking for the origin of some long-festering unhappiness. The suspicion is fed by the circumspect manner in which he treats his mother, “Mother” being a favorite dark presence among memoir writers.

Yet this is not the book of an unhappy man. A close reading suggests a contented man of the world whose temperament is sufficiently tinged by irony to make him interesting company. Though his life has had a “trickle of rotten news,” he concedes, the rotten news has not been notably plentiful. “Stuff piles up, and people my age [he is in his mid-eighties] come to understand that what’s been happening around them all this time is probably happening all over, in some version or other,” he writes.

An unboastful philosophical fellow, one thinks, imagining him in the attic poking through a trunk filled with all these memories, so pleasant most of them. Now he is a ten-year-old boy hooking school to immerse himself in the marvels of early 1930s movies: Lupe Velez and Bela Lugosi, Wheeler & Woolsey, Paul Muni in Scarface, Garbo in Mata Hari, all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, Cagney shot dead in gangster pinstripes, and all those supporting actors who still live on Turner Classic Movies—Andy Devine, Alan Hale, Edna Mae Oliver, Una Merkel, Roscoe Karns, Reginald Denny, Douglass Dumbrille.

Here he is at the Polo Grounds with his father watching Bill Terry’s Giants play in the afternoon sunshine. Now he is a young soldier packed into a trainload of new draftees off to fight Nazis or Japs; it’s hard to tell which, since their orders are secret and the train has stopped someplace unknown. Maybe Oregon, somebody guesses.

Time passes and the postwar age of the martini delights an America which has just won World War II on hard whiskey, Camels, Chesterfields, and Lucky Strikes, and is looking for something more sophisticated than rum and Coca-Cola. Angell revisits the martini years fondly, though confessing that he and his wife finally switched from the gin martini to the vodka version because vodka was “less argumentative.” This delicately evokes a time when the glow from the first martini could intensify with seconds and thirds until it produced an incandescence destructive to the household furniture, and sometimes marriage.

Most of these pieces were written over the past decade and published in the “Personal Memory” columns of The New Yorker. They were not meant to form a memoir and, as he says, certainly do not add up to a biography. Perhaps they belong to a new form to be called “glimpses.” “Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around,” Angell writes.

And yet a very definite story, and decidedly not a pleasant story, is threading its way through these entertaining glimpses. Because it promises the pleasures of narrative and perhaps because it goes to a certain tension in Angell’s life, it is this story that clamors for the reader’s attention. He gives it relatively little space, but it involves the four most interesting persons in his book, the people who provide narrative structure that holds the glimpses together. They are his parents, his stepfather, and Angell himself.

Angell seems at first to be trying not to tell this story. Maybe he is uneasy about trafficking in private family matters, maybe he doesn’t want his gracefully composed glimpses weighted down with narrative. Maybe because the book was written piecemeal for magazine publication the narrative was not even apparent until the parts were brought together in book form.

Still, it jumps off the page as the book begins:

One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on an automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, E.B. White.

This is the book’s opening sentence. It sounds like the start of an entertaining novel. That the young lover is E.B. White immediately makes the story compelling to bookish readers sure to recognize the name of such a famous writer. The legendary essayist and prose stylist as young lover? We hadn’t thought of him that way before. Stately, monumental, yes, but not young and amorous. But if this is a tale of extramarital love, why has the mother brought along the child?

Never mind. Angell does not seem interested in telling that story. There is obviously a story to tell—he has already told us in that opening sentence that his mother and White were later married—but he seems to have been teasing. All that about his mother taking him out in the family car, the slope-nosed Franklin sedan, was just his way of dipping into the memory bank for some glimpses of automobiles and car journeys of long ago. Though he titles his opening chapter “Romance,” what he is getting at is the romance of bygone days when driving was still called motoring.

Now, all this about cars in the old days and traveling the country before the highway culture became boring and inhumane turns out to be very good reading. Angell is an elegant writer with an enviable power to evoke the sights and sense of the American landscape of fifty, sixty, seventy years ago as well as an ironic self-consciousness that keeps his touch pleasantly light. For example:

Grandchildren, clicking to 50 Cent or Eminem on their iPods in the back seat, sigh and roll their eyes whenever the old highwayman starts up again. Yes, car travel was bumpier and curvier back then, with more traffic lights and billboards, more cows and hillside graveyards, no air-conditioning and almost no interstates, and with tin cans and Nehi signs and red Burma-Shave jingles crowding the narrow roadside. Give us a break.

Good reading, yes, but a little puzzling too. Angell is holding something back, isn’t he? That outing with Mother in the Franklin sedan—could it have been more important to Angell than he is willing to admit? Readers tend to be suspicious like this when they enter memoir territory, especially when parents—those dark presences of Dr. Freud’s family circus—take the stage.

Angell is not built for the memoirist’s role. The work requires a willingness to gratify the public yearning for news of human frailty and the nerve to offend blood kin and old acquaintances. These qualities are usually associated with gossip columnists, whereas everything in Angell’s writing career suggests the soul of discretion. He has, after all, been both an editor and a writer for The New Yorker for fifty years. For many years he has been its highly acclaimed baseball writer, a reporter whose coverage of the most humdrum World Series is always distinguished by a thoroughness, subtlety, and complexity worthy of Marcel Proust recalling a dinner at Madame Verdurin’s.

The family memoirist, on the other hand, is “caught somewhere between feelings of disloyalty and the chic contemporary mode that demands that we tell all and affix damages,” he says. He is being unnecessarily apologetic. Since his book is a series of excursions back into memory it is hard to see how he can omit a painful part of his life because it involved his mother, his father, and “Andy” White.

Anyhow their story was not unusually scandalous for people of the 1920s: an ugly divorce, a mother quickly remarried, unhappy children, enduring bitterness and guilt, lives permanently twisted, anger smoldering for years and years. And it all happened so terribly long ago. His parents were born in the gaslight age, married during World War I, and divorced before the Great Depression. Angell, born in 1920, was only eight when it happened, and still seems uneasy about it. “What a marriage that must have been—hers and my father’s, I mean—stuffed with sex and brilliance and psychic murder, and imparting a lasting unease,” he writes in a chapter about his father.

Psychic murder and lasting unease! To people in their eighties, ghosts in the family closet usually seem more amusing than shameful, good conversational fodder for entertaining the grandchildren, but Angell is still not ready to smile. The unease is lasting indeed.

Ernest Angell, his wife Katharine, and E.B. White (“Andy” to friends and family) were the kind of people who seemed destined to amount to something back then. Ernest was from a well-to-do Cleveland family that took long trips to Europe. He was sent to prep schools, then to Paris and Munich for academic polishing before proceeding to Harvard. His father died en route to France when the ocean liner La Bourgogne collided with a merchant ship off Nova Scotia in 1898 and sank, taking 549 people to their deaths. Ernest was nine years old.

He seems to have been a model student. As a Harvard freshman he took six courses, including physics, Latin composition, Greek, and a German course in Goethe. He had taught himself trigonometry, Angell says. He resolved to try for Phi Beta Kappa, and made it. He attended sermons, concerts, galleries, and operas, including a Caruso performance of Il Trovatore. He performed in a German-language play and went to dances and football games. He failed to make the Crimson and the freshman baseball team, “but got over it,” Angell says.

Somehow he had also learned to tap dance, though not very well, and was a natural outdoorsman. Roger’s affectionate portrait of him is titled “The King of the Forest,” in tribute, he says, to the spirit he “brought to mountain climbing, to figure skating, to tap dancing, to tennis and trout fishing, to skiing and canoeing and gardening.”

In 1913 he graduated in law from Harvard and in 1915 married Katharine Sergeant. She was twenty-two. They had met at a resort in the New Hampshire mountains where their families summered. Katharine was Boston, old American stock, and notably bright, graduating close to the top of her college class, which was Bryn Mawr, 1914. Two years after their marriage the United States entered the First World War and Ernest went to France as a counterintelligence officer with the AEF. The marriage began to go bad on his return. The explanations Roger heard were curious, vague, and somewhat contradictory.

In any event, by 1925 the Angells were living well on New York’s Upper East Side. Besides Roger, they had an older child, Nancy. Katharine found work that August as an all-purpose editorial hand on a wobbly little humor magazine, The New Yorker, which had just been launched by Harold Ross. The magazine was only six months old when she arrived, but it became a lifelong job and made her an influential and famous literary figure. At her death fifty-two years later William Shawn, Ross’s successor, wrote her obituary.

More than any other editor except Harold Ross himself, Katharine White gave The New Yorker its shape and set it on its course,” he wrote. It was an extraordinary outpouring of praise from an editor not given to overstatement. She was “a monumental presence in the world,” “changeless amid change,” “a figure of order, composure, certainty, permanence.” For years she had been the magazine’s fiction editor. “The history of American fiction in the last fifty years would not have been the same without Katharine White,” Shawn wrote. She also found time to turn out widely admired essays on gardening.

At the time Roger went motoring with his mother and Andy White, the two had worked together at The New Yorker for three or four years. Andy was six years younger than Katharine, which may account for Roger’s referring to him as “her young lover.” By then she had been married for thirteen years. In 1929 she got her divorce in Reno. She and White were married three months later, on November 13, 1929. The stock market had crashed just two weeks earlier; the marriage lasted forty-nine years until it was ended by Katharine’s death.

Young Roger was appalled by the news that he would no longer be living with his mother. Ernest had won custody of the children. “My father’s pride was injured,” Angell writes, “and he fought her hard, wore her down, until he won an agreement for joint custody of his children that would keep them under his roof, not hers; he swore that he would take her to court and shame her unless she agreed.”

On weekends Roger and his sister, living with their father on Ninety-third Street, were allowed to visit their mother and Andy White down on Eighth Street. Roger remembers the Whites’ apartment as “happy, sunlit,” and “full of laughing, chain-smoking young writers and artists from The New Yorker where they all work.”

Life was heavier on Ninety-third Street, but at Christmas it wasn’t very jolly anywhere. Angell’s brief but chilling account of a child’s Christmas in Divorce World—“Twice Christmas,” he titles it—is reminiscent of Dickens at his soggiest: on Ninety-third Street Father presides over some business involving stockings, presents, a lonely aunt, weird cousins, a carved goose, plum pudding. Then into a taxi for a dash down to Eighth Street, ring the bell, start Christmas all over again. More presents, a second Christmas dinner, then back uptown. No mention of what took place downtown. Everything in precise legal conformity with the divorce agreement.

In his childhood Angell resolved that “such a thing would never be done to my own kids, when they came along.” Then, a surprise: “Only it was,” he writes. Except for this reference, a reader might get all the way to the end of his book without learning that Angell has a divorce story of his own to tell.

He devotes considerable space to his seemingly happy first marriage to Evelyn Baker during the World War II years, and a careful study of his text indicates that the marriage produced two daughters. At a point when the reader’s attention has been drawn elsewhere, Angell quickly discloses that the marriage ended in the 1960s. And that closes the matter.

As the book unfolds, the relationship between Angell and his mother becomes increasingly puzzling for the reader. She is certainly not a dark presence; she is more a presence glimpsed through mists of the writer’s uncertainty. Or is it because he is reluctant to display an emotion to an audience?

What we know of Angell leaves no doubt that she was a powerful presence. Although he writes lovingly of his father, it was his mother’s work that he took to, his mother’s shop where he sought employment and found it. At one stage he inherited his mother’s old office, and eventually became, as she had been, a fiction editor.

White, who must have been every boy’s dream of a stepfather, lobbied Harold Ross to take him on in the 1950s. It probably didn’t take much lobbying, since Ross by that time viewed both Katharine and Andy as dear old friends and invaluable ornaments of his magazine.

Angell obviously thought he had lucked out in getting White for a stepfather. When the Whites left Manhattan to live in Maine, Roger made Maine his vacation home, partly because of his passion for sailing and the challenge of its tricky waters, but probably, too, for the pleasures of being close to Andy White. On this point he is unambiguous: he felt at home as a member of the White family. It even provided him with a younger brother, Joel, Katharine’s one child of her second marriage.

Angell’s several glimpses of White and his mother focus on their declining years. White’s hypochondria is faintly comical. The passion for his evening martini never ends though his years approach four score and more. Katharine has a variety of terrible health problems. Angell speaks of spinal fusion surgery, carotid artery trouble, and an exfoliating skin disease for which steroid treatments led to painful bone deterioration in her old age. In her 1988 memoir, Isabel Russell, Katharine’s secretary during her final years, said the drug treatments “inflicted a personality change that was unpleasant.”* In Angell’s portrait we see no unpleasantness, but only a woman coping patiently with bad luck. And these hypochondrias and Katharine’s illness, he says, helped fill their old age with mutually entertaining medical conversation. Though Katharine, with her more serious problems, “won their amazing sick-off,” Angell writes, “she took no pleasure in it and talked of his symptoms with the same concern and detail as her own.”

Later Angell provides a sad glimpse of White drifting toward death at the age of eighty-six, probably of senile dementia brought on by a fall in which he struck his head. During the seven years White survived after Katharine’s death, a number of older women “set their caps for him” and were disappointed, Angell writes. “I’m afraid I might get a lemon this time,” he told Angell’s wife.

In these final months Joel read aloud to him from his own writings. Sometimes White waved his hand to dismiss a piece, as if saying it wasn’t good enough. Other times, having listened to the end, he asked who had written it.

You did, Dad,” Joel said.

There was a pause, and Andy said, “Well, not bad.”

Angell’s sympathetic portrait of his father includes Katharine White’s unsympathetic story about his marital adventurings. Some years after the divorce she told the children “that it was our father’s love affairs that had destroyed the marriage,” Angell writes. After three years in France he came back from the war “with different ideas about sex and marriage. He had even encouraged her to try an affair of her own: they would be a modern couple.”

Angell does not seem entirely satisfied with this explanation, for he immediately comments, saying that “my mother could never bring herself to say that she had left us kids behind, along with the marriage, in order to join Andy White. Her tale stopped at that point, for all her life.”

Ernest Angell’s enraged response to the divorce, as Roger describes it, suggests that he considered Katharine the offending party. Roger depicts him as miserable, embittered, and unforgiving, as when threatening to “shame her” unless she surrenders custody of the children. Eager to be a good parent, he seems insensitive to the fact that they might see him as the source of their misery. Yet his career at law made him an important figure in the American Civil Liberties Union, so often criticized for its “bleeding heart” attitude toward life’s losers. Roger is at a loss to see him clearly. A “sad, formidable man,” he writes at one point; then at another, “an exceptional father, with heroic energies.”

It was Ernest who put Roger in touch with his true calling by introducing him to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930s. In those days before night lighting, television, millionaire home-run boppers, and skyboxes for corporate finaglers, ordinary Americans went to baseball games in the afternoon. The Angells, father and son, could easily get up to the Polo Grounds and watch Carl Hubbell blow the Cardinals away with his amazing screwball or over to the Bronx where Lou Gehrig was at his peak and Babe Ruth was still around.

Ernest still enjoyed getting into a pickup game himself now and then. Ordinary American men still played a little in those days. The memory that his middle-aged father “jumped at the chance to play” whenever he found a game produces a sad observation on the end at which baseball has now arrived:

We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it. Thanks to television and sports journalism, we also know everything about the skills and financial worth and private lives of the enormous young men we have hired to play baseball for us, but we don’t seem to know how to keep their salaries or their personalities within human proportions. We don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.

Nearing the end of his book, Angell takes us to the cemetery where he and his wife have “a nice double” waiting for occupancy. It is situated in Brooklin, Maine, the kind of town where directions are given in terms of proximity to the Baptist church and distance from the general store. This part of the Maine coast has been home to the E.B. Whites and a summer home to the Roger Angells for years.

At the time of this visit Angell has already owned his lot for fifteen years, but being an authentic New Yorker, he is still tickled about having scored a remarkable bargain in real estate. He recalls that when the cemetery man told him the lot would cost $220, he asked, “That’s—uh, per year?” and the man said, “No, that’s the whole of it.”

Behind this fleeting memory lies material for a satirical novel on how real estate has deformed the Manhattan psyche, but Angell has not come here to laugh at the madness of over-achievers. He is finally going to tell us a little something of what it was like to be the son of Katharine White.

She and Andy now lie side by side, and he starts to bring her to life on the page. Remarkably or not, however, the mother he summons out of memory is not the young matron of that Saturday in the Franklin sedan but a woman in her seventies, no longer formidably competent, but seemingly drained of vitality and enthusiasm. She sits at the head of the dining-room table, “her elbow on the table and her head wearily resting in one hand while she eats.” She seems worried, fragile, certainly not a center of family warmth. Of course nobody in the family, Angell writes, “was much of a hugger, to tell the truth, Mother least of all.”

The decline of her energy has been accompanied by an increasing capacity for worry. “She became a world-class worrier in the end, and probably even worried about her low hugging marks, along the way,” Angell writes.

Warmth apparently never came easily to her. He remembers one of her grandsons receiving a prize of thirty-five cents for winning a race in the Fourth of July celebrations. Speeding toward the candy counter, he was intercepted by Grandmother who “put her foot down,” saying, “This is town money,” and persuaded him to donate it to the library:

[It] so perfectly summed up Mother’s noble sense of duty and her terrible—no, appalling—judgment about kids. For her a fistful of candy never had a chance against the complicated right thing. She loved us all…but forgot to hand out kisses because we were great runners or really good-looking or the smartest kid on the block. Stuff like that went without saying, only she never said it.

Approvingly he quotes Nancy Franklin’s chilly judgment of her in a New Yorker article: “It’s funny; as an editor she was maternal but as a mother she was editorial.”

Ernest Angell remarried, became a father, and lived agreeably into his eighties, but “never got over Mother going off the way she did.” Through his sixties, seventies, and eighties he still brooded about it. Angell says, “The divorce never grew stale to him.” At the book’s end Angell rehearses one last time what the skimpy evidence shows about the breakup. One story, his mother’s, has it that in Europe Ernest had acquired a “Gallic view of marriage” and was “repeatedly unfaithful” after returning to the States. Another, presumably his father’s, was “that my mother had fallen in love with E.B. White.” She always insisted there was no connection between her divorce and her remarriage three months later.

Angell weighs these wispy facts and in a one-word opinion arrives at the only sensible judgment for a man in his middle eighties: “Whatever.”

  1. *

    See Katharine and E.B. White: An Affectionate Memoir (Norton, 1988).

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