Late Innings

Roger Angell is now ninety-five and pretty much the last staffer at the New Yorker to have been part of its golden age. He literally grew up with the magazine, his mother, Katharine White, being its first fiction editor and his stepfather, E. B. White, one of its defining writers. As a result, when Angell recalls his childhood and youth, he remembers New Yorker galleys piled around the house, the sound of typing from White’s study, and parties where you might chat with James Thurber.

Angell is probably best known for three reasons: First, as a longtime New Yorker fiction editor, he shepherded hundreds of stories into the magazine by authors as various as V. S. Pritchett, Donald Barthelme, and Ann Beattie. (He also, as we learn here, rejected around twenty thousand manuscripts.) Second, for many years he wrote the annual “Greetings, Friends!” Christmas poem, a conglomeration of couplets cleverly built around the names of people who were newsworthy in the year just ending. And third, he quickly established himself as probably the most admired baseball columnist in the business.

All these aspects of Angell’s career are on display in this retrospective collection of appreciations, reminiscences, reviews, light verse, letters, and baseball pieces. It’s one of those miscellanies in which you are invited to read at whim, never sure what the next page might bring. Employing the kind of homely image we associate with his stepfather, Angell neatly characterizes the resulting hodgepodge:

I can recall another era when every dog took a quick first look into his dish, to see what was in there. It was different each morning, but might contain a last chunk of pot roast or ham hock, plus gravy, from the previous night’s dinner table, a scraping of scrambled eggs, a slice or two of stale bread, leftover lima beans or spinach, a fresh but limp carrot, a splash of milk, and a half-bitten doughnut. . . . What I’m getting at here is the old phrase “a dog’s breakfast,” because that’s what this book is. A mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.

As that passage indicates, and as many readers are already likely to know from past books (e.g., Five Seasons), Angell certainly writes well, though sometimes his sentences feel slightly overworked. Introducing a new edition of E. B. White’s essay collection One Man’s Meat, he observes that “the book has always had the heft, the light usefulness, of a bushel basket, carrying a raking of daily or seasonal notions, and, on the next short trip, the heavier burden of an idea.” This is lovely and apt but feels just slightly too contrived, and that last extension of the simile grows cutesy. Sometimes, it seems that Angell has taken too much to heart Dickens’s reputed mantra: “Brighter! Make it brighter!”

At the same time, though, that means he’s almost never dull. Even the most jaded reader will smile when Angell parenthetically notes that the Jazz Age cartoonist Peter Arno “could draw a sophisticated robin.” Lifelong writers, he tells us, constantly wonder if their work is any good, which is “why they look the way they do (hunched over their word processors, or at the bar next door), which is like morticians.” Speaking of the caveman film Quest for Fire, he particularly relishes “the prognathous Ron Perlman picking at a bone as he awaits the dawn of cogitation.”

Not surprisingly, the “summer game” is seldom far from Angell’s thoughts. He tells us that “baseball is mostly about losing,” and that cartoonist Saul Steinberg was such a fan of the Milwaukee Braves that, even when watching a televised game at home, “he would put on a full Braves uniform and cap before he settled down in front of the set.” With his instant-replay memory, Angell needs just a single sentence to describe the legendary fastball of Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller: “He’d glare in at the batter over his upraised left shoulder, kick his front leg straight across, and clump down in late delivery and at the same instant, it seemed, the catcher was straightening up with the ball in his mitt again.”

Carol and Roger Angell, 1966.
Carol and Roger Angell, 1966. Judy Tomkins

And he’s even better in his pen portrait of V. S. Pritchett, the English short-story writer and essayist: “A short, strong-looking man, with thick shoulders and an uptilted gaze, he appeared at times to be standing behind an invisible pub counter, or perhaps about to oversee the unloading of a shipment of crocuses or greyhounds.” In that particularly affectionate reminiscence, Angell needs just two words to nail down the easygoing, common-reader manner of Pritchett in his critical essays: “never lofty.” Elsewhere, he shrewdly notes that William Steig is “an artist of sunlight (in contrast to Maurice Sendak, for instance, who is an artist of night).” Another piece reflects on the pleasure of rereading favorite books—Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year is his unexpected example—and still another revisits memories of his twelve-year-old self hunched over volume twenty-four of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the one with sixty-three pages about ships. Here, as other owners of the eleventh will recognize, Angell even recollects the flaking to which that edition’s leather spines were prone, what he calls the “crumbly dust of learning in my lap.”

For some younger readers, the most valuable section of This Old Man will probably be Angell’s advice to journalists and authors: “The editor should not feel much compunction about asking the writer the same questions he would put to himself about a swatch of his own prose: Is it clear? Does it say what I wanted it to say? Is it too long? Does it sound right—does it carry the tone that I want the reader to pick up right here? Is it, just possibly, too short? And so on.”

In the same vein, it’s consoling to learn that E. B. White, master of the low-key, nonchalant style, would spend hours composing a few hundred words for the New Yorker’s “Notes and Comment” feature and, as the deadline arrived, would regularly moan, “It isn’t good enough. . . . I wish it were better.” Similiarly, John Updike—whom Angell neatly characterizes as “informally august”—was wont to fiddle with his stories and essays up to the last galley and the very last minute: “As a contributor, he was patient with editing,” recalls a forbearing Angell, “and pertinaciously involved with his product.”

Some sections of This Old Man, however, seem too private or generic—a condolence letter to an ill friend, a rejection letter to writer Charles Simmons, a memo to New Yorker editor David Remnick. The short note to Nancy Franklin, author of a piece on Katharine White, hints at Angell’s fraught history with his mother: “I’m also pleased in a wise, satisfied way because of your ‘As an editor, she was maternal, and as a mother she was editorial.’ If I’d heard this in 1965, let’s say, I would have saved about $20,000 in psychiatrist’s bills—no, make that $25,000.” Quickly turning away from further confession, Angell goes on: “I would have invested that sum in Xerox, then Microsoft, and I’d be telling you all this right now, this minute, while driving us to the Villa Angellino in Cap Ferrat in my mauve Jaguar XV-16 two-seater. Pity.”

The later pages of This Old Man dwell increasingly on the realities of old age. Angell composes memorial tributes to his dapper friend Gardner Botsford, his Maine handyman Elwood Carter, and several others. Carol, his beloved wife of forty-eight years, dies of breast cancer. He himself endures macular degeneration in one eye, nerve damage from shingles, arterial stents, and other debilities. Nonetheless, he still looks for small pleasures in what time he has left: “I am a world-class complainer but find palpable joy arriving with my evening Dewar’s, from Robinson Cano between pitches, from the first pages once again of ‘Appointment in Samarrra’ or the last lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem called ‘Poem.’ From the briefest strains of Handel or Roy Orbison, or Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos.” He enjoys rewatching old films on Netflix, lingers over his daydreams about departed loved ones and friends.

In that essay—the award-winning “This Old Man,” from which the book takes its title—Angell also argues strongly for the never-ending human need for love and companionship. Not so surprisingly, then, this “dog’s breakfast” actually concludes with the final person thanked in its acknowledgments: “my dear wife Peggy.”

Paraphrasing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Angell at one point declares that “the thoughts of age are short, short thoughts.” Perhaps that’s unavoidable. Still, many readers will be grateful that this nightstand-ready book collects so many of this old man’s wisest and funniest thoughts.

Michael Dirda writes a weekly book column for the Washington Post and is the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (Pegasus, 2015).