Let Me Finish
Harcourt, $25, 293 pp.
I always feel a frisson of delight at opening a New Yorker and finding a piece by Roger Angell. Favorite essays are still etched in memory-an evocation of the pitcher Vida Blue’s magical rookie season some thirty years ago, an astonishing page-long riff on palindromes, the Christmas poems that never fail to come up with the most improbable rhymes for the names of all that year’s splashiest celebrities. Angell’s trademarks are crystalline prose, sparkling humor, and a poet’s eye for the fleeting moments that stamp permanent memories.
It is a pleasure to report that his memoir, Let Me Finish, produced in the middle of his ninth decade, is yet another unpretentious exercise of Angellian virtuosity. Not at all a formal autobiography-Angell could never be so stuffy-it is a pearl-string of striking moments that convey a rounded picture of a life that he concedes, was “sheltered by privilege and engrossing work, and shot through with great good luck.”
Angell was born in 1920 and came of age before the democratization of leisure, when America’s upper-middle classes, who were frequently not wealthy, could enjoy accoutrements of life that are now affordable only by hedge-fund managers. It was also something of a golden age in New York City, when professional people of middling attainments could find roomy brownstones or apartments within reach of Central Park, keep live-in staff, head off to family homes on pristine shorelines in the summer, and, if occasionally with some scraping, find the tuition for America’s best boarding schools and universities.
Angell’s father and grandfather were Harvard-trained Wall Street lawyers, although the father was clearly no lion of finance. He could not afford to pay the household staff during the Depression and, as a long-time board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, devoted much of his energies to leftish causes. Roger’s mother Katherine, also from a long-established New England family, was the first fiction and poetry editor of the New Yorker. Angell’s parents divorced when he was about ten, and his mother married E. B. White, who turned out the magazine’s weekly “Notes and Comments” section.
Walter Lippmann was a routine guest at Roger’s father’s house, while his mother and “Andy” White’s apartment was a veritable New Yorker salon. Angell’s father was an accomplished woodsman who took Roger and his sister on hunting and fishing expeditions to the wilder parts of Mexico, and several of Roger’s teenage summers were spent working on his paternal aunt’s Montana ranch. His mother’s sister, Emily, was a war reporter and a New Republic stalwart. S. J. Perelman and his wife were family friends. Groucho Marx came over to introduce himself when Angell was lunching with his mother at the Algonquin. There were multiple divorces on both sides of the family, so the imperatives of postdivorce civility created an extended family of accomplished step-relatives. Harvard came as a matter of course, and fluency in French seems taken for granted.
The book is full of wonderful set pieces. The glorious freedom of the city for twelve-year-old Roger and his friends when subways were a nickel, movies were fifteen cents, and museums and zoos were free. Collegian Roger’s chance encounter with a young woman on a golf course. She gives him her engagement ring for safekeeping while they play, and it is lost. They return early the next morning and search the sopping course for hours to no avail; he is utterly smitten. The wartime Army loses track of Roger on a sprawling Western base, while he skulks around “with the louche air of an outcast dog” hoping not to be discovered. A half-century of lore on mixing a martini.
Angell adored Andy White. About the time Roger went off to Harvard, White and his mother moved their base to a shoreline farm in Maine, in effect telecommuting to their jobs at the New Yorker. Angell lovingly recounts White’s idiosyncrasies, his gradual mastery of farming, the creation of Charlotte’s Web. He credits E. B. White with teaching him to write, and Angell’s best prose comes close to channeling the quiet, polished, precision of White’s own.
Angell spent some thirty years at the New Yorker, assuming his mother’s old job as fiction editor, even inheriting the same office. A section of short portraits of several of the important figures at the magazine-Harold Ross, William Shawn, and a few others-is the least successful in the book. Some of it is drawn from previously published materials, and the whole shows unbecoming signs of labor.
My favorite chapter is an extended reflection on sailing. Angell portrays himself, in his eighties, in a little wooden sloop he’s sailed for forty years, skimming among islands off the Maine coast-tricky waters with sudden tides and hidden ledges that he knows by heart. He meditates on the mix of envy and resentment often directed at the recreational sailor-by the working lobstermen and ferrymen in the region, from colleagues who assume sailing is a sport for the very wealthy, by the landlubbers who are put off by the jargon:
Even at this easy level, I am dealing with shifts and forces and counterflows-wind and tide and current-that are nearly invisible to the hapless nonsailing friend I have brought along this time, who now (the wind has freshened) looks at me with dislike, because I am in another realm: a medicine man with a baseball cap. It can’t be helped, but sailing is exclusive. What the landsman senses and perhaps envies is exactly what grabs me at odd moments in a boat in August. Here-for the length of this puff, this lift and heel-I am almost in touch with the motions of my planet: not at one with them but riding a little crest and enjoying the view. I smile across at my friend but say nothing. Eat your heart out, pal.