Roger Angell, celebrated sportswriter and editor, died on May 20, at age 101. I've read a couple of his baseball books and especially admire his more autobiographical collections, Let Me Finish (2006) and This Old Man: All in Pieces (2015). He was the son of New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell and the stepson of essayist E. B. White. I met him once, when we both spoke at the E. B. White Celebration at the Museum of the City of New York in 2003. I was introduced as an E. B. White scholar; he was simply introduced as Roger Angell.
I spent most of the 1990s studying White's writing. Angell's death prompted me to browse our guest room bookshelf lined entirely with books by or about White. There I found both my first edition copy of White's Here is New York from 1949 and a commemorative edition with an introduction by Roger Angell from 1999. It was good to get the chance to read the two of them together. Angell was working for Holiday Magazine in 1948 and his editor asked White, who then lived in Maine, to write an essay about New York. White likely accepted the assignment for the chance not only to revisit New York but also to spend time with his stepson. The essay in Holiday eventually became the small book.
In March 2003 I flew to New York City for a teacher's conference, everyone haunted by the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and nervous about our new war with Iraq. I'd brought along a copy of Here is New York and began an essay comparing White's past sense of the city to my own sense of it fifty-five years later. Reading him helped me get perspective on the times I was living in. I met colleagues at the Algonquin Hotel, where White had stayed, and studied its painting of Algonquin Round Table writers, including New Yorker contributors White knew. I strolled past Turtle Bay Gardens, where Andy and Katherine had maintained an apartment, often hosting Roger Angell and his wife. A few months later, on June 7, I wandered through Central Park to meet Roger at the Museum on 8th Avenue, trying not to worry about his reaction to whatever I would say about his stepfather.
Angell wrote about White in "Andy," a New Yorker article published twenty years after his stepfather's death. It evokes their time together and the challenge of reliving those moments: "What were we talking about, just now? We were close for almost sixty years, and you'd think that a little back-and-forth—something more than a joke or part of an anecdote—would survive, but no. What's impossible to write down, soon afterward, is a conversation that comes easily." He remembers them ice-skating on a frigid day in Boston in 1929 and on their return finding the shoes that Andy had hidden under a bush missing. That makes him recall an essay in One Man's Meat from 1942 where White remembers as a teen-ager holding a girl's hand and decides, "It was enough that spring to remember what a girl's hand felt like, suddenly ungloved in winter." Angell observes, "The shift from the winter general to the sudden particular of the girl's hand is a White special, as is the self-deprecation." He remembers how often White avoided public events, such as being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and his wife Katherine's burial in Brooklin Cemetery in 1977. At White's memorial service in 1985, Angell told attendees, "If Andy White could be here today, he would not be here today."
Angell noticed how Here Is New York "was widely rediscovered in the weeks just after September 11th, because of its piercing vision." He calls it "a revisiting of the pulsing and romantic city White knew and worked in during his late twenties and early thirties" and refers to White's mention of how "a small flight of planes could now bring down the great shining structure in a moment." The final sentence, he points out, ends with "the famously reversed final phrase: 'this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.'" Angell concludes, "Losing New York is possible, but not holding on to the thought of it—which is all we may have in the end—much worse."
Reading Angell's writing about White in Let Me Finish and This Old Man, not simply in titled pieces like "Andy" and "Past Master: E. B. White," but also in anecdotes interspersed through random reminiscences and comments that give us access to the workings of The New Yorker, deepens my appreciation of them both. I almost feel as if I knew them both, if only through their writing.
Angell, Roger. "Andy," Let Me Finish. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006: 113-137.
Angell, Roger. "Past Masters: E. B. White," This Old Man: All in Pieces. New York: Doubleday, 2015.
Bonomo, Joe. "From the Desk of Joe Bonomo: Roger Angell, Legendary Writer," University of Nebraska Press Blog.
Remnick, David. "Postscript: Remembering Roger Angell, Hall of Famer," The New Yorker. June 6, 2022: 14-15.
Root, Robert. "Here is New York," Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012: 69-79.
Root, Robert L., Jr. E. B. White; The Emergence of an Essayist. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
White, E. B. Here is New York. Introduction by Roger Angell. New York: The Little Bookroom, 1999.