Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Skeptical Roger Angell

Roger Angell in 1954
I recently stumbled across an interesting mid-1950s essay at This I Believe, the radio program originally hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and popularly revived by National Public Radio a decade or so ago. The contributor here, reading "The Dignity of Man," is none other than Roger Angell, at the time an editor at Holiday magazine and, as the introduction informs us, "a frequent contributor of fiction to The New Yorker." A year or two before he joined The New Yorker as an editor, in 1956, and nearly a decade before he began writing about baseball for that magazine, Angell essays the nature of humankind from his suburban perch over the Hudson River in Palisades, New York. The writing is somewhat stiff and unusually abstract, and the tone is serious-sober for Angell, but already intact, and characteristic, are Angell's deep affection for skepticism and his appreciation for the surprising gift of empathy—two of the most valuable tools for a great nonfiction writer, it seems to me.

Two excerpts:
And this is not, it seems to me, a time of certainty, of faiths easily espoused and firmly held. I suspect that this is a good thing, because I am a great believer in skepticism. I think that a man should grasp a belief warily and carry it gingerly. He should always be ready to test its worth against experience and to abandon it without regret if it begins to look ugly, expensive or cumbersome.
Once in a while, in my dealings with other men, an astonishing thing happens. Something I cannot get out of my head. Suddenly I see straight into a man and find, to my shock, only myself there. This is a rare moment, because men do not often give themselves away, only by accident or in times of great pain and happiness. In that moment, if I dare to look, I see in any man my own desires, my deeply hidden beliefs, my need for love, my inner seriousness, and my hope. This moment is a lightning flash in an unlit room that suddenly illuminates all. After it is gone, I still see, pressed on my eyes for a few instants, the shape, the bright highlights and the true vivid colors of the dark room in which I sit. In that moment, the dignity of man is an almost visible thing.
A rare recording of Angell from a relatively obscure era in his professional life, the three-minute essay is worth listening to in full.

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