For the new year, a cure for nostalgia

In the January 2 New Yorker, the subject of Roger Angell’s lead comment is a proposed reduction in the speed of deliveries by the U. S. Postal Service, with the final extinction of the mailed letter to follow as a predictable consequence. If Angell missed a New Yorker cliché when he turned that news item into an elegy for stationery, the oversight didn’t come to my attention. E-mail, just not the same thing. The days of Anthony Trollope. John Updike’s postcards to, of course, The New Yorker. Eheu fugaces. World War II V-letters. An antique postcard kept at, of course, the summer house in, of course, Maine. Smiling through his tears, Roger Angell delivers a freight of casual-classic thought.

For The New Yorker, the part of time that gets remembered in a style like Angell’s is leisure time. That’s when we become worthy of The New Yorker’s advertisers. When the magazine is closed, we’re merely sordid, merely alive and changing: so busy earning our subscriptions to The New Yorker that we don’t even have the time to notice our own permanent exquisiteness. At such a time, the antique postcard held between finger and thumb is only a dirty piece of cardboard. But after the gates of The New Yorker have been opened to admit a crew of artists, the temporary marker of a life now ended will be replaced by a marble tomb.

That metamorphosis is a moment in the art history of New England. In New England, from the colonial stonemasons to Frost’s “Home Burial” to E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” the tomb-maker’s art has helped us understand the sad irony of trying to represent in space the sense of something that no longer exists in time. White’s dirt road that is no longer rutted in three tracks because the horses have gone away is metonymy for the invisible dead. The original writer and reader of Roger Angell’s postcard from the past have gone invisible likewise. They are now only an indecipherable allusion to something in a dead letter.

But for us intended readers of The New Yorker, who live in what we might as well call New York by way of metonymic contrast, the postcard itself is transformed into something newly visible. In New York, lifted for a moment out of the cigar box of Roger Angell’s prose, the card goes reflective and becomes a mirror, a portable space in which we are supposed to think we see ourselves poised and unchanging, balancing on the infinitesimal between a postcarded past and a postcardless future. Holding the mirror between our hands, seeing right through both the dead words on one surface and the picture on its reverse of what no longer is, we contemplate what we think we see of our reflected selves as if we could keep on contemplating forever.

The optical illusion reassures us that we are. That’s what Roger Angell constructed it for. Relieved, we reach for our wallet, extract a credit card, and renew.