Edward Hoagland makes sentences a mimicry of encounters along a path never walked before. He can jolt a reader, or twine one perception along another, or release a wealth of endless details he has wrested from any man or woman he has talked to. His fame rests on the essays constructed of such sentences—about turtles, tugboat captains, mountains, and those countries outside America he believes Americans should welcome to their too-provincial awareness. Travel writing, it is called, but it could be defined more lucidly as preservation-of-humanity writing, both the subject matter, when it is humanity, and the reader, in whom the writing fertilizes dormant awareness. Hoagland’s first travel book, Notes from the Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia(1969), revealed that part of Alaska where men lived time-capsule lives, reliant on skills such as trapping, fishing, and running dog sleds. The point was not “I want to live this way,” but “Look at how humans did live and still can,” close as these contemporary pioneers were to a threatening yet zestful life-style in contrast to freeway, suburb, and office routines.
For Hoagland, love for nature is indissolubly crossed with love for humanity. He is no cold Robinson Jeffers proudly separate from those without whom, since they read his words, he could not propose to pose as separate. Hoagland is aware of his gifts, his skill at seeing and saying originally, but he is also very intent on making a gift of his gift. His roots are in the circus, where he worked for six months in his late teens. His first novel, Cat Man (1956), was set in that now antiquated arena of live performers presenting spectacles to live audiences.
“I know that life is an abyss, among other things,” Hoagland says, in the title essay of Balancing Acts, “and like other travel writers, I enjoy wire walking a bit, courting, in a sense, a catastrophe.” What he leaves out of this formulation is the return to the ground, whether by pencil or word processor, where the only danger is lack of skill at telling, akin to a magician under the big top without enough sleeves from which to produce silks and rabbits. After forty years as such a performer, Hoagland can enunciate what it takes to stay interesting, which, it happens, is only as demanding as juggling china plates and riding standing on a horse while informing the audience about particle physics in easily understood hand gestures:
we expect an essayist to be rather abrasive and yet quite gentle, female and yet male, regretful, cool, exuberant, single-minded, paradoxical, quirky, balanced, passionate, and fair. He should be a sort of man for all seasons, in other words, loafing attentively, seizing risks, mastering data, summarizing what we’d nearly thought to say ourselves. He should know everything that two eyes can be expected to take in, yet make a virtue out of being a free-lance observer, operating solo, not as a committee.
So antiquated is the idea of the circus that readers might shrug at such demands placed on writers by themselves. Just tell us the story, they may say. But the idea of writer as artist-performer, and the peculiar nature of writers, is one marvel this impresario insists on exhibiting. Nearly half the essays in Balancing Acts are on writers or about writing and what costs are paid in its production.
For Hoagland, writers are not what they used to be, less concerned as they are with presenting the subject than with maintaining bank balances. In the essay “Holy Fools,” he remembers a friend nicknamed “Jude the Obscure,” who fainted from hunger, too intent on producing his novel to eat. When Hoagland’s Notes from the Century Before was published, he slept with it under his pillow and could recite its three hundred pages from memory. When it sold little and was largely ignored by reviewers, he vomited blood. Writing, he says, is cheapened today by the abundance of writing courses offered in colleges and taught by talented writers who cannot face the rigors of independence. Real writers are those who endure the awful but necessary despair of following an independent course, true to their muse, shrugging off fastidious editors. Hoagland’s own father asked the publisher not to print his boy’s book because he found it obscene.
Without the ailments of loneliness and despair there would be no Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, or The Sound and the Fury, Hoagland says. Instead, readers would be stuck with the humorless, zestless presentations of minimalism. The writer is the he or she who knows a story to be told and tells it. Contemporary writers, Hoagland complains, do very little traveling, and the reading public suffers.
A recurring theme of Balancing Acts is wildness—writers who are less and less willing to be...
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