Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1984
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 wild, writers who were and are famous for it, and places in America where natural wildness remains, such as Alaska and Okefenokee. Thoreau is the saint of wildness, and Balancing Actscontains an essay on the author of Walden (1854), as well as one on John Muir, the explorer of California’s Sierras and champion of preserving Yosemite as a national park. Thoreau’s penchant for finding something new with every step is clearly Hoagland’s personal aesthetic. In “The Circus of Dr. Leo,” an essay on a book published in 1935 by a writer named Charles G. Finney, Hoagland introduces a forgotten novel about an imaginary circus: “In a circus we see mostly what we are ready to see. There is no script but chance and hope and spontaneity.”
Balancing Acts asserts the connection between truth—reality—and wonder. “One reason literary minimalism had only a short run of being in fashion recently is that life itself is maximal.” Writers such as Herman Melville and Gabriel García Márquez, and all other writers in the genius category, Hoagland argues, come at reality in a style now termed “magic realism.” The awesomeness of creation and what man is cannot be made too large, too strange. Hemingway, says Hoagland, decided prose style was overblown and that he would trim it. Genius that he was, his style simply allowed the finest registering of modern war and some of the best pictures of nature and animals ever written.
Hoagland reminds readers that they cannot escape nature. “Our ancestral wish as predators is that somebody be worse off than we are.” And “in the same way that we dash sauces on our meat (Worcestershire, horseradish, A.1., or béarnaise) to restore a tartness approximating the taint of spoilage that wild meat attains,” so we like our New York and Los Angeles with a small complement of misery and hopelessness. The reader may argue back, but will remember Hoagland the next time he or she reaches for the meat sauce, and will wonder what Hoagland might say about any number of other behaviors. A city, after all, that modern place, was created by man, the maker of marvels. City-lover to the core, just one of the paradoxes that “wild” Hoagland relishes about himself, he sadly admits the death of his image of a “wild” city. The problem is that we cannot encompass its dangers as well as we previously did. The city has become impersonal. “The most fundamental decencies must be enforced by litigation or legislation, it seems.” Neighborhood is a form of nature from which, to Hoagland’s regret, we are indeed escaping.
Hoagland’s genius as an essayist lies in his various ways of presenting a subject such that his readers want to know what he will say next and, when finished, what his next subject will be. “An essayist stands in for the rest of us.” What does he think about Conrad, feminists, Thoreau, going to college? Everything familiar can come to life, given this essayist’s words—another paradox in Hoagland’s case, because few would sit and listen to him talk; he is a stutterer. In Hoagland’s essays, by contrast, the words gush onto the page. One can read the essay “In Okefenokee” only after resting from absorbing the previous essay, because the reader will absorb a line-by-line specificity of natural history seamlessly blended with descriptions of fellow canoeists, the plates used for eating, and moonshiners.
Okefenokee, though circumscribed by industrial modernity, is a place like Alaska, virtual wilderness, where the century-before people can still be found, people who still have memories of living as predators among predators. Hoagland, always intent on the food chain, intuits the volition of an alligator’s patience:
So much of nature’s picturesqueness is really a series of relentless tests of stamina. This Jurassic beast, like hundreds of its toothy fellows in the Okefenokee that are just as big, floated unobtrusively or lounged on the bank night and day, waiting for hunger to operate irresistibly on the possums, coons, rabbits, deer, and bobcats living on various dabs of land surrounding this wet prairie so that they’d enter the water to swim from one to another to feed.
Such an observation skewering “nature’s picturesqueness,” extends to all creatures, including humans.
Hoagland is in the ranks of writers such as Peter Mathiessen, John McPhee, and Edward Abbey, bent on preserving archaic awareness, if not actuality, from the erosions of the late twentieth century. “Emerson would be roaring with heartbreak and Thoreau would be raging with grief in these 1990s.” What distinguishes Hoagland is his practical oneness with regular people. Balancing Acts opens with a rambling narrative-essay on riding the train from New York to California. The people he sits with in the dining car are as surprising as any series of sights in Okefenokee. Here is Hoagland, the benign alligator-writer, feeding on what happens to fall his way; the mode is celebratory and affirming. These “ordinary” people have survived unique twists of fate. They come off sounder than the classmates Hoagland revisits at a Harvard reunion described in a later essay. Hoagland’s voice is never strident. He is always checking his footing, as in his title. This will not sit too well with readers hoping for the gospel.
But resist, disobey he does, and the reader is surprised to discover that Edward Hoagland was fired temporarily from Bennington College for disapproving of homosexual practices. He had written in an essay “that anal sex is dangerous because it’s not provided for physiologically, not because it is morally wrong.… [I] had tried promiscuity and anal intercourse myself, and thought I’d earned the right to a few feisty words on the subject.” Free speech, it turns out, is going the way of Okefenokee. The heir of Thoreau, father of civil disobedience, Hoagland at the end of the century could propose any number of assertions about life and be welcomed for being original. But condemning the politically correct view of gay practice with the same style of insight used in speaking of Alaskan salmon or swamp flowers got him fired. The intolerant behavior on the part of his accusers he casts in an evolutionary perspective, implying its extinction: “[W]e Americans seem not to be good with dissent. Even the tolerant are intolerant of unorthodoxy. Minorities are catching the hectoring tones of majoritarians toward heterodox opinions, and our colleges are turning inhospitable to diversity.”
When a writer the likes of Edward Hoagland uses the word “diversity,” it comes to life, beyond the context of “diversity of opinion.” He is life’s celebrant, creation’s extoller. He goes as far as anyone can to teach readers to love the world.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, September 1, 1992, p. 2.
Boston Globe. November 8, 1992, p. 14.
Chicago Tribune. November 29, 1992, XIV, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 3, 1992, p. 11.
Houston Post. November 29, 1992, p. C6.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, September 1, 1992, p. 1105.
Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 83.
Los Angeles Times. December 15, 1992, p. E12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, October 12, 1992, p. 59.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, November 15, 1992, p. 3.