Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223
In his 1970 essay “Home Is Two Places” Edward Hoagland describes the two “complicated, quite disparate” branches of his family. On the side of his father, Warren Eugene Hoagland, he traces his ancestors—mostly farmers—to Brooklyn in prerevolutionary days and later to the American Midwest. The family of his mother, Helen...
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- Critical Essays
In his 1970 essay “Home Is Two Places” Edward Hoagland describes the two “complicated, quite disparate” branches of his family. On the side of his father, Warren Eugene Hoagland, he traces his ancestors—mostly farmers—to Brooklyn in prerevolutionary days and later to the American Midwest. The family of his mother, Helen Hoagland, the Morleys, came to the New World later than the Hoaglands; by 1900 they were, in the words of Edward Hoagland, “worthy people with fat family businesses.” These impeccable middle-American credentials provide Hoagland with a foundation for a varied commentary upon life and landscape in the United States.
Hoagland grew up in the suburbs of New York City and at first attended St. Bernard’s, which he calls “an English-type school”; he later went to Deerfield Academy, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts. He seems to have been a troubled child, perhaps as a consequence of suffering from asthma and a stutter. The latter affliction remained with him, but not without positive consequences, according to Hoagland, who judges his fluency in writing as partly a compensation for lack of ease in conversation. In his nonfiction Hoagland frequently draws attention to his stutter, and in his fiction he gives his characters various idiosyncrasies that seem almost its equivalent.
Hoagland’s first novel, Cat Man, was accepted for publication before Hoagland’s graduation from Harvard University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1954. In 1956 the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, awarded the novel a literary fellowship, the first of many awards that Hoagland received for his work. Cat Man is a highly detailed and sometimes violent account of traveling-circus life told from the viewpoint of a young hobo nicknamed “Fiddle,” who tends the lions, tigers, and leopards in their cages. The work did not reach a wide audience, which is also true of his second novel, The Circle Home, and his third, The Peacock’s Tail. The Circle Home is, like Cat Man, concerned with subjects that later preoccuped Hoagland in his essays. The novel’s main character, Danny Kelly, is a prizefighter with a troubled marriage whose efforts at fidelity and sobriety seem doomed. The protagonist of The Peacock’s Tail, Ben Pringle, is an antihero somewhat in the mold of J. D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Hoagland’s attempt to seem timely and demotic in this novel are atypical of his work as a whole.
Hoagland’s next book, Notes from the Century Before, was the result of two visits to the western Canadian province of British Columbia in the mid-1960’s—first a period of residence in a small town in the interior of the province and, soon after, a summer’s travels in the northwestern part of the province following a divorce from his first wife (to whom he had been married and divorced once before). Hoagland’s objective was to give an account of lives of old-timers—prospectors, Indians, surveyors, trappers, and the like—who had known the country before the advent of twentieth century transportation and extensive commercial development. Hoagland’s prose is infused with a novelist’s sense of drama—he states that he first set out to gather material for a novel—but he communicates a surprising quantity of information to the reader both from his own perspective and that of his picturesque characters.
In Notes from the Century Before Hoagland tests his own passions and idiosyncrasies (he has a penchant for highly personal self-revelation) against those of the people he meets and observes. Sharing with them an attachment to the wild landscape, he nevertheless admits that he is a city person, and in many subsequent essays, he details the ambivalent and ironic overtones in his relationship to the wilderness. In dealing with environmental issues Hoagland decries the encroachment of civilization upon nature, but in a general sense, he is an optimist, though with qualifications. An optimism mixed with a sense of moral and environmental peril is seen in the title essay of his first collection of essays, The Courage of Turtles, in which he contrasts the often adverse fates of wild and captive turtles to their pertinacious behavior, but less characteristically, a later essay in the same book notes the “ocean of violence” in which society is “swimming for dear life.” Though Hoagland effectively chronicles both constructive and destructive social energies in America, he is always ready to turn away from society to contemplate the natural scene; yet in doing so, he tries to forestall sentimentality or escapism on his own part or that of the reader.
Most of Hoagland’s essays appeared first in periodicals and were subsequently published in book form as collections. The Atlantic (formerly The Atlantic Monthly), Harper’s Magazine, and Sports Illustrated regularly featured his work, as did the New York weekly newspaper The Village Voice. These are a suitable forum for his essays, providing the wide and diverse audience that is his target. When his essays are published as collections, however, their qualities of style and subject matter emerge more clearly and they are more readily seen as aspects of a unified field of vision. In one collection, Red Wolves and Black Bears, Hoagland suggests that the essays be read in the order in which they are presented because several were enlarged with a view to their role in the book, but in most of the other collections the chronology and order of the essays seem not to be an issue. An important influence on Hoagland is the nineteenth century American writer Henry David Thoreau. In Hoagland’s essay “Bragging for Humanity” he acknowledges this debt while correcting a stereotyped image of Thoreau as a society-shunning recluse. According to Hoagland, Thoreau was most at home in nature but had a viable, though idiosyncratic, sense of himself as a social being, an interpretation of Thoreau that sheds some light on Hoagland himself. Although much of Hoagland’s best work concerns wilderness, or what must now pass for it, he writes that he likes the country more than the city but likes city people more than country people.
Hoagland’s early fiction was received only “quietly,” in one critic’s words, but his subsequent career as a nonfiction writer earned him great praise. The book-length account of his North African travels, African Calliope, displays the same vivid rendering of detail as the shorter nonfiction. Hoagland revisited many of the themes of Notes from the Century Before in Seven Rivers West, a novel set in the Canadian west. An adventure story with elements of humor and surrealism, it sidesteps any conventional relationships to the traditional genres of the “western novel.” In the light of the author’s earlier experiences in British Columbia and his diverse appreciation of Americana and Canadiana, Seven Rivers West seems like Hoagland’s fantasy of what he would have liked to have experienced in the remote Canadian Rockies in 1887. Rendering the Indians, flora, and particularly the fauna—including a species of Sasquatch—against a panoramic geography that is representative though imaginary in detail, Hoagland, in the words of novelist and critic John Updike, evokes “the external world in all its impervious magnificence.” Updike goes on to state that “In a long line of American novelists who have attempted in one gorgeous grasp to say it all, he has come closer than most.”