Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747
Essayists characteristically come late to the discovery of their gift. William Hazlitt was thirty-five, the author of several philosophical and political treatises, when, having finally given up his ambition to become a painter, he began to find his vocation as an essayist. De Quincey was thirty-six when he began his...
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Essayists characteristically come late to the discovery of their gift. William Hazlitt was thirty-five, the author of several philosophical and political treatises, when, having finally given up his ambition to become a painter, he began to find his vocation as an essayist. De Quincey was thirty-six when he began his harried career as a professional writer; to feed his eight children he churned out hundreds of essays, sketches, reviews, and assorted journalism, including the quirky, utterly individual pieces for which he is still read. Edward Hoagland was thirty-four and had recently published his third novel—a “failure,” he has said, both critical and artistic—when, in the summer of 1966, he began Notes from the Century Before, a journal covering two months and many miles in British Columbia. Since then he has published three collections of essays—The Courage of Turtles (1971); Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973); Red Wolves and Black Bears (1976)—and another travel book, African Calliope: A Journey to the Sudan (1979). Unremarkable as a novelist, Hoagland has found himself as an essayist, as an observer of the familiar and the exotic: he is one of the finest contemporary American writers.
For The Edward Hoagland Reader, Geoffrey Wolff has selected twenty-one essays from the three previously published collections, and he has also added three brief excerpts from Notes from the Century Before. Although Hoagland is often labeled a naturalist, The Edward Hoagland Reader is more or less equally divided between nature pieces—on bears, wolves, mountain lions; on the wilderness of British Columbia—and pieces on other subjects, including the routine of a tugboat, the fate of the circus, and partisan accounts of New York City. Some of the most ambitious essays in the book have no easily identifiable journalistic subject. (It is no surprise to read in Wolff’s excellent Introduction that Hoagland is that rare beast, a professional writer who does not write on “assignment.”) Essays such as “Home Is Two Places” and “Other Lives,” which Wolff has chosen to begin and end the book, framing his other selections, are complex meditations on contemporary life, virtuoso pieces in the manner of modernist fiction: Hoagland shifts focus abruptly, suppressing the connections between topics, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. The Edward Hoagland Reader is a substantial, representative selection, an excellent introduction to Hoagland’s work.
Hoagland’s great gift is to see clearly, and describe what he sees so that his readers see too. This gift is not common. “Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think,” Ruskin said, “but thousands can think for one who can see.” For Hoagland as for Ruskin, perception has absolute value. The object of the perception does not matter as much as the fact that something is being freshly seen. Thus, in the course of comparing his father to Eisenhower (in whose Administration his father worked), Hoagland writes that “each had a Chinese face lurking behind the prosaic American bones which materialized inchmeal as he aged and died.” This perception does not lead to any conclusion, does not have a point, one might say, but it creates the shock of recognition: one sees the aging Eisenhower with uncanny vividness. Such odd, surprising, wonderfully accurate perceptions are likely to turn up on any page of Hoagland’s.
If Hoagland is a master of the odd detail, his vision is equally adequate to sustained, large-scale description. To demonstrate this power, it would be sufficient to quote any sizable chunk from “River-Gray, River-Green,” a description of thirty thousand salmon, “each as long as my arm, stymied and dying in the droning roar” of the Tahltan River in British Columbia. In this excerpt from Notes from the Century Before, Hoagland’s excellence is not just a matter of precision, although that is no small feat: he has to deal freshly with a subject which has often been described and filmed, and he has to avoid sentimentality. He meets the first challenge with striking similes which, however surprising, are never merely verbal fireworks obscuring their ostensible subject. The leaping salmon “were like paper airplanes thrown into the hydrant blast.” The language always urges the reader to see: “These were the sockeyes. Their bodies have a carroty tint on top of the back at spawning time, often quite bright, and their heads turn a garish green. They wear a lurid mascaraed look, a tragedian’s look, as if dressed for an auto-da-fe.” While he doesn’t hesitate to express his feelings—“I felt like a witness at a slow massacre”—Hoagland banishes sentimentality with smart-guy similes and colloquial language. Feasting eagles revel “like bank robbers who had broken into the vault”; feasting gulls sit by the water, “so fat that by now they ate only the eyes.”
For a writer who has nothing more sensuous to work with than words on paper, description requires more than visual imagination, more than a perceptive eye. The sound and texture of his words, their heft, but above all, the rhythm of his sentences will determine the extent to which the writer succeeds in making his readers see. Just how verbal textures and rhythms work is a mystery, but Hoagland—like any gifted writer—knows what works, and the shapes of his sentences would not be despised by any contemporary novelist. He is an artist in his own territory. This quality of his work again requires quotation; a brief passage will have to suffice. In a long essay called “Americana, Etc.,” Hoagland describes the Orleans County Fair in Vermont, which included several “cunnilingual girlie shows.” Here, Hoagland is describing the operator of two of the shows: “He was stocky, in his forties, and enjoyed confiding to the crowd how tough the life was on the girls, a pair of whom were at his side like two leashed minks, dancing in the heat and cold.” How the rhythm of this passage, particularly of the last phrases, helps to deliver all that Hoagland sees on that stage is difficult to specify, but any reader should feel the effect.
As an artist, Hoagland works in the no man’s land of the personal essay. If his essays are more distinguished by their fidelity to the natural world than are the works of his great predecessor, De Quincey, they are nevertheless personal essays, often as richly idiosyncratic in their language and as confidently scornful of abecedarian logic as “The English Mail Coach.” Moreover, Hoagland has turned his observer’s eye on himself with a candor which exceeds that of Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
It is possible to piece together a kind of autobiography from the essays collected in The Edward Hoagland Reader: along with the mundane details, such as the schools he attended—Deerfield Academy and Harvard—Hoagland also informs the reader about his first love affair, “with a Philadelphian, a girl of twenty-seven.” He came by stages, he says, to “the habit of beating her briefly with my belt or hairbrush before we made love, a practice which I have foregone ever since.” Such confessions—rather cool reports, that is, in which Hoagland observes Hoagland’s intimate moments, however unflattering they might be—are never prolonged, but crop up abruptly here and there. The same essay—“The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain”—includes Hoagland’s longest discussion of his stuttering: “Being in these vocal handcuffs,” he concludes, “made me a desperate, devoted writer at twenty.”
By his own account, Hoagland is an exemplary modern artist, alienated from his fellows, cooly detached from himself—and he has the artist’s wound: his apparently incurable stutter; but too often, Hoagland seems to be merely cashing in on the vogue for lacerating but juicy revelations. This exploitation of intimacy is also evident when he speculates in a rambling way about his father’s sexual life: his father “probably was sexually faithful, although I think he fooled himself about the nature of certain avuncular relationships he had; when one young woman married he tore her honeymoon picture in half.”
More is at stake in such passages than an acquiescence to current fashions. Hoagland has a commitment to what might be called the ugly truth. In “The Problem of the Golden Rule,” he describes his hesitance to intervene when he saw a baby-sitter “or whatever she was” standing next to a phone booth, “feasting her eyes” on the spectacle within: her charge, a boy of two or three, trapped in the booth, unable to open the spring door, screaming in panic and thumping the glass. Now the characteristic Hoagland touch: “I was seething, partly because I found that some of the woman’s sexual excitement had communicated itself to me, which was intolerable, and partly because my cowardice in not interfering was equally outrageous.”
What are Hoagland’s implications here? By identifying a sexual element in this little drama, Hoagland proves his willingness to tell the ugly truth—and proves his sophistication. (Would another observer have seen “sexual excitement” in the woman’s cruelty? Was it there to be seen?) However, at a deeper level, the ugly truth implied by Hoagland’s narrative is this: there was a kind of complicity, he suggests, between himself and the woman. This is a peculiar way to arrive at the Golden Rule. Hoagland concludes the essay by mentioning an incident in which he did take action, “gesticulating sternly” to drive some robbers off a nearby rooftop. “They waved back as they went down the stairs,” he says, “like people who’ve escaped a fall.” This curiously sentimental conclusion reinforces the theme of complicity which runs through the essay; it is not to be confused with “there but for the grace of God go I.” Hoagland’s “ugly truth” allows him to blur the question of moral responsibility in a manner both cynical and sentimental. We are all in one boat, like Hoagland and the robbers who wave back at him.
Yet at its best, Hoagland’s work reawakens the child’s sense of wonder at the great world, touches deep memories and longings. Millions of children have read about tugboats but few have ever seen one. Hoagland spends a day on a tugboat every year. He has worked in the circus. He has followed the routine of a wildlife biologist whose whole ambition is to understand bears—he practically lives with them. (Another child’s dream magically fulfilled.) Wherever he goes, Hoagland describes what he sees, both with clarity and in his own lively idiom.