The Edward Hoagland Reader

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

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...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)