Edward Hoagland Hoagland, Edward - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hoagland 1932–

American essayist, travel writer, and novelist.

Hoagland is considered by many critics to be a gifted and versatile essayist. Although many of his works are factual chronicles of his travels through America and foreign lands, he writes freely, inserting many digressions and asides. His method results in essays which are individualistic, loosely structured, and which move easily from one subject to another, often within a single paragraph. Some critics find Hoagland's technique distracting, while others contend that his digressions add relevance and variety to his objective observations. Most critics admire Hoagland's virtuosity. His keen eye for details, his ability to convey a precise sense of place, and his enthusiasm for all that he encounters are revealed in his dramatic metaphors and creative phrasing.

Although his subjects vary widely, many critics believe that Hoagland writes best about animals. Whether discussing caged circus animals, as in his first novel, Cat Man (1956), wild creatures from the backlands of British Columbia, as in Notes from the Century Before (1969), trivia about turtles, as in an essay from the collection The Courage of Turtles (1970), or superstition and lore about bears and wolves, as in Red Wolves and Black Bears (1976), Hoagland deftly combines realism and romanticism in his compassionate and detailed descriptions. In addition to Cat Man, Hoagland has published two other novels, The Circle Home (1960) and The Peacock's Tail (1965), which are generally considered less successful than his essays.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

William Lindsay Gresham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A circus contains three worlds—the bosses, the performers and the laborers. Up to now circus fiction has almost always dealt with performers. Yet there is a vast, living mechanism, lubricated with sweat, blood and cheap wine, without which the big top could never be torn down, loaded, moved and set up again. "Cat Man" is a chronicle of the circus laborers, told with the same microscopic detail that Melville lavished on whaling.

Structurally it is hardly a novel; it is a minute dissection of the circus' sinews. Yet the story of the shambling "winos" who hire on from town to town, who last a single jump or three or a month, only to drift away or be found dead behind the wagons, this could hardly be told by any other medium than fiction, which lets us feel the grime ground into the skin, the blood caked on the knuckles, lets us smell the reek of these "creatures that once were men."…

The viewpoint is that of a hobo youth, nicknamed "Fiddle."… It is an account of one stand of the big show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from the first sight of the freight yards to a few minutes before "Doors" when the horde of townies surge in and the glittering pageant begins. Running counterpoint to this day are slices of other days in other towns, incidents of vio-lence, desperation or depravity which highlight the experience of the hero.

Fiddle is a cat man—a workman who tends the big cats. And never before—to the knowledge of...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the modern novel's never-ending quest for madder music and stronger wine, Edward Hoagland's queasy non-hero [of "The Peacock's Tail"]—the unhappy, suburban-bred Ben Pringle—sounds like an old and well-worn record. Ditched abruptly by his girl, he suffers with perfect pitch in the key of Moses Herzog minor. Let down by shallow friends when he seeks commiseration, he mimes Holden Caulfield's anguished wisecracks. Checked into a swinging, madcap Harlem hotel to escape familiar memories, he runs on endlessly like Tom Wolfe—the pop-prose WOW! of middle-class discovery snapping faster than a string of penny-crackers.

Sad-sacked Ben, too tender for the wooden touch of adults, takes refuge in the company of the multiracial kids who inhabit the "Aspinwall Hotel." He drops into a comfortable infantilism of fairy tales and fun and games with this redeeming, healing bunch who, despite his ardor, seem suspiciously like an amalgam of settlement-house losers and "Our Gang." But even at face value, Ben's recuperation from a bombed-out romance is hard to take.

The more Ben's following increases, the more author Hoagland gets caught up in the whirling dervish of his own prose. Finally Ben becomes a real Pied Piper to his nimble mouse pack…. His fellow-feeling mounts until he makes his big discovery about the kids, about things like prejudice and all: "For Ben their color was almost a negligible factor, in contrast to if he had been with their parents." Suffering spitballs, a sociological revelation!

The really unfortunate thing about this book is that it is not a first novel. Hoagland's "Cat Man" and "The Circle Home" showed keener insight and hipper prose. This time he seems to be writing for the Great American Everybody all at once, and "Peacock" turns out to be something less proud—no fantail charmer but a risible gooney bird that flaps its wings wildly but never gets off the ground.

"Camp Counselor," in Newsweek (copyright 1965, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXVI, No. 6, August 9, 1965, p. 83.

Annette Grant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exploring by bush plane, boat and foot, Hoagland gives an account [of the interior wilds of British Columbia in "Notes from the Century Before"] at once blunt and rhapsodic of this demi-paradise and its self-exiled inhabitants. Why did they go there? For gold, to be sure. But gold cloaked a more interesting, and more persistent, motive in human nature: man's need to pit himself against a savage and magnificent wilderness—and come out alive. But now, a mere three years since the author's first journey, the last frontier, or last Eden, has practically disappeared under helicopters and neon. Hoagland's lyric account, therefore, becomes all the more eloquent, for it records not only a fading ideal but is, finally, a parable—and warning—for America.

This book is as remarkable as the landscape and people that it describes. Like the Kispiox River, it is all "dazzle and slash"; it's as exuberant as a prospector who finds a five-dollar nugget lying on the ground and as full of freshness and life as the stream where any man could pull out bushels of silvery salmon with his bare hands. (p. 94)

Annette Grant, "The Last Eden," in Newsweek (copyright 1969, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXIII, No. 22, June 2, 1969, pp. 92-94.

Margerie Bonner Lowry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Notes from the Century Before is a document unlike any I have ever read, and it has left me with a feeling of the vast country to our north that we know so little about. The title is apt, for northern British Columbia must be very much like our own frontier a century ago, except for the paralyzing cold, and, of course, except for Alaska. Edward Hoagland explains that he went to this still wild and dangerous place to get first-hand accounts, before it was too late, from the few surviving old-timers who had explored the north country. He wanted it fresh and clear and not watered down or built into legends, and he found it and has recorded it for our pleasure.

The major part of the book is in the form of a daily journal which records conversations with the people Hoagland met and talked to, and the hazardous trips he made to find them Some of the stories are gruesome but the tone is cheerful, even ebullient. (pp. 107-08)

In his loosely casual diary style Hoagland gives us the sense and feeling of having been in this country with its mighty mountain chains, tremendous rivers, and hidden lakes. (pp. 110-11)

Margerie Bonner Lowry, "Frontier" (copyright 1969 by Margerie Bonner Lowry; reprinted by permission of the publisher and Literistic, Ltd; all rights reserved), in Commentary, Vol. 48, No. 3. September, 1969, pp. 107-08, 110-11.

Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Midway through an essay about New York rodeos and midnight cowboys, Edward Hoagland remarks that "writers can be categorized by many criteria, one of which is whether they prefer subject matter that they rejoice in or subject matter they deplore and wish to savage with ironies. Since I'm of the first type …" Indeed he is. Here [in "The Courage of Turtles"] are fifteen essays about matters that either delight Hoagland or make him curious….

He is a marvelous writer….

"The Courage of Turtles" is not to be taken as a collection of bits and pieces written over the years. Rather it should be read as the first look back by a man in his late 30s…. Hoagland remarkably combines the observer's clear sense with the self-revealing passion of a man who has been "bottled up" too long. His image is apt, for Hoagland stutters terribly, and that fact about himself finds its way into almost everything he writes now. He tells us he labors over his words when he writes, but behind the blockades to speech and prose is glee, generosity, hope….

We are not used to taking optimists seriously; we do not believe them. But to read two pages of Hoagland, at random, is to know immediately that you are in the hands of a supremely tough-minded man, and a man of perfect honesty….

Hoagland uses the essay form as it is very seldom used today, picking a subject that interests him rather than a subject that interests a magazine. Then he moves through it leisurely, pausing whenever he wishes to illustrate a lesson, taking what appears to be a detour till we are brought back again to the true course, enhanced by the sights we have seen, perfectly confident, as we should be, that we have been all the while in good hands.

Geoffrey Wolff, "A Very Busy Life," in Newsweek (copyright 1971, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXVII, No. 3, January 18, 1971, p. 73.

Dan Wakefield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To those of you who feel your mind slipping away when confronted by further questions and arguments about such matters as the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the alleged death of the novel, short story or drama, the contention that journalism is now the "real" kind of writing, or whether it is possible to be a writer at all any more, I recommend Edward Hoagland's essay "Books, Movies, the News" [in his book "The Courage of Turtles"]. In a passage I intend to quote whenever such topics arise, Mr. Hoagland explains that "prose has no partitions now…. No forms exist anymore, except that to work as a single observer, using the resources of only one mind, and to work with words—that is being a writer."...

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Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hoagland is one of the best "personal essayists" in the business, a virtuoso of the reader-capsizing sentence, a splendid observer of city street, circus lot, go-go girls, freight trains, juries in the jury room plus, and especially, any and every surviving patch of North American wild he can get to moon around in—whether in British Columbia or just beyond his summer acres in Vermont.

But this much expertise, readiness, fluency of information and manner is of course to be expected these days in the magazine business, where so many people now write like a flash and with a flash, smart-smart-smart. There is so much information around, so many "personalities," so much ease of movement, so much...

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Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A friend told me the other day that the last book about animals he had read was "Animal Farm," his sneer implying that animal books are best reserved for readers at the Peter Rabbit level of literacy. For those who think they agree (on alternate Tuesdays, I agree, having never recovered from once reading books for a publisher who sponsored an annual animal book award), let me quickly say that Edward Hoagland's essays are never wholly about animals, though some contain a lot of wildlife lore, but are often about Hoagland's attempts "to rediscover the commonality of animal and man." By losing our awareness of animals, he writes, "we sacrifice some of the intricacy and grandeur of life." Bears and wolves, the...

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Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hoagland is surely one of our most truthful writers about nature, one of the few who can be counted on to avoid the distracting theatricality of preaching or blaming or apocalypse-mongering. And his truthfulness doesn't rule out the pleasures of a brilliant image … or of passages of sustained inventive brio.

At times the going is admittedly harder. Hoagland sometimes lapses into routine philosophizing…. His essays on wild animals and those who study them sometimes substitute the rehearsing of worked-up data (however fascinating …) for continuous thinking about such information. The tendency to take long views becomes a little too evident. And, though this gets to be rather endearing, there's a...

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Geoffrey Wolff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"How long will these readers continue to miss walking in the woods enough to employ oddballs like me and Edward Abbey and Peter Matthiessen and John McPhee to do it for them? Not long, I suspect. We're a peculiar lot: McPhee long bent to the traces of The New Yorker, Matthiessen an explorer in remote regions that would hound most people into a nervous breakdown, Abbey angry, molded by what is nowadays euphemistically called 'Appalachia.' As a boy, I myself was mute for years, forced either to become acutely intuitive or to take to the woods. By default, we are the ones the phone rings for, old enough to have known real cowboys and real woods."

There's Edward Hoagland; I'd know the author of...

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Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Inevitably the first and most engaging effect of Edward Hoagland's two new books [The Edward Hoagland Reader and African Calliope] is to draw our interest to the writer himself. Despite his rooted WASP belief that "personality is quarrelsomeness," his personality, or rather his character, emerges and we're glad. Our estimation of it becomes essential to our appreciation of his work. One thing his admirers like most about his writing is his quite distinctive combination of subjectivity and authority. (p. 30)

Maybe the reason novels exist is to disguise human musings. The novelist, afraid his ideas may be foolish, slyly puts them into the mouth of some other fool and reserves the right to...

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Ross Wetzsteon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Speaking for myself, I'd read Hoagland if only because (a) he has the finest sense of paragraph structure of any writer alive, and (b) he's an old friend. But since these aren't exactly qualities likely to endear his work to a wider audience, it's fortunate other things are going on as well. As a stylist, he's gifted at rescuing moribund adjectives and nursing them back to health, at combining the arcane with the colloquial, at guiding us through bewildering but suddenly gratifying digressions (like detours that turn out to save hours), and especially at jolting one's mind with abrupt, revelatory transitions….

As a reporter … he also rescues, combines, guides, and jolts, dealing with places and...

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Donald Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hoagland has taken a place among the best living practitioners of the sentence—and like many present prose writers he concentrates not on fiction but on fact…. Last year he summed up a decade of his essays with two books: The Edward Hoagland Reader … collects 21 essays from four earlier books; African Calliope, which recounts "A Journey to the Sudan," we must, for lack of better terminology, call a travel book.

If it is clearly inadequate to call African Calliope a travel book, it is difficult in general to categorize Edward Hoagland. Although he uses much factual detail, he is not a writer of what The New Yorker calls fact-pieces, like the wonderful John...

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Spencer Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hoagland has been enormously praised, and with some justice. The quality of his huge output is consistently high. He is so good that he ought to be much better. The Edward Hoagland Reader and African Calliope, both published in 1979, show his power and his weakness.

As a good essayist he is interested in everything, his especial passions being the wilderness, animals, circuses, crowds, and the city. In all these he shows the easy familiarity of the complete With-It. He retails his wide information tirelessly but painlessly. (p. 500)

The Hoagland Reader shows the essayist as sprinter, African Calliope as distance runner. [The latter] is an extended...

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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"To live is to see," writes Edward Hoagland, and that credo has placed him consistently among this country's most distinguished essayists ever since "The Courage of Turtles" was published 12 years ago. In this fourth collection ["The Tugman's Passage"], he continues to range widely in his concerns. Bumpkin skeptic in the city, sure-footed urbanist in the woods, he sees as well as ever….

There is, in Hoagland's descriptive prose, such a comforting sense of place that in the altogether distressing event that I was actually forced to walk through a bear-infested forest, I would trust him to be my guide—that is, with my life. (p. 7)

Hoagland can be very good on people, too. "The...

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