Notes from the Century Before Critical Context
by Edward Hoagland

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Notes from the Century Before is written in a distinctly American literary context deriving from the nature writing of Henry David Thoreau. The writer in this context is typically an isolated figure developing in great detail the sense of an actual place. As Thoreau became synonymous with Walden Pond, Hoagland’s two months of observation on the Stikine River by Telegraph Creek established a similar identity: “This is my Mississippi. I love it as I have never loved any piece of land or any other scene.” The literary tradition from which this work springs includes the travel books of Herman Melville, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935), and the work of writers contemporaneous with Hoagland, such as John McPhee (Coming into the Country, 1977), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968), and Peter Matthiessen (Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork, 1986). While Thoreau could imagine a vastness of unexplored country to the west, recent nature writers are concerned with the end of the American frontier.

Placing Hoagland firmly in such a milieu is a generalization which familiarity with his work will both confirm and blur. He is an oddball, an original, a unique voice, and his searching out of other one-of-a-kinds shows that his subject is life itself, in whatever vital manifestations he finds it. Restlessness is the condition from which he writes, a restlessness which, after the book on British Columbia, carried him to the Sudan “because of its almost unequaled variety, and because it has seldom been written about.” The book which resulted from that trip, African Calliope (1979), is filled with the same sort of voracious seeing found in Notes from the Century Before.

Though Hoagland writes frequently of unknown people and places, he has also written at length about New York, which he loves as much as the natural wilderness. His essay “Home Is Two Places” elucidates his contrary affections. Hoagland frequently mentions his stuttering as a painful handicap clearly relevant to his need to live in isolated places. As a teenager, he sought the company of animals, both in the woods and working as an animal tamer for a circus. His ability to describe animals is evident in The Edward Hoagland Reader (1979), which contains essays on turtles (several species roam the floor of his New York apartment), mountain lions, dogs, and bears.

The originality of Edward Hoagland is felt even more in his style than in his choice of offbeat subjects. Surprise is a regular experience for Hoagland readers. Horses can be described in human terms in one sentence, and as butterflies in the next. Occasionally his honesty seems excessive. A reader can be shocked by the frankness of his appraisals, such as some in Notes from the Century Before, which he puts down without seeming to realize that the person so described may read the description and be devastated. Yet Hoagland’s honesty is what makes his writing so appealing, since his aesthetic seems to be based on the belief that something new will be found with each new person or place he sees. Vital signs—whether ferocity, mindlessness, or mediocrity—are what claim his attention and what his writing brings to readers curious enough to be attracted by the same things.