Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the summer of 1960, Edward Hoagland and his wife lived in Hazelton, British Columbia, a remote village on the Skeena River, where Hoagland heard stories of an even more isolated town named Telegraph Creek. Telegraph Creek originated one hundred years earlier, when a plan to string telegraph wire from New York to London the long way required outposts along the route. The line was hung as far as Telegraph Creek when the transatlantic cable connected New York and London the short way; thus, spools of unused wire were left to rust, and the population of Telegraph Creek shrunk to native Indians and the various gold hunters and white explorers who fancied living on game and produce. The century-old Telegraph Creek Hoagland pondered in Hazelton promised a wealth of lore and glimpses of mountain men (“stories which hadn’t worn threadbare with handling”) were it only possible to arrive there. No one in Hazelton could accommodate the journalist, however, as the passage overland was more demanding than even the local blusterers could manage, and Hoagland returned to New York unsatisfied.

Despite correspondence from guides familiar with Telegraph Creek which discouraged the avid writer from visiting, Hoagland returned to British Columbia in 1966, divorced and lonely but eager to confirm his intuition that going into the area around Telegraph Creek would be tantamount to stepping into the previous century. Notes from the Century Before, a travel journal of more than three hundred pages, is the book he wrested from the inhabitants, human and animal, and the magnificent landscape. Although Hoagland labels himself a rhapsodist, and although he devotes sections of the journal to the visual wonders, the book concentrates on describing the men who live in the wilderness and the stories they had to tell: “I would be talking to the doers themselves, the men whom no one pays any attention to until they are dead, who give the mountains their names and who pick the passes that become the freeways.”

The journal begins with an entry for June 2, 1966, the day Hoagland left New York, and concludes with an entry for August 3. After two weeks in Telegraph Creek, he traveled to other remote corners of British Columbia. Entries characteristically feature physical impressions of the men and women Hoagland meets. Dan McPhee, who settled in the West in 1904, “looks like a canny grandpa from Tobacco Road—long nose, floppy hat, black shirt . . . and when he tells a joke, he seems to swallow it, like a shot of whiskey.” Another Telegraph Creek citizen, Mr. Wriglesworth, “looks like the prophet who walks in front of a migrating people carrying a staff, and as though his face were younger underneath the skin than outside.” Entries also focus on the means these pioneers have found to thrive...

(The entire section is 1145 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gardner, Harvey. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIV (January 8, 1969), p. 16.

Grant, Annette. Review in Newsweek. LXXIII (January 2, 1969), p. 94.

Hoagland, Edward. “Slouching Toward Wadi Dhar: Edward Hoagland Motors Through the Mountains of Yemen and Lives to Tell About It,” in Interview Magazine. XVIII (May, 1988), p. 96.

Updike, John. “Journeyers,” in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, 1983.

Wolff, Geoffrey. Introduction to The Edward Hoagland Reader, 1979.