Red Wolves and Black Bears

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

Edward Hoagland represents himself as a quiet sort of person, of less interest to his readers than the subjects he writes about. The outrageous energy of Norman Mailer is not his, nor the peacock flummery of Tom Wolfe. A loner at prep school and at Harvard, he now travels alone...

(The entire section contains 1960 words.)

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Edward Hoagland represents himself as a quiet sort of person, of less interest to his readers than the subjects he writes about. The outrageous energy of Norman Mailer is not his, nor the peacock flummery of Tom Wolfe. A loner at prep school and at Harvard, he now travels alone to the far reaches of northern Minnesota and southern Texas to write about bears and wolves, and he has not stirred up any great fusses since he began writing novels and short stories after graduating from Harvard in 1954. But a man who routinely sits on a mountaintop calling to wolves with a hand-cranked Army surplus siren should be watched—or at least read—as one of the true individualists left on the continent.

Hoagland’s chosen subjects are themselves uncommon; he notes with wry amusement that magazine editors trying to keep their readers up on “ecological” topics have only a small stable of writers to call on. There is not much of a tradition, little background of history or literature for modern writers interested in animals and their habitats to backstop their work; it must, in a sense, therefore be more “original” than observations on politics, history, or personalities. Hoagland is one of a few writers, the others being John McPhee, Edward Abbey, and Peter Matthiessen, to make national reputations for themselves as authorities on animals and, though he dislikes the word, ecology.

His work requires him to be in the field a good deal, and Hoagland seems to spend comparatively little time in his Manhattan apartment or at his house in Vermont. The nineteen essays in Red Wolves and Black Bears are the results of his travels on various magazine assignments (including Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The Saturday Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times Book Review) from 1972 through 1975. The two longest essays, “Bears, Bears, Bears” and “Lament the Red Wolf,” constitute between them nearly one-third of the total length of the volume, and there are several more, though briefer, essays on nature subjects. Close to one half of the book, though, consists of comments on the current literary establishment, on the nature of survival in the city today, on heroes, on dogs, and on coping with hard times. Hoagland suggests that the essays be read in the order they are presented, and it does seem clear that though the subjects are varied there is indeed a pattern to his book that gives it a coherence and unity.

In what might seem to the outsider a curious reversal of form, Hoagland turned from writing novels to essays in 1959. The pattern, however, is not unfamiliar, the line between fact and fiction having been blurred at least since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in the early 1960’s—a study of two murderers which he called, notoriously, a nonfiction novel. Today novelists routinely write essays (Mailer, Didion, Wilfred Sheed), and every reporter, movie star, and ex-felon seems to write a novel. Because life has become so outlandishly melodramatic, what with the assassinations of the 1960’s, Vietnam, ghetto riots, and Watergate, mere fiction seems to pale by comparison. Echoing Mr. Gradgrind of Dicken’s Hard Times, today “facts are wanted”—hence the movement in so many instances of a novelist toward nonfiction, and of the wide popular appeal of journalistic novels which have no merit except presumably privileged information once available to the author.

Even more significant is the loss of security the novelist once felt assured of, even if he had to wait until he was dead for recognition. Quality would tell in art eventually, and journalism, even in its best form, was transient by definition. But there is no longer any assurance of enduring for posterity, Hoagland says, for novelists and short-story writers: standards of judgment change too quickly, and the world itself seems unlikely to continue without blowing itself up.

Hoagland’s reasons for switching forms, however, are probably somewhat different. For one thing, his style fits the essay better than it does the novel; it is comfortable, easy, and friendly yet not presumptuous, very fine in relatively short stretches. The longer pieces, though invariably interesting, tend to be repetitive and to lack the kind of dramatic structure and intensity that one would like in a novel. Moreover, Hoagland’s cast of mind is not combative or hortatory; he is not particularly concerned to win over converts to his way of thinking. He thinks of the essay as a form “rooted in middle-class civility,” one which presumes a set of shared assumptions between reader and writer. The reader is attending out of choice, and he is willing to make an effort, if it is called for, to meet the writer halfway—one might recall the origin in this connection of the word “essay” in the verb, “to try.”

There is a still more important reason for Hoagland’s choice of the essay form: the novel in the last generation, since World War II, has become the vehicle almost solely of irony and angst. “It’s a destructive time,” Hoagland says. The world is in a sorry state, and fictional heroes are either rebels or victims, dangling men in a landscape of nightmare. In the face of despair, however, Hoagland is unfashionably upbeat: bad attitudes can be changed for the better by one or two dedicated people; there are more things to be enthusiastic about than to cry over; life is at least acceptable.

But more than acceptable, life is good, and we only think it is bad because losing part of it—friends, family, pets—is so painful. It is a matter of balance between opposites, as is implied by the title of his book, Red Wolves and Black Bears. Wolves, we learn from Hoagland, are like people in society—they are social animals who establish conventions of manners in order to get along with one another. Bears, on the other hand, are of interest to most of us because they are “lumbering, churlish, and individual.” Their anatomy resembles ours, and their “piggishness and sleepiness and unsociability with each other,” Hoagland implies, also are all too familiar to each of us. The author’s detailed descriptions of black bears and red wolves and of the men who study them are the substrata on which the other essays rest. Contained within them is the resolution to the apparent paradox noted by Hoagland: how can he live in the city and in the wild at the same time? The answer is that he, like all of us, is a compound of the wolf’s sociability and the bear’s reclusiveness. Studying them, he is studying himself; reading about wolves and bears, we are reading about ourselves.

Hoagland’s attitude towards animals, accordingly, is that of an interested but unsentimental amateur; he is more interested in the people who devote their lives to studying the animals than he is in the animals themselves—Glynn Riley and his wolves and Lynn Rogers and his bears in particular. These men, and others such as the ninety-one-year-old ex-wolfer (wolf hunter) from Texas, are nineteenth century anachronisms: strong, self-reliant, solitary, like the mountain men and trappers of a time long past, and yet possessing a sense of reverence for nature that finds expression in deeds rather than in words. Hoagland sees it as his task to provide the words to explain these inarticulate but valuable men.

Optimism, energy, curiosity, and reverence for the inherent pattern of existence are themselves hallmarks of nineteenth century American transcendentalism, and there are many suggestions of Emerson and Thoreau in Hoagland’s essays. The fascination with fact and details, for example, which is so prominent in Thoreau’s Walden, is also present here. We learn that there is a mouse that points his nose to the sky and howls like a wolf; that the black bear concludes its year, before falling asleep for the coldest months, by putting a seal of licked fur and pine needles across its anus; that the Karankawa Indians, a vanished Gulf Coast tribe, used alligator grease to ward off mosquitoes; and that there were sixteen million deer in the United States in 1970, compared to 500,000 in 1910.

The ability of both animals and men to adapt to changing circumstances and even to triumph, as in the case of the deer, is a recurring theme in Hoagland, and an important reason for his Emersonian optimism. Initially one is taken aback by the Pollyanna quality of Hoagland’s enthusiasm for life—one may doubt that the wolf is truly “amused” by the anatomy of the deer, or that the rabbit is enjoying himself setting “puzzles” while it runs from the dogs. But optimism is a matter of perspective: evolution for Hoagland is not “some process of drowning beings clutching at straws” for the transient privilege of momentary survival—it is “a matter of days well-lived, chameleon strength, zappy sex, ... the whole fun of busy brain cells.” What is remarkable is how few people die in accidents or get cancer or are murdered. If Hoagland lived in Los Angeles, he would look at the freeways with their millions of cars, each one with hundreds of fragile parts and many driven by grumpy, tired, foolish people, and he would note how astonishing it is that the system works so well, not that it is occasionally congested or hazardous.

Order and pattern imply hierarchy, both in the transcendentalists and in Hoagland, and much of Hoagland’s nature writing deals with the hierarchies established in the wild—the relative amounts of territory claimed, rights of precedence in mating, and the like. It is the exceptional animal that Hoagland is drawn to most—the cannibal mouse, a cannibal from “verve,” not necessity, the lone newt that survived in a forgotten terrarium, radiating exuberant good health as he prowls among the bodies of his fellow newts, and the fiendishly clever Martha, a red wolf who eluded all hunters for years, and who when caught proved to be a male—heroic individuals all, these creatures stand out from the common herd.

Similarly, in writing about subjects outside of nature Hoagland is drawn to the unusual, the eccentric, and the heroic. The “low-water man,” for instance: a portly grandfather of seventy who likes to dive from forty-foot ladders into playpools filled with twelve inches of water. He survives by landing on his belly, and his ultimate goal is to land in a pool entirely empty of water. Gunther Gebel-Williams, the animal trainer, and the trapeze artist who went on to do her dangerous act the same day a horse bit off her finger, are still able to inspire Hoagland’s boyish admiration. We are in sore need of heroes, Hoagland says, and he writes with nostalgic insight about the New York Yankees of the 1940’s. The astronauts, brave and skilled though they are, do not excite the imagination as much as a “great, raunchy individualist explorer” like Cortez.

As noted earlier, Hoagland’s essays reward, as the author suggests, a consecutive reading, because a pattern is apparent. The pattern, it seems, is that of an emerging portrait of American society in the last stages of bearishness—churlish, unsociable, potentially and actively violent, an America in which the names of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Elliot Gould, Jimmy Connors, and Howard Hughes are household words. But already many of these have left the scene; and one is struck, reading this selection of essays by an avowed optimist, how drab and sullen we were as a people so recently, and how much the mood has changed for the better.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

Book World. May 16, 1976, p. 62.

New York Times. CXXV, July 7, 1976, p. 31.

Newsweek. LXXXVII, May 10, 1976, p. 108.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, March 22, 1976, p. 40.

Saturday Review. III, May 29, 1976, p. 35.

Time. CVII, May 3, 1976, p. 72.

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