Red Wolves and Black Bears
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...
(The entire section is 1931 words.)