Nonfiction is more popular in the publishing marketplace today than fiction, as any perusal of both slick magazines and quality periodicals will quickly reveal. The reasons range from the usurpation of many of the functions of popular fiction by television and motion pictures to the demand of an increasingly high-tech society for facts and more facts. The nonfiction article that attempts to provide readers with the facts about the complex world in which they live is not, however, to be confused with the somewhat old-fashioned form known as the “essay”—a form which Edward Hoagland has made his own. Unlike the article, the essay as it was developed by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 and soon after was practiced by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century and by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the eighteenth century, makes no concentrated effort to provide the reader with facts. As Montaigne coined the noun essai, he meant it to suggest (with the accent on the second syllable) a process of exploring and testing. The emphasis was less on the facts of the matter than on the manner of the essay or exploration of the subject. Almost any subject would serve, as long as it was essayed in such a way as to reveal the essayist’s thought and self.
As Edward Hoagland writes in one of his pieces in this, his fourth essay collection, essays “hang somewhere on a line between two sturdy poles: this is what I think, and this is what I am. . . . A personal essay is like the human voice talking, its order the mind’s natural flow, instead of a systematized outline of ideas.” Indeed, this is the classic notion of the essay as espoused by Montaigne when he said that if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays but decisions, and as later defined by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language as an irregular and indigested piece rather than a formal composition.
The emphasis of the essay, says Hoagland, is upon mind speaking to mind—a fact that makes essays less universal in appeal than fiction. Why, then, would a modern writer specialize in such a form? Hoagland published three novels early in his career; the first one, Cat Man, written while he was in his twenties and still at Harvard, won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award in 1956. In the following ten years, he wrote two more novels, a few stories, and an essay or two before turning completely to nonfiction with the publication in 1969 of his first travel book, Notes from the Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia. Since then, he has published more than a hundred essays in such periodicals as Harper’s, The Village Voice, The Atlantic, and Commentary, many of them collected in The Courage of Turtles (1970), Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973), Red Wolves and Black Bears (1976), and now The Tugman’s Passage. He has been praised by his fellows as a journalist, a naturalist, a travel writer, and, in the opinion of many, the best essayist now writing in America.
Although the essayist, as Montaigne once suggested, usually lets fortune supply him with subjects, since they are all equally good and “every action is fit to make us known,” Hoagland describes his primary turf in an essay in The Courage of Turtles entitled “Home Is Two Places.” The two places are his apartment in Greenwich Village and his second home, secluded in the mountains of Vermont; indeed the essays in this collection roughly divide themselves between city thoughts and country details, with some travel pieces about Africa and the Middle East included. The essays thus deal primarily with personal history and natural history, with some social history in the travel pieces worked up to slake the public thirst for information and ideology.
The essays here also divide themselves, as essays usually do, between detail and generality, between the specificity of items and the abstractness of ideas, with one or the other often predominating. In the best pieces, such as “The Ridge-Slope Fox and the Knife Thrower,” the two aspects balance out well. Hoagland is better when observing and detailing in the manner of Henry David Thoreau, in such pieces as the title essay and “Mountain Notch,” than when he attempts abstraction, as in “Bicentennial Palaver” and “Women and Men.” In the Bicentennial piece, he wanders too aimlessly even for a personal essay, from meditations on divorce and the need to start a new life at forty—at best a “salvage operation”—to urging politicians to enunciate publicly the paradoxes of the country. In “Women and Men,” he wonders about the women’s movement and considers the much-discussed question of equal rights versus the ideal of androgyny, only to conclude rather predictably by suggesting that a truce in the war of the sexes may be forthcoming.
Hoagland is at his most interesting when he tries to reassess, from the comfort of his study, the career of his own favorite folk hero, Johnny Apple-seed, or when in the busy bustle of New York Harbor, he creates new candidates for folk heroes in “the Knights and Squires” of the tugmen.
In his essay on Johnny Appleseed (“Mushpan Man”), Hoagland does a reclamation job, redeeming John Chapman from the Disneyesque limbo of children’s books to represent him as a genuine rather than a mythic hero. His emphasis in the essay is on the importance of the gentle rather than the gigantic heroes such as Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, and John Henry. Weaving together facts (“what we know”) about Chapman and myths (“as the story...
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