The Tugman's Passage

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2318

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...

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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 goes”), Hoagland makes the little coffee-sack-draped figure with the bare horny feet and a “small roach of a beard” come alive to the reader in all his Franciscan gentleness. The wealth of concrete and memorable detail about Johnny Appleseed leads Hoagland to the conclusion that the inevitable distortion of history seems to err too often on the side of violence. By singling out the braggarts and the killers and neglecting such selfless gentle creatures as Johnny, historians “underestimate the breadth of frontier experience, and leave us the poorer.”

In the title piece of the book, Hoagland once again visits Captain Artie Biagi of the Moran Towing Company, whom he introduced to his readers ten years earlier in an essay in The Courage of Turtles. Whenever Hoagland gets the Ishmael itch or the Huck Finn hankering, when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth” and it is “a damp, drizzly November” in his soul, if he does not set off for Vermont, he goes down to the sea for a day or two of the tugboat life. It is clear why the tugmen would particularly interest Hoagland, for they, like himself, have one foot in the city and the other in the wilderness and can move freely between the two. The essay is filled with vignettes and anecdotes of tugboat life as Hoagland immerses himself in the rituals of this small and special society of men. The appeal of the piece depends on the tension between the romanticism of the many exotic docking ships and the realism of the everyday activities of towing.

When Hoagland heads for Vermont, he excels in his detailed descriptions of the activities of animals and the effects of seasonal changes. Focusing on bobcats and bears in “Mountain Notch,” he projects himself into their lives in a manner that suggests a Thoreauvian sympathy with them. Describing a rotted log mauled by a bear in search of ants, he says, “if I have gotten just muzzy-headed enough . . . and lean over a bashed log, I find myself experiencing some of the same hungry, busy, humdrum interest in what is there that the bear must have felt.”

The best essay in the collection to spring from Hoagland’s Vermont home, one that nicely blends descriptions of nature with meditations that arise from them, is “The Ridge-Slope Fox and the Knife Thrower,” a piece that originated with a New York editor’s request for an article on the “invigorating effects of silence.” The essay weaves together detail, meditation, and memory to focus on Hoagland’s loneliness. “Solitude is not a plaything,” he says, and he offers examples of the disastrous effects of loneliness on the human mind. He talks of the knife-thrower in a circus sideshow he once saw as a child, who seemed to suggest a paradox in his ability to shift from sadistic threat to solicitous concern, and he talks of the ridge-slope fox, also paradoxical in his slippery role as hunter and his sad role as provider: “I may miss seeing the ridge-slope fox, but glimpsed him last year with a tattered chipmunk drooping like a cigar from his mouth, tired and angling toward home. . . .” The essay, one of the longest in the collection, is rather aimless overall but still manages to be all of a piece, with Hoagland’s mind, memories, and meditation constituting the glue that holds it together.

In such travel articles as “African Ramble” and “Cairo Observed,” Hoagland is able to make that tired old genre, the travel article, seem vital again, even though in “African Ramble,” the chief danger to be faced is no longer Ernest Hemingway’s charging buffalo but rather the real and bureaucratic roadblocks that make up the modern social and political jungle of Kenya and Tanzania. The best and longest of the travel pieces is the one on Cairo—best because it does what Hoagland does best, evoking the concrete feel of a culture. Although much of this piece concerns the general problems of Egyptian foreign and domestic policy, its most arresting elements are the sensuous and sometimes grotesque details, as when Hoagland describes a street-side butcher stewing meat in a black pot, who “cuts an animal’s gums loose from its skull, and, putting his mouth to the goat’s or cow’s mouth, blows very hard, till the cheeks balloon free of the bones. . . .” Cairo, a city pushing toward a population of eight million, faces the threat of famine looming in the future, and Hoagland conveys quite vividly the “thronging, the feeling of all humanity precariously rushing by.”

The final forty pages of The Tugman’s Passage, under the heading “A Year as It Turns,” consist of thirty unsigned editorials, mostly from The New York Times, in which Hoagland has taken up a publishing tradition from Hal Borland, who has done these pieces since the 1940’s. Most of these editorials, running from 250 to 300 words each, focus on events, seasons, thoughts, and nature descriptions in which Hoagland talks primarily about himself, in the guise of “a man we know.” For example, in one he talks about “a man we know” who stutters. Hoagland has written before about his stuttering, a speech impediment which he says he contracted as if by sympathetic magic at the age of six because he mocked another boy who stuttered. It is the stutter, he says in another place, that constitutes the “vocal handcuffs” which made him a “desperate, devoted writer at twenty.” In these editorials, Hoagland writes about walking the domestic dog who, in rooting for remnants in the gutters, keeps one aware of the need for looking for irregularities. He writes of the significant loss of Emmett Kelly’s sad clown—of the lost image of the tramp in American culture. He writes of a visit to a country fair, the coming of spring, the endurance of nature, and the relative merits of city people and country folk.

It is fairly easy to discern the literary sources from whence Hoagland has sprung, for it is the longing for Walden of which he reeks, and his essays on the tugs of New York harbor are resonant of Mark Twain’s pieces on the steamboats of the Mississippi. Hoagland maintains the faltering tradition of the personal essay and presents himself not as a man of letters but as a Whitmanesque man of the people—maintaining both a city life and a country life, while equally involved with and inevitably disengaged from both. It is easy to understand the popularity of a writer who revels in the natural world in a society that revels in natural foods and the conservation of natural preserves which are slowly but surely being encroached upon by city asphalt. He appeals to a nostalgia for a simpler life, even as he reveals the paradoxees of the modern world; and the students who carried Thoreau’s Walden (1854) in their knapsacks in the 1960’s, now that they have reached the solid middle class, may be reassured by Hoagland that in a transcendental way, the natural world is still filled with symbolic significance. Hoagland is now becoming something of an institution, for he frequently appears in that last bastion of the old-fashioned essay form, the freshman rhetoric anthology, and his essays are used to illustrate a naturalistic personal style and to teach rhetorical modes.

It is harder to see where Hoagland is going than where he has come from and where he now is. In two short essays in The Tugman’s Passage—“Being Between Books” and “The Fragile Writer”—he meditates, as professional writers are prone to do, on his profession. He ponders the contrast between the imaginary worlds of writers and the real life in which they bumble about, and he worries about “retiring” to public life as many modern writers have done, making the parties, the talk shows, and the interviews. Nevertheless, Hoagland seems to hold out the hope that a book will seize his imagination as one never has before, “that his tongue will finally be able to speak freely, as never before.” People who, in a computer and video age, still love good prose should watch Edward Hoagland, for the future of prose and print may depend on writers who can speak as freely as he does.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

Christian Science Monitor. March 17, 1982, p. 17.

Horn Book. LVIII, August, 1982, p. 443.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 639.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 21, 1982, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LVIII, April 26, 1982, p. 143.

Newsweek. XCIX, January 29, 1982, p. 72.

Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 64.

Sewanee Review. XC, October, 1982, p. R109.

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