Edward Hoagland sees the writer’s job as “to swim upstream,” to “unearth ideas that have been laid aside, reaffirm the unfashionable” (“Bicentennial Palaver,” 1982). It is his job, certainly: he writes about subjects ranging from turtles (“The Courage of Turtles,” 1985) to tiger-trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams (“Tiger Bright,” 1970), from a county fair (“Americana, Etc.,” 1985), to New York City (“The Problem of the Golden Rule,” 1985).
Hoagland writes about the disappearing wilderness, of trains and of tugboats. He writes of bear tracks, boxers, and carousels—and of his own marital infidelities and peccadilloes.
Regardless of his subject, for Hoagland the essay is a performance, something of a celebration, yet also “like the human voice talking” (“What I Think, What I Am,” 1982).
In his essays Hoagland notes that he stutters and characterizes himself as being in “vocal handcuffs” (“The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain,” 1985); “I strangle,” he notes in “The Problem of the Golden Rule” (1985). The man speaks only with difficulty.
In the tradition of Montaigne, Hoagland’s essays are replete with multiplicity and variation; they proceed associatively. Often they are arranged around two contrasting subjects: men and women, the city and the country, lions and tigers, solitude and company. These seemingly opposing but complementary points of departure provide him with a framework within which he can digress—tacking contrapuntally, moving laterally and tangentially. His essays end with varying degrees of closure, often via metaphor and story, sometimes with the effect of Hoagland ending the essay ex machina. He has accurately declared himself “a rhapsodist” (“Walking the Dead Diamond River,” 1970), and his essays evince a certain enthusiasm, an inclusive spirit, and a sheer joy in language.
A significant manifestation of this joy are his metaphors: “Turtles are birds with the governor turned low” (“The Courage of Turtles”), or Hoagland’s analogy noting that tigers “smell like rye bread smeared with Roquefort cheese” (“Tiger Bright”). He speaks in multiples, as in “wolf pups make a frothy ribbon of sound like fat bubbling, a shiny, witchy, fluttering yapping” (“Howling Back at the Wolves,” 1983). The metaphors suggest the variety within his subject: “Turtles cough, burp, whistle, grunt and hiss, and pronounce social judgments” (“The Courage of Turtles”). Often he includes a paragraphlong list as a means to suggest multiplicity. He improvises with language, noting that when the temperature drops, mud is “architectured into shape” (“Walking the Dead Diamond River”); mountain lions play a “game of noses-andpaws” (“Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” 1970).
Hoagland has characterized the essayist as being “like an infielder in baseball. He performs a lot, making the pretty throw to first” (“On Being Between Books,” 1982).
This essayist is not the writer who hits home runs, who scores points, but one who essays on occasion. The performer, the “artful ‘I’” of the essay can be a “chameleon” (“What I Think, What I Am”). In an interview Hoagland has noted that essays are “more the province of middle-aged writers” who are “cannier, less truthful” (Robert Smith, 1982).
Trust the essay, not the essayist. It may well be that Hoagland would like the essayist to be kin to what he sees as the ideal politician, who “should not be many things to different people but many things within himself” (“Bicentennial Palaver,” 1976).
Hoagland’s abundance does not reduce well or easily; nor is it intended to. In “What I Think, What I Am” he notes that essays “don’t usually boil down to a summary” and contrasts the essay with the story, which plays upon the reader’s empathy. An essay is a matter of “mind speaking to mind” and while lurking in the essay is “a point which is its real center,” that point “couldn’t be uttered in fewer words than the essayist has used” (“What I Think, What I Am”). Hoagland locates the essay “hang[ing] somewhere on a line between two sturdy poles: this is what I think and this is what I am.” His observations on the style of the essay apply to his own: it “has a’nap’ to it, a combination of personality and originality and energetic loose ends that stand up like the nap on a piece of wool and can’t be brushed flat.” Hoagland describes the essay in metaphors: “Essays belong to the animal kingdom, with a surface that generates sparks, like a coat of fur” (“What I Think, What I Am”). It is a live and lively genre.
For Hoagland the essay is an armchair genre but one that makes demands upon the reader. He assumes a literate reader, his essays being addressed “to an educated, perhaps middleclass reader, with certain presuppositions, a frame of reference, even a civility that is shared” (“What I Think, What I Am”). Following the movement of the essayist’s mind does not make for easy reading; Hoagland says reading “is like swimming described in the Greek epics” (“Books, Movies, the News,” 1985) in which Odysseus had to contend with a variety of oceanic conditions. So too does the reader with Hoagland’s essays, contending with his range of subjects, metaphors, lists, stories, wordplay, and celebration of his private quirks and foibles. Although he cannot otherwise speak with ease, Edward Hoagland’s essays manifest a celebration of the possibilities of language.
See also Nature Essay
Edward Morley Hoagland. Born 21 December 1932 in New York City. Studied at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1950–54, A.B., 1954. Served in the U.S. Army, 1955–57. Married Amy Ferrara, 1960 (divorced, 1964). Taught at various American colleges and universities, including the New School for Social Research, New York, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, City University of New York,
Columbia University, New York, Bennington College, Vermont, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of California, Davis, 1963–91. Married Marion Magid, 1968 (died, 1993): one daughter. Editorial writer, the New York Times, 1979–89; contributor to various other newspapers, journals, and magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly, Village Voice, New England Review, Sports Illustrated, New Yorker,
Esquire, and Transatlantic Review. General editor, Penguin Nature Library, from 1985.
Awards: many, including several fellowships; Longview Foundation Award, 1961;
O.Henry Award, 1971; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1979; Vursell Award, 1981;
New York Public Library Literary Lion Award, 1988; National Magazine Award, 1989.
Member, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1982.
Essays and Related Prose
The Courage of Turtles: Fifteen Essays About Compassion, Pain, and Love, 1971
Walking the Dead Diamond River, 1973
The Moose on the Wall: Field Notes from the Vermont Wilderness, 1974
Red Wolves and Black Bears, 1976
The Edward Hoagland Reader, edited by Geoffrey Wolff, 1979
The Tugman’s Passage, 1982
The Courage of Turtles, 1985
Heart’s Desire: The Best of Edward Hoagland, 1988
Balancing Acts, 1992
Other writings: four novels (Cat Man, 1956; The Circle Home, 1960; The Peacock’s Tail, 1965; Seven Rivers West, 1987), a collection of short stories (The Final Fate of the Alligators, 1992), and two travel books (African Calliope, 1979; Notes from the Century
Before: A Journal from British Columbia, 1982).
Engel, Sandra, Yourself a Little Change: Reading Edward Hoagland (dissertation), Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1992
Smith, Robert, “From Harvard to the Big Top and Beyond,” Book World, 28 February 1982:6–7
Strenski, Ellen, “Foreign Correspondent in the Wild Kingdom: The Essays of Edward Hoagland,” Commonweal 4 (August 1978): 500–03
Tropp, Sandra Fehl, “Edward Hoagland,” in her Shaping Tradition: Art and Diversity in the Essay, Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992:548–51
Wolff, Geoffrey, Introduction to The Edward Hoagland Reader, New York: Vintage, 1979: ix–xxx
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