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Life Is an Ecstasy’

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Bob Wagner
Edward Hoagland, Bennington, Vermont, 2001

There is probably no essayist today who has earned more respect from his peers and fellow practitioners than Edward Hoagland. John Updike called him “the best essayist of my generation,” Philip Roth said he was “America’s most intelligent and wide-ranging essayist-naturalist,” and Joyce Carol Oates described him evocatively as “our Chopin of the genre.” It may have cost these famous novelists little to crown him king of what they may think a lesser genre; but he has also been a model for younger environmental writers, such as Gretel Ehrlich, Bill McKibben, and Scott Russell Sanders.

A novelist or poet of his accomplishments would be receiving lengthy career assessments and White House invitations at this point in his career, whereas Hoagland’s books are now consigned to small presses and a smattering of reviews. True, he is a most peculiar writer, an intricate stylist whose prose seems rooted in a tradition that resists speed-reading, and who has obstinately staked out two territories, the ruminative (as opposed to the narrative) personal essay and nature writing, which are among the least commercially catching. There is something very moving about a master personal essayist continuing to articulate the challenges of life right up to the end, no matter what size the readership.

Since Hoagland draws unreservedly on his own life, even his most casual readers will be familiar with it. He was born in 1932 in New York City; when he was eight his family moved to rural Connecticut and he was free to roam outdoors. His father—a straitlaced, bigoted Republican lawyer, who canceled his subscription to the Metropolitan Opera after the black contralto Marian Anderson sang there, and would later disinherit his two children when they got divorced—provided an ideal target for rebellion.

Partly under the stress of this disapproving parent, Hoagland developed a serious stutter, which would influence his loner personality and career choices: “A stutter pushes you to the margins anyhow. How will you land a teaching job, a chance in journalism, or simply chat up an intriguing person at a party?” He went to Harvard, and worked summers in the circus, where he tended the lions, tigers, and other beasts. The circus would provide the milieu for his first novel, Cat Man (1955), published when he was only twenty-two. He served in the army, worked briefly in a morgue, and acquired the kind of résumé that novelists used to have before there were MFA programs.

Hoagland had dreamed of being a fiction writer, but after publishing three early novels, “in my thirties I realized my aptitudes were better suited to essay writing.” He’s at his best not when telling a conventional story but when he circles a subject from many vantage points, teasing and digressing, piling up gorgeously angled syntaxes and frank admissions while frustrating tidy conclusions—hallmarks of a true essayist. He began to have success placing essays in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Sports Illustrated. He had a remarkable talent for describing animals, which led to classic pieces on turtles, black bears, cows, and red wolves. He commented wryly on his affinity for animals and his urge to defend endangered species in a passage from the beautiful 1974 essay “Lament the Red Wolf”:

The most vivid observation to be made about animal enthusiasts—both the professionals who work in the field and, in particular, the amateurs—is that they are split between the rosiest, well-adjusted sort of souls and the wounded and lame. (More professionals are rosy, more amateurs are lame.) Animals used to provide a lowlife way to kill and get away with it, as they do still, but, more intriguingly, for some people they are an aperture through which wounds drain. The scapegoat of olden times, driven off for the bystanders’ sins, has become a tender thing, a running injury. There, running away—save it, save it—is me: hurt it and you are hurting me.*

Hoagland went periodically on the road and wrote excellent accounts of travel in British Columbia and Africa. Women captivated him: having discovered that they were more tolerant of his stutter, seeing it as a charming vulnerability, he consequently stuttered less around them. Eventually he learned to control the speech defect enough to teach writing and literature in a half-dozen universities. In the meantime he went through two marriages and many affairs. His second marriage, to Marion Magid, an editor at Commentary, produced his daughter Molly and lasted for twenty-five years.

In the 1980s he felt impelled to move out of the city to be closer to nature: he now divides his time between Martha’s Vineyard and Vermont, where he lives a third of the year alone in the woods without electricity. During his sixties he went partially blind, depressing him to the point of contemplating suicide; fortunately, he found a surgeon who was able to restore his sight. Hoagland continues to publish contemplative essays in places like Harper’s and The American Scholar.

An assortment of pieces from recent years forms his new essay collection (his tenth), Sex and the River Styx, a book held together by persistent burrowing around in the themes of old age, dying, ecstasy, balance, and the fate of the planet. Hoagland, approaching eighty, has been moved to take stock of his past behavior, to ready himself for the end of life, and to contemplate what sort of world will outlive him. Searching his conscience, he locates “no indelibly shameful acts.” He has seen enough places. “Death will save me from witnessing the drowned polar bears, smashed elephant herds, wilting frog populations, squashed primate refuges.” Being a firm believer in the nitrogen cycle, Hoagland welcomes the chance for the worms to have at him. But if that is the long view, he wonders, then why does he still brood about past mistakes, lapsed friendships, failed marriages, ex-lovers? Why “care so much about the moral timbre of the life I’ve led?”

The opening essay, “Small Silences,” is a superb demonstration of Hoagland at his most appealing. He begins with lyrical recollections of his childhood move to Connecticut during World War II and the discovery of the pond. “‘I’m going to the pond,’ I’d say casually to my mother; then dodge carefully past” the neighbor’s servant

toward the trillium and columbine, the toadstools and fairy-ring mushrooms, the nematodes and myriapods, the blueberries or blackberries, near the opaque yet shiny stretch of hidden water, deep here, shallow there, with the wind ruffling the surface to conceal such factual matters, and cold at its inlet but warm where it fed into a creek that ran to the Silvermine River and finally the ocean.

This characteristic sentence takes the reader into a forest of sensory description, with the names of flora and fauna listed for the sheer joy of it, and then scoots off in a surprising conclusion:

I’d lie on my back on a patch of moss watching a swaying poplar’s branches interlace with another’s, and the tremulous leaves vibrate, and the clouds forgather to parade zoologically overhead, and felt linked to the whole matrix, as you either do or you don’t through the rest of your life.

The key word here is “linked”: the author sees himself as a latter-day American Transcendentalist, sensing a rapturous immanent connection between all living things. Nature, he says, “speaks in terms of glee. Glee is like the froth on beer or cocoa.” He keeps wondering about the evolutionary function of joy: “But what explains the elation, exuberance—this surplus snap of well-being that animals as well as naturalists feel?” This insistence on ebullience as the thread that holds together Creation is essential as an optimistic counterweight to the gloomy bad news about nature’s potential demise.

The defect of much environmental writing in our time is its self-righteousness and solemnity, its general shortage of humor, irony, wit. Regardless of how dire the situation may be and how correct are those sounding the alarm, their warnings do not often make for good prose. Hoagland does not want to be a scold—or only a scold. Lamenting the extinction of so many species in one generation, he recognizes that not everyone sees this or cares:

But the survival of wild places and wild things, like the permanence of noteworthy architecture, or the opera, or a multiplicity of languages, or old shade trees in old neighborhoods, is not a priority for most people.

His own method of observation is very precise:

Nature is nuance, like firefly sparks and foxfire light, not bullet-train scenery. Half a dozen cedar waxwings perched side by side on a branch will pass a wild cherry back and forth along the row before one of them finally, decorously eats it.

He asks, “Who is going to notice all this stuff? And yet if people don’t, it will just vanish faster.” Elsewhere in the book he says, “I’m ready for somebody else to take a turn at doing the observing and let me join that black-and-yellow salamander under the log to wait out the emergencies.” But the disappearance of nature lore as common knowledge is disturbing: “To lose moonlight, and compass placement, and grasshoppers telling us the temperature by the intensity of their sound, poses the question of whether we can safely do away with everything else.”

Following on the theme of interconnectedness and responsibility for all living creatures is the essay “Visiting Norah.” Hoagland, who has been sending small sums of money to a grandmother and five orphans in Kampala, Uganda, now decides to meet the family and get to know them. As expected, everyone sees him as a rich American and tries to put the touch on him; but he gets a clearer picture of the struggles they are up against, as well as their resourcefulness. Hoagland has felt drawn to visit China, India, and other parts of the third world not only out of curiosity, but to counter the mistakes of the US government, with whose foreign policy he is profoundly at odds. He calls himself a radical dissident who has widened his “allegiances beyond socialism toward Creation as a larger whole: salamanders, beech trees, not just autoworkers.” His travels have an underlying, if bleak, motive:

I want to work out toward the brink of what I think is going to happen—the widespread death of nature, the approaching holocaust of famines, while Westerners retreat in veiled panic into what they prefer to regard as the realer world of cyberspace.

For all his global travel, Hoagland remains culturally all-American. He did not share the vogue for existential pessimism during the 1950s:

I’d realized World War II had validated Kafka and Camus as my classmates’ heartthrobs, but was instead a Whitman fan during the 1950s and ever after, loving every metropolis I encountered as well as the thunderous surf, the rolling landscape.

Unlike many nature writers, he continues to be a passionate lover of cities. Hoagland sees himself as following in the footsteps of Emerson and Thoreau. In a tender earlier essay he singled out Thoreau’s “playful exactitude” and his “gadfly” dissents. But in this current collection Emerson is cited more often, as inspiration for the conviction that “life is an ecstasy,” and perhaps also accounts for the author’s packed, peristaltic sentences.

  1. *

    See Heart’s Desire: The Best of Edward Hoagland (Summit, 1988)—a collection of greatest hits, and probably still the best place to start reading this author. 

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