Life Is an Ecstasy’

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.

The late style of Hoagland’s essays features long paragraphs that minimize transition; each new paragraph can seem to begin the piece afresh. Time zigzags between past and present in a single sentence:

Giraffes licked salt off my cheeks when I worked in the circus at eighteen and discovered that sweat often coexists with pleasure but that everything should be seen as temporary, with regard to place and glee and colleagues, except I was going to love elephants at a throbbing level as long as I lived.

This unitary vision of time posed a problem for his 2001 autobiography Compass Points, because we expect more of a narrative arc in memoirs. An essay can better accommodate the skipping from one topic to the other. The manner is reminiscent of Montaigne’s last essays, such as “Of Experience”; and, like Montaigne, Hoagland now feels he has wisdom to offer, and he is not shy about dispensing it.

Three kinds of counsel are offered here: the first is drawn from his lifelong experience (the necessity, for instance, “to do no harm and to bear witness”) and is no less true for being bromidic. The second derives from his deep knowledge of the natural world and informed assessments of the coming ecological threat. The third consists of scattershot jeremiads on the way we live now, such as “our secularism powers our recent obsession with longevity, hypochondria, and the like. If there is no afterlife, by all means go for the Prozac, Viagra, Botox.” Side by side with such tiresome crochets, there are passages in these late essays as good as any Hoagland ever wrote; the difficulty is sorting the deep from the superficial.

Hoagland seems in many ways a writer of the previous, Mailer generation, by virtue of his romanticizing those engaged in manly pursuits, such as prizefighters, trappers, circus workers, and newspapermen, his distrust of the academy, and his tendency to portray women as succoring nurses and ministering sexual angels. In these late essays, he observes himself exchanging the role of randy adventurer for benign protector:

A damsel in distress was a powerful image to my generation….For a long-in-tooth male, the next best thing to sleeping with a much younger woman is to protect her from the machinations of men of her own age.

Reflecting on the persistence of mental libido in the waning years, he wonders if he can still exert attraction. “Everybody wants to flee from a dying man, but for the preceding dozen years or more he may exude a certain twilight, or candlelit appeal.” Dreaming of one more sexual adventure, he ruefully admits:

My memories are so tangled with the gristle of life that if I try to replay scenes of lovemaking with one of the women I have genuinely loved, it swiftly ramifies into the complexities of the entire relationship—the sadness, the disconnects. The sex in the package cannot be extricated from the stymieing cowardice or passivity, the misperceptions that diluted our passion.

In the essay “Curtain Calls,” he phones up his old girlfriends and asks them if they harbor any bad feelings toward him. Was he too stingy when they parted in Istanbul’s airport in 1965? he asks an Englishwoman. She laughs and says, no, the problem was not money but that he hadn’t wished to marry her. In the title essay, we find him asking himself: “Why, I wonder, wasn’t sex the best during my marriages, but rather on the sly? Or rotating that around: when and where it was the best, why didn’t we simply get married?” There is a sort of naive bafflement about human relations that he does not want to give up. Resisting psychotherapy, he is left to ponder the mystery of his “selfishness, obtuseness, and ‘fear and trembling’ nevertheless.”

Though he insists that “I was not really somebody who ‘liked animals more than people,’” Hoagland scrutinizes himself and others more tentatively than he does the animals he describes. Consider this passage from his famous essay “The Courage of Turtles”:

Turtles cough, burp, whistle, grunt and hiss, and produce social judgments. They put their heads together amicably enough, but then one drives the other back with the suddenness of two dogs who have been conversing in tones too low for an onlooker to hear. They pee in fear when they’re first caught, but exercise both pluck and optimism in trying to escape, walking for hundreds of yards within the confines of their pen, carrying the weight of that cumbersome box on legs which are cruelly positioned for walking. They don’t feel that the contest is unfair; they keep plugging, like sailorly souls—a bobbing, infirm gait, a brave, sea-legged momentum—stopping occasionally to study the lay of the land.

The persevering turtle can also be seen as a foreglimpse of the author himself in old age.

In one of his surprising shifts of topic, Hoagland deserts his ruminations on lust, which had threatened to bog down the essay in uncomfortably old-fashioned sexual attitudes, for an utterly charming digression about a visit to his grandchild. He alternates between watching the lordly Hudson River on the train ride down and feeling comically obliged to read every section of the newspaper. He thinks of his newborn grandson, with pleasure, as a “reddish, wriggily, and gloriously amphibious creature,” closer to the river world than his fellow passengers.

The wounded, lamed soul alluded to earlier has given way to a new benevolence. In his preface to the 1992 story collection The Final Fate of the Alligators, Hoagland wrote that “writers do tend to turn bitter. In fact I can’t recall ever meeting a middle-aged writer who wasn’t somewhat bitter.” Twenty years later, he seems to have surmounted the feeling:

Many people, who may seem rather bitter in middle age, by seventy are mainly grateful for having lived, willy-nilly, though quite round-shouldered from having rolled with the punches, and reticently proud of that.

It is as a grandfather that he seems finally comfortable and at peace with himself: no more running away, ambivalence, “stymieing cowardice.”

A profession of contentment is a risk for any personal essayist: in a form so dependent on a tense relation to the self, such benign sentiments can verge on self-satisfaction; and indeed there are some passages here that sound like quiet boasting. But since Hoagland has always excelled at candor, we may give him the benefit of the doubt that he is simply being honest about having achieved fulfillment.

In a summarizing passage that modulates between good and bad news, he tries to balance the debilities of aging with the rewards of understanding:

Loving the earth as it has been, I’ve believed that heaven is here and the only heaven we have. Perhaps the apprehensiveness old fogies like me feel is not just garden-variety regret at losing former niceties. Yet inconsolable old folks don’t last long. A seesaw of fret and equanimity serves them better. Old age is like being posted to a foreign country, where you drop and lose things, misplace names and insights, can’t read signage others are guided by…. Live with a smile even if you can’t spot birds other people are talking about—you’ve seen them countless times in the past—or are remembering generosities you didn’t appreciate sufficiently when your benefactor was alive.

Gratitude has the final word. Edward Hoagland may well live and write for another decade at least, in which case he may have to develop another subject than the curtain descending. For now, it’s good to have this courageous account of a first-rate essayist contemplating the landscape of old age and mortality.

  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.