Sex and the River Styx
by Edward Hoagland
Chelsea Green, 247 pp., $27.50
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 …