Groping and Not Finding

Bob Wagner
Edward Hoagland, Bennington, Vermont, 2001

Sixty years have passed since the publication of Edward Hoagland’s first book, Cat Man, a novel that drew on his experience working with big cats in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Since then, he has written more than twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, essay collections and volumes of travel writing. The range of subjects he has addressed, with elegance and insight, is impressively wide: friendship and solitude, love and divorce, jury duty and circus clowns, literary fame and political assassination, the pain of personal humiliation, the challenges (and unexpected advantages) of having a severe stutter, the future of our cities, the threat of ecological disaster.

Hoagland’s novels take place in settings as disparate as a seedy hotel on the edge of Harlem (The Peacock’s Tail, 1965), boxing gyms in Manhattan and Boston (The Circle Home, 1960), and a humanitarian aid station in southern Sudan (Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse, 2013). He has reported from Alaska, Africa, Antarctica, and British Columbia, from the Deep South to the Far North, and has regularly returned to Manhattan and New England to describe how life there has changed over time.

Best known as a nature writer, he has greatly increased our knowledge of wilderness landscapes, and his fortunate readers have learned from him about wolves and bears, dogs, leopards, and mountain lions. In “The Courage of Turtles,” one of his most celebrated essays, Hoagland persuaded us that turtles have personalities and possibly even souls—without sentimentalizing or so anthropomorphizing them that they were no longer recognizable as the creatures we swerve to avoid on country roads or watch lumbering lugubriously around our children’s terrariums:

Baby turtles in a turtle bowl are a puzzle in geometrics. They’re as decorative as pansy petals, but they are also self-directed building blocks, propping themselves on one another in different arrangements, before upending the tower. The timid individuals turn fearless, or vice versa. If one gets a bit arrogant he will push the others off the rock and afterwards climb down into the water and cling to the back of one of those he has bullied, tickling him with his hind feet until he bucks like a bronco…. He sinks and rises, with an infinity of levels to choose from; or, elongating himself, he climbs onto the land again to perambulate, sits boxed in his box, and finally slides back into the water, submerging into dreams.

Among the striking aspects of Hoagland’s work have been the honesty and fearlessness with which he has discussed his own heartbreaks, mistakes, and failures, the clarity with which he has argued his nuanced, complex opinions, and the apparent effortlessness with which he has portrayed creatures and habitats for which a less observant writer or less gifted stylist might have trouble finding language. (Philip Roth called him “America’s most…

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