Literature is one of the few places left for savoring the gifts of maturity; in this vein, the musings and conclusions of Edward Hoagland, long-time essayist, must not be missed. Hoagland has traveled widely—the essays in this book take the reader to Africa, Asia, and the American West—but he is also the kind of observer who dives deep into a moment, observing in minute and ecstatic detail the life around him.
For Hoagland, now nearly eighty, aging "is not a serene occupation." In this collection he reflects on his life and loves, principal among them his great love for nature, and his perspective on the technological, environmental, and human problems the world faces. His vision is not optimistic: he anticipates "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." He's frank about his own mortality: he'd rather not be around for the world's demise, but he's not without humor either. When death comes, "The politics will be less rancid, my dentistry at an end, and the TV off."
The ecstasy that Hoagland observes in nature is here in large measure, in both the delightful content of his observations, and the rich, multi-layered, half-wild quality of his prose. While he claims to be tired of elegy, these essays are nothing if not finely wrought examples that linger on the beauty of the beloved. Hoagland himself, happy, modest, and affectionate, is a companionable guide, and his worries are humanely articulated. Nature is a source of such joy and empathy, he notes, that surely humans are meant to be part of a larger community. When birds "arrow overhead…part of us exults, much as marbling of a moonlit sky or the scent of cedar trees uplifts our mood. This wider span of responsiveness indicates affinities we haven't catalogued." His honest and sympathetic voice rambles over politics, too, in a remarkable essay on "The American Dissident," and, as the collection's title indicates, sex and death.
Accomplished and prolific—with over twenty books to his name—Hoagland provides a view both historical and wise. This book will be a fitting addition to any public or private collection of his work, or a good place to start reading him. His considered and considerable gifts are an important facet of American thought, poised as we are on the verge of further loss.
Sex and the River Styx - The EBooks Review - April 29, 2011
This is a collection of 13 essays by Edward Hoagland, who now resides in what is called the “Northeast Kingdom” of Vermont. A cold country for a man who says that he has already exceeded his biblically allotted three score and ten years. When his by-line surfaces in the Washington Post, I always make sure I read his column since I was duly impressed with a previous work, African Calliope which is on the Sudan. So, when this work appeared in the Vine newsletter, I hit: “Please send me a copy.”
The themes in these essays are environmentalism and the natural world, the ageing process and making a “graceful exit,” a man’s relationships with “the other half,” and travels to the remoter regions of our shrinking globe. His vocabulary is impressive, and his best writing can be poetry in prose format.
A wordsmith, he is. How can I look at my two cats without recalling his description of the animals foot loose and fancy free: “… the infinity of unlobotomized animal species…” or speaking of Rwandans, and their “…acid bath of hatred…” or, “…it seems unseemly to ignore our natural shelf life…”or, “John Muir could save Yosemite Valley and Rachel Carson reduce the use of DDT with eloquent polemics– but they were cap-gun battles compared to the tsunamic changes now under way.
It helps too when you can relate to a man who: “But I was a two-lane-highway man who drove with the windows down… ” and who believes in the importance of “old shade trees in old neighborhoods…” The essay, “The American Dissent” provided a sardonic view of the editorial concerns at the New York Times, “…which whatever you wrote might sound anemic in a decade and bloodless in a generation.” But within the page, in his impressionistic and importantly moral style, he proposes, as few others have: “And can you imagine the three enlisted men in the Army helicopter who interrupted the My Lai massacre at gunpoint…receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism, instead of a quarter century of official silence?”
This retrospective collection of essays by Edward Hoagland is full of energy even though the author is approaching what he describes as "geezerhood." In its page, he writes about Tibetan yak herders, Ugandan AIDs victims, "the labyrinth of giddy valleys" in Arunchal Pradesh, circus aerialists, and (in the title essay) his own inevitable end. Here I might add that Hoagland is far sadder about the destruction of the earth's ecosystems than he is about his own destruction. "Death," he writes, "will save me from witnessing drowned polar bears and wilting frog populations...
Sex and the River Styx, by Edward Hoagland ’54 (Chelsea Green, $27.50; $17.95 paper). This tenth collection of essays (and that’s but half his output) finds the author again exploring subjects from his interior state of mind to the world’s wild places and people, from a more aged perspective: “There’s a flutter to society now, a tremulousness,” one piece begins.
If you're an omnivorous reader, you've probably noticed a shortage of essay collections at the library or bookstore. One of our best essayists -- his output fills nine books -- John Updike, died in January 2009. I haven't seen much output from Gore Vidal these days.
He's still active, I believe, and -- although I don't agree with a lot of his views, he's one of our literary lions and a major essayist. Norman Mailer: gone, died in 2007.
Take heart, there is still Edward Hoagland, represented in his new collection, with an introduction by Howard Frank Mosher, "Sex and the River Styx" (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 272 pages, $17.95). Often typecast as a nature essayist -- a modern incarnation of Henry David Thoreau -- Hoagland's range is much wider, with the collection containing thirteen linked essays exploring his childhood wandering in the woods in rural connecticut, his days as a circus worker, chronicled in detail in "Cat Man," one of his more than twenty books; his experience visiting the Ugandan family he has been assisting with monthly cash contributions, and, of course, the experience of growing old.
The title essay, "Sex and the River Styx," comes at the end of the book and will shock and amaze you, as it did me, with its frank exploration of dirty old men, "old scamps and leches" as Hoagland calls them. What a wonderful look at aging, something I now can appreciate since I was born in the same decade as Hoagland, only six years later. Hoagland also explores aging in "A Country for Old Men," a nice spin on Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men."
How old is Hoagland? He was born Dec. 21, 1932 in New York City, so he's 78. He's of the generation of Updike, also born in 1932, and Philip Roth, born in 1933. Like Paul Theroux, born in 1941, Hoagland is also a travel writer, but like Theroux one with a difference. Hoagland focuses on the disappearance of wild spaces, in Vermont and in the African veldt and in other parts of Africa, including the Congo, the site of perhaps the most unreported war. Some five million people have been killed in what has been called "the Great War" of Africa since it began in the mid-1990s. Next month, I'll be reviewing a book on this vastly underreported conflict, "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters."
To read Hoagland's account of his visit to Kampala, Uganda, titled "Visiting Norah," is to experience the country fully, much as we do when we read Paul Theroux. You get a view of the city and the nation and the people who are barely hanging on in a country that has been devastated by misrule for generations. It's unsurpassed. If you like Theroux -- and Thoreau -- you'll love Hoagland.
In the opening essay, "Small Silences," which occupies 31 pages, gives us a autobiographical peek at Hoagland. In this relatively small amount of space, the reader gets a surprisingly detailed portrait of the author, who moved, at the age of eight, from New York City to rural Connecticut where he enjoyed a childhood straight out of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." He also reveals his experiences as a stutterer, his sexual awakening as a pre-teen and his experiences of racism as he observed his Missouri-born father reacting to the African-American women employed by the family.
Perhaps more than any other literary form, essays can be reread with pleasure. This is certainly true of the essays in "Sex and the River Styx," collected magazines as diverse as Harper's Magazine, Outside, Worth, and The American Scholar.
Stop mourning the disappearance of essays and their authors and pick up "Sex and the River Styx." You'll be surprised and pleased to find a great practitioner of the art of the essay. I'll leave it for you the reader to decide if Hoagland is, as Howard Frank Mosher in his foreword calls him, "our last, great transcendentalist." After all, labels are for whiskey bottles and soup cans.
About the Author
Widely celebrated for his essays on travel and nature, Edward Hoagland has written more than twenty books. Both fiction and nonfiction, his works include Cat Man (his first book, which won the 1954 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship), Walking the Dead Diamond River (a 1974 National Book Award nominee), African Calliope (a 1980 American Book Award nominee), and The Tugman's Passage (a 1982 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee). He worked at the Barnum and Bailey Circus while attending Harvard in the early 1950s and later traveled around the world writing for Harper's, National Geographic, and other magazines. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships and in 1982 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Hoagland was the editor of The Best American Essays 1999, and taught at The New School, Rutgers, Sarah Lawrence, CUNY, the University of Iowa, UC Davis, Columbia University, Beloit College, and Brown University. In 2005, he retired from a teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont. He lives in northern Vermont.
'Sex and the River Styx' review: Notes of acceptance after living life to the hilt
Oregon Live - April 9, 2011
"Believing in life," Edward Hoagland writes in "Curtain Calls," one of the essays in his splendid new collection, "I believe in death as well, and at seventy-six look forward to my immersion in the other plane of the seesaw also. Without wishing to hasten it, in other words, I don't dread the event. The politics will be less rancid, my dentistry at an end, and the TV off." Reading this essay and several of the others in "Sex and the River Styx," I found myself marveling at Hoagland's notes of acceptance.
As these essays will prove to those who don't know the work of this extraordinary writer, Hoagland has lived life to the hilt. Though born in New York City, he spent most of his early years in rural Connecticut, where his family kept a dozen hens and he learned to feel "like part of the flock." In the beautiful opening essay "Small Silences," he describes wandering through the woods nearby, taking note of tall pines "with their thousand jewely shards of light as you looked up on a sunny day" and the "white birches whose curling strips of bark you could write on not just with a pencil but with your fingernail if you had to."
As a young man he worked as a cage boy for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, an experience he alludes to in "Circus Music," and it was during this time that he came to love animals such as elephants and orangutans that many of us have never gotten within 50 feet of. Later, he traveled the globe writing about exotic locations for such publications as National Geographic, Harper's and Esquire. He revisits some of those places here, in essays that take him to Africa and Asia.
Hoagland has seen more of the world than all but a few of us, and if much of it has evoked wonder in his heart, a lot of it has also bothered him. "Going through airport security," he writes, "I've sometimes wondered what would happen if thoughts could be screened." He admits to being ashamed that he's "never been arrested on a matter of conscience." He finds the indignities suffered by the elderly who need medical treatment outrageous; he thinks this country is guilty of mistreating Arab Americans; he decries "the din of innovation." He tells us that he doesn't "want to live in a world drained of elephants and sharks and whales, where my grief over how we've treated captive apes is dwarfed when the last wild carcasses are concealed under the loads on log trucks, to be cooked as bushmeat in Kinshasa's slums."
Some of the most moving reflections come when the author ruminates on what, for many, would constitute personal failures: the demise of his marriages, an abortion about which he is "fitfully wistful," his penchant for "selfish waffling." He has the courage to wonder in print whether he stayed in one marriage as long as he did "entirely for the sake of our child or for my wife's health insurance." Yet, he tells us, he is "not one who regrets defaulting on the chances of his youth now that he gets quite breathless on an upgrade."
I read much of this new collection while lounging on beaches on the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, and in retrospect that seems peculiarly appropriate. Those beaches were the most pristine I've ever seen, and they were often deserted or almost deserted -- a far cry from the ones I used to frequent when I lived in California, where you often couldn't find an unoccupied spot large enough to spread your towel. San Juan is no more than 40 miles away, though, and its towering resorts stand shoulder to shoulder. The proximity of opposites -- an empty beach, a bustling resort -- seems to me the perfect representation of what Hoagland, whose gift for metaphor never fails him in these thoughtful pieces, calls "the riddles of light and darkness."
Garrison Keillor occupies such a special place in American letters that the writer to whom he is most frequently compared is the legendary Mark Twain. A rangy man with a sonorous voice, Keillor, 68, is a humorist, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, radio personality and, lately, the editor of a new poetry anthology.
Q. Does age give you an advantage in writing it? Finding meaning in it?
A. Good Lord, no. The advantage is with youth, as in most things. They have the energy and bravery and pizzazz, they go slamming around, and we old coots tiptoe along the edge. But we have high hopes. And there are exceptions to the rule. I'm reading Edward Hoagland's latest book, Sex and the River Styx. He is one of the greatest prose stylists of our time, he is 78, and this is his best book — great God, I am stunned at this accomplishment. And Robert Bly, closing in on 90 and writing beautifully and more humorously than ever. And Donald Hall, likewise. I'm 68, and I am cheering for my elders.
From the acclaimed essayist, novelist and travel writer, more deeply profound essays on the conditions of the natural world.
In this outstanding collection, 78-year-old Hoagland (Early in the Season, 2008, etc.) culls 13 years of magazine writing, published in stalwarts like Harper's and Outside, for a result that, again, will draw comparisons to Thoreau. Another great naturalist, John Muir, once wrote, "I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." There might not be a more apropos line to describe this book, which not only finds Hoagland reminiscing on his many widespread adventures exploring the globe in years past, but also on the connectedness between the destruction of the planet, his mortality and aging, failed love relationships and his impassioned, sometimes polemical but always articulate, brilliant thoughts on humans' abdication of responsibility to protect nature. Citing an unwavering allegiance to what's alive, Hoagland believes that "heaven is here and the only heaven we have." The author is less concerned with his own demise than with the larger unraveling of the world, and these glimmering essays avoid nostalgia or self-pity by focusing on his various entanglements, with past lovers and wives, Tibetan yak herders, a Ugandan family and the circus aerialists with whom he worked 60 years ago. Hoagland possesses the rare quality of being both thirsty to absorb knowledge and experiences and also, organically, to want to pass along what he's discovered. It's a wonder, too, that these writings, never pedagogical, allow for the world he's witnessed to stand as the star of the show.
Naturalist, novelist, and prolific essayist, Hoagland (Cat Man) describes his love affair with nature, given a fresh twist by his conviction that "human nature is interstitial with nature, and not to be shunned by a naturalist." Thus he describes his travels to Uganda, China, India; summers while young working with the circus or when older sitting in the senior center, all in the same keen, graphic detail with which he observes cedar waxwings passing a wild cherry tree. Hoagland's range is capacious—political dissent, Tibetan barley, his stutter, overpopulation, his wives, his pique at becoming "a dirty old man" exciting his intellect and eliciting frank, deeply felt confessions. While rarely aphoristic or witty, Hoagland's prose sings. Extensive in range, intensive in passion, the direction of these 13 essays is inexorably toward the River Styx of the title—lament and a perverse satisfaction. In a world where "fish become a factory for omega oil. Fowl for ‘buffalo wings,' " only "death will save me from witnessing the drowned polar bears, smashed elephant herds, wilting frog populations, squashed primate refuges." (Apr.)
Omnivoracious Blog on Amazon.com - February 28, 2011
My reading schedule, by necessity, tends to be organized around months: around our Best of the Month picks, to be exact. I read around as much as I can, going on first dates as it were, looking for books I might love enough to make our list. Some months the search for love is not as easy as others, but for February I was overwhelmed: it seemed like I found a new crush everywhere I turned. I was able to shoehorn a couple of them into what turned out to be a very crowded Best of the Month lineup, but while we still have just the tiniest bit of February left, I wanted to pass them all along to you here, since I liked the two that didn't make the cut nearly as much as the two that did.
Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
I've come late to Edward Hoagland, but I don't feel that I've missed the best of him: he seems hungrily attentive in his eighth decade as few writers are. I've gotten to know him through the essays of his that appear in Harper's once in a while: long and deliciously meandering, tied to some ostensible topic but really just chances to write and think out loud, with every paragraph packed with the kind of insights and elegance you'd search through whole books to find. I think of the essays as chapters snipped off from an ongoing autobiographical observation, and Sex and the River Styx collects them, along with pieces from other sources from the past decade or so, in what doesn't turn out to read as a memoir but rather the record of a fascinating, well-weathered mind. You can get a sense of his approach from the title alone: unabashedly earthy but not afraid to be learned too, and unafraid also of age. He has the honesty and willingness to contradict himself (and others) that the best autobiographical essayists like Montaigne share, and a style that to me is pretty much the height of beauty: not lyrical but thick with thought and meaningful digression. I compare his sentences to Monk's piano lines in my review on our site, and by that I mean that in both of them there's a rhythm, but not a mindless one--you can feel, almost physically, the thinking behind each press of the finger on the keys, and you sense an openness, even in the midst of something well-composed, to following any fruitful or necessary direction that presents itself. I also compare him to Emerson, which is really unavoidable, and I mean that in the best way. I don't know Hoagland enough to be sure how consciously he's modeled his thinking and writing on Ralph Waldo's, but it seems impossible he hasn't, and I can hardly think of a better, and more authentically challenging, model to follow. As with Dubus, I want now to read backwards, and see if Hoagland has always been this way, or has grown so.
Edward Hoagland’s book Sex and the River Styx is a collection of essays about nature, travel, and what he has learned from life. He self-consciously situates himself as someone nearing the end of his life looking back and taking stock. This is the first Hoagland book I’ve read (which I got from the publisher on NetGalley), although I’ve read single essays of his from various collections before. It’s an interesting book and a number of things stand out about it, most obviously the quality of the writing, as in this passage, where he writes about his own death:
. . . accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook, and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, of true woods soil, and of course the sea — love rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll reenter the bottom. Be a bug; then a shiner shimmering in the closest stream … or partially mineralized — does one need retinas and a hippocampus? Because I don’t particularly want to be me, my theory is no. A green shoot a woodchuck might munch seems okay. I believe in continuity through conductivity: that the seething underpinnings of life’s flash and filigree, its igniting chemistry, may, like fertilizer, appear temporarily dead, but spark across species like the electricity of empathy, or as though paralleling the posthumous alchemy of art.
His descriptions are so specific, so precise, that you can imagine exactly what he’s describing. even if you haven’t actually seen it with your own eyes. I also admired the strong sense of joy that runs through the book, alongside the equally strong (or stronger, perhaps?) sense of doom. As one who loves nature deeply, Hoagland mourns over all that we’ve lost on the earth and all that we will lose in the future. When he says he’s glad he won’t be around to witness the future destruction that is inevitably on the way, I sympathize.
Hoagland Ruminates on Age in his Twenty-First Book
The Barton Chronicle - January 26, 2011
Sex and the River Styx, by Edward Hoagland with a foreword by Howard Frank Mosher, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, 2011, 272 pages, hardbound, $27.50 Reviewed by Joseph Gresser
Every spring, around when the spring peepers’ song is peaking and the summer crop of birds is preparing to take up the slack, a familiar green hat appears on the streets of Barton Village, and in brief appearances at this paper’s offices. Under that hat a pair of glasses focuses the acute gaze of Edward Hoagland.
Even the casual observer will spot him at parades, village fairs, senior lunches, and sitting perilously close to the band on Sundays at the Bread and Puppet Theater’s weekly circus.
Around the beginning of fall, in a pattern established during his years as a college professor, Mr. Hoagland migrates south. Only slightly less regularly, a copy of Mr. Hoagland’s latest book will arrive in the mail, with a note inviting our consideration. This month we received a pre-publication copy of the twenty-first book of his 78-year career. (Actually, Mr. Hoagland was in his early twenties when his first book was published, but he began laying the foundation for his life’s work much earlier as a child with a gift for close observation.)
As the title of Sex and the River Styx — which will be available in bookshops this March — suggests, Mr. Hoagland’s age is very much on his mind. In all but two of the 13 essays in the book, he makes an unflinching survey of his aging body — from no longer being able to take steps two at a time to his too-frequent need to pull off the interstate for the convenience of his bladder.
Mr. Hoagland says that his fellow old men honk in solidarity when they see him standing by his car at the roadside. It’s a typical observation from a writer who sees himself as being closely enmeshed in the web of existence.
In “Small Silences,” the first essay in the collection, Mr. Hoagland traces this attitude back to the days when a stuttering nine-year-old discovered the rich world of nature by tracing the path of a stream near his family’s Connecticut home.
With a child’s stealth, Mr. Hoagland hid from his parents the fierce attraction he felt for that stream, the pond into which it flowed, and the surrounding hills, and more to the point, for the huge variety of creatures who were his companions.
Mr. Hoagland still revels in the abundance contained in even a small portion of nature and lengthy lists are a notable feature of his prose. He writes as if by naming the creatures who, unnoticed by most, share the world with humans, he can save them from the calamitous consequences of our species’ inattention.
The words of many of the essays in this collection have a high pressure flow, like water from a firefighter’s hose. Mr. Hoagland is passionate in his love for the planet and its inhabitants, but he makes clear his eagerness to depart without being witness to the seemingly inevitable destruction of other species by humanity’s overreaching technology.
Even within the human world Mr. Hoagland sees a constant stream of extinctions. In “Circus Music,” he recalls the tent shows of his youth, where he spent a couple of summers caring for the Ringling Brothers’ large cats and elephants.
Just as the habitat of these magnificent animals is being destroyed and they suffer the consequences, Mr. Hoagland traces with care and affection the ecology of the roustabouts, the fliers and the clowns who once traveled the country by train and truck. As it happens, I had some slight brushes with the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers show late in its touring life, and to me Mr. Hoagland’s description rings true in every detail.
Mr. Hoagland, himself, is something of a survivor, one of the last American writers to be able to sustain himself by writing essays for magazines, such as Harper’s Magazine, The American Scholar, Outside, where the contents of Sex and the River Styx first saw print.
The current volume is a valedictory collection. In it, Mr. Hoagland recalls his youth, considers his present situation, and prepares for a future that he hopes will return him, through the process of decay, to the cycle of nature. In its pages Mr. Hoagland relates his attempts to contact old lovers and his relief at discovering they hold no grudges, his visits to far-flung places and, a clear-sighted and humane anticipation of the end of the journey his nine-year-old self began by the banks of a Connecticut stream.
Amazon Chooses Sex and the River Styx as one of the Best Books of February, 2011
In recent years, the best reason to have a Harper's subscription has been the appearance, once every year or two, of a long and life-giving essay by Edward Hoagland. Whatever topic they hang themselves on--political dissent, the circus (where Hoagland spent two memorable young summers), sex, aging, nature--they circle around and wander through all of the above, each a memoir in miniature, each a guide to life as lived in its seventh and now eighth decades. Hoagland's best known as a nature writer and has been called "the Thoreau of our time," but his tolerant and curious affection for human nature too makes him closer to Thoreau's friend and landlord, Emerson. In any case, his sentences sing like theirs: elegant and aphoristic, but chunky with thought and image, leaping and pausing like a line from Monk's piano. As you might guess from the title, the essays in Sex and the River Styx, his first new collection in a decade, are both late and lively. Hoagland is far sadder about the accelerating destruction of the earth's bounty and variety than he is about his own decline; while he angrily fights the former, he happily accepts the past tense in talking about ways he once lived but won't again. He's grown wise in the best way: he's learned some things in his time, none more than how little he knows. --Tom Nissley
Naturalist and essayist extraordinaire Hoagland does write about sex and death, as the title to his new, reverberating autobiographical collection promises. But nature is his overarching, enrapturing, and heartbreaking focus. In his foreword, Howard Frank Mosher dubs Hoagland “our last great Transcendentalist,” a designation earned in the first of 13 vigorous and bracing essays as Hoagland portrays himself as a book-loving, solitude-thriving, avidly attentive boy with a stutter who finds bliss and enlightenment in the woods just beyond his Connecticut home. Not only do the specificity of Hoagland’s memories and the rapture of his descriptions attest to the transforming powers of nature, this evocation of a lush lost world also reveals how drastically life has changed during Hoagland’s seven decades on earth. Self-described “rhapsodist” Hoagland mourns the decimation of ecosystems, calling out the names of fallen species as casualties in our wars “against the splendid diversity of nature.” He also recounts with flinty humor and candor his adventures with the circus, his travels in Africa and India, his love life, and the struggles and revelations of age. An astute social critic, Hoagland sharply contrasts the pallid cyber realm with life’s glorious hurly-burly. Fueled by zest, zeal, mischief, awe, and compassion, master writer Hoagland is exacting, gritty, and exalting.