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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. 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.
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.Eloquent musings from a master.
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. Hoag-land'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."
"A masterwork on aging in men [from] America's most intelligent and wide-ranging essayist-naturalist."--Philip Roth
"A superb collection - and more than that, a powerful narrative of the life of the man himself."--Paul Theroux
"Hoagland is our wild world's literary virtuoso."--Annie Proulx
"'The seething underpinnings of life's flash and filigree..." Those words from Edward Hoagland's new book of essays, Sex and the River Styx, are an apt description of all of his work. His eloquence frees readers from nostalgia for the "old days" as he writes of life's variety--from elephants' toes to the red of a rooster's comb."--Paula Fox, author of News From the World