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Sex and the River Styx Hardcover – February 18, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, 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
Howard Frank Mosher Interviews Edward Hoagland
Howard Frank Mosher is the author of Walking to Gatlinburg and many other novels, three of which, Disappearances, A Stranger in the Kingdom, and Where the Rivers Run North, have been made into acclaimed feature films. He has lived in Vermont's fabled Northeast Kingdom since 1964.
Mosher: Some of the essays in Sex and the River Styx are set in Africa, which you've visited five times. How has the continent changed since you first began going there?
Hoagland: In the seventies I could stay in a hotel in Nairobi that was for Africans, not expats or tourists, and walk the streets at night without fear of being mugged. Now that would not be possible in Nairobi. On the other hand, at the same time in the seventies, Idi Amin ruled Uganda and in fact used one of the international hotels there as a torture chamber. So while westerners could stay there on business, they would be kept awake all night by the screams of Ugandans being tortured by secret police. Now, though, Kenya is on the verge of civil strife, and Kampala, Uganda, is an extremely pleasant city to visit--and for most of its people also, as long as they are not dissidents.
At that time, in 1977, I was living within 17 miles by footpath from the northern border of Uganda and the Acholi tribal people there, who lived on both sides, were extremely frightened if they lived in Uganda, but relatively at peace in the southern Sudan. I still remember how Sudan seemed at that time. It was ruled by Arabs from Khartoum and an Arab policeman in the village of Gilo told me I would be shot because there had been a coup attempt in Khartoum and he assumed that I was in the village to scout out a landing field for paratroopers to come down and aid the coup (which was actually foiled). The local people said, "Don't shoot our white man." (These are the people who voted for independence just recently.) After I got to the nearest airport I was held up by security there and wouldn't have been allowed on the plane except that when they examined my notebooks they asked if I was CIA and I said yes--so that they would let me on.
Mosher: For many decades, you divided your time between New York City and the remote mountain in northern Vermont where you still spend a third of the year. How have the places you've called home shaped your work?
Hoagland: I got my locus and focus in Vermont, and I got my energy and ambition in New York. If I were a full-time Vermonter I would have published half as many books. But if I were a full-time New Yorker they would not have been as good.
Mosher: Over the course of your writing career, you’ve also taught at many of America's best colleges, including Bennington, Iowa, the University of California system, Brown, and Columbia. What kind of general advice do you give aspiring writers of fiction and nonfiction?
Hoagland: To pick out models and mentors. (In my own case I had lunch with John Steinbeck when I was 17 and met Saul Bellow, who I equally admired, soon after leaving college, after working closely with his friend, John Berryman.) Also, it’s important to pick and be loyal to editors who will understand and help you, without arguing with them about money or the like. For example, some of my best essays were published in the Village Voice when I was young, where I was paid only $35 for each, but one of these essays, since then, has earned me a thousand times as much as that in anthology fees. The encouragement of the editors you work with is of primary importance when you are starting out.
Mosher: How has the writing profession changed since you published your first book, Cat Man?
Hoagland: It's become more mercenary, cynical, and attention-defict-disordered. I feel sorry for young writers starting out today but all the writers one admires worked from love of the genre or their own obsessions. That will continue to be the case.
Mosher: Many writers, including John Updike, have called you our best living essayist. The Washington Post once referred to you as the finest since Thoreau. What distinguishes an essay from other types of nonfiction like memoirs or journalism? Is the essay an endangered species in 21st-century America?
Hoagland: Essays are an even older genre than novels. Montaigne's were published 25 years before Don Quixote, for example. So their resilience has a long history. I think novels because of their length are endangered. Essays are where a writer speaks directly to the reader not as a storyteller or in reportage but as him- or herself. The popularity of their poor relation, blogs, may prove peoples' hunger for personal observation. (I spend an average of an hour for every 20 words in an essay when you count the separate drafts. A blog by nature is a quicker process.)
Mosher: At one point in Sex and the River Styx, you write that heaven is on earth. Could you expand on that?
Hoagland: This is what Emerson also thought: that the seethe of life "is an ecstasy," and the only ecstasy we will ever know. Like Emerson, I don't believe that god created man in His own image or vice versa, but that life itself and its energies are our heaven.
Mosher: In its focus on aging, on our assault on nature, and on what appears to be a world-wide shift from family- and community-based societies to a much more materialistic, solipsistic, "electronic" era, Sex and the River Styx seems thematically different from your earlier essay collections such as The Courage of Turtles, Red Wolves and Black Bears, and Walking the Dead Diamond River. You once wrote that what people want to read is something they haven't read before. Sex and the River Styx seems to fit that description. Do you regard it as different, in theme and tone, from your earlier work?
Hoagland: The environmental emergencies we face are much clearer and more drastic and therefore my emphasis has changed but also I have been changed by old age. One of the comforts of old age used to be that people knew the world would remain as they had loved it when they were gone, but that is no longer the case. However, much of my work in the past, going all the way back to exulting in the circus 60 years ago, has been an elegy.
Mosher: You have written about Africa, India, China, Antarctica, Alaska, British Columbia, the American West, Deep South, and New England--the list goes on and on. Where in the world that you haven't been would you like to visit and write about?
Hoagland: The Amazon. I've been on the Nile five times, but never the Amazon, and that is because my very bad stutter years ago prevented me from learning foreign languages. So I have limited myself to areas of the former British Empire like India and the Nile; and that is not simply cowardice. A friend of mine, the writer Alex Shoumatoff, once saved his own life on a tributary of the Amazon because he could understand Portuguese and heard his guides plotting to kill him for his money. Indeed on the Nile I once heard two guides plotting a cruel joke on me but it was in English, so I could clear out.
Mosher: What books or writers have most influenced you?
Mosher: Word is that you've just finished an African novel and a Yukon River memoir quite different from anything else you’ve written. What's next on the agenda?
Hoagland: I've been working for several months on an essay on what's happening to America and I have a Vermont novel I would like to figure out. I don't know how it ends.
From Publishers Weekly
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 ÿbuffalo wings,' " only "death will save me from witnessing the drowned polar bears, smashed elephant herds, wilting frog populations, squashed primate refuges." (Apr.)
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That mellowing prose is typical of Hoagland, one of the "wimps" and the self-described humanist who is best as an observer and when he is arranging words into images. He's less incisive when he's sermonizing, which fortunately occurs infrequently.
With titles such as "A Last Look Around, " Endgame" and "Curtain Call," the essays for the most part deal with diminishing vigor and approaching mortality layered against a more pervasive concern that the world is generally going to hell in a hand basket. "Although there are far too many people for nature to digest, we are all going to go down together, I believe. We are part and parcel of it, and as it sickens so will we."
Amid the general gloom - what Hoagland describes as the "dismay of looking ahead" - there are also many snatches of joy and optimism. And often poignance. Hoagland, who lives alone with his dog, an English setter named Flash, says he has begun leaving the back door unlocked at night "so she can safely push it open if I don't wake up the next morning."
For me, the best essay of the lot is "Circus Music." I can't help but relate to it. As a kid growing up in the early 1950s, I was allowed to get out of bed after midnight, grab a flashlight and ride my bike down to the rail yard to meet the circus train as it rolled into town. Wide-eyed, I'd watch it unload and gawk at the elephants taking up heavy wooden mallets with their wrinkled trunks and helping pound the stakes to raise the big top.
At 19 in 1951, Hoagland worked as a cage boy for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey watching over a menagerie of wild animals. For him life under the big top was "acrobatic and elephantine, wholesome but freakish," a microcosm for the world at large where all of us are like circus performers striving to "keep rolling, keep juggling and strutting our stuff, honoring our gods; then take a bow and exit smiling."
Maybe not the best, but certainly the most provocative of the essays is the one that gives the collection its title, "Sex and the River Styx." Hoagland muses about his own sexual history and, as usual, draws more general conclusions about men and their itch to remain "cocky right up to the end."
He tells the story of a white-haired friend who was in the hospital prepping for cancer surgery that would mean the end of his sex life. Already in his hospital gown he wistfully informed the nurse that his one regret in his fifty years of sexual activity was that he had never slept with a blonde. The nurse, middle-aged and blonde, was touched. She motioned for him to get up on the gurney. "We still have a couple of minutes. Just so you can say you have, let's get it done."
Overall, reading Hoagland's essays requires concentration and thought. If you don't pay close attention, his words tend to lose meaning, his writing tends to ramble and get muddy, and soon disconnected words start circling on the page likes marbles rolling around in a bowl. Words don't connect and thoughts don't make a whole bunch of sense. Here he is talking about sound as found in nature: "Yet we don't go in much nowadays for unaugmented sound, being accustomed to the modulations of engineers who titillate our ears with juiced acoustics that imply in their own ubiquity, at least to me, the mush of chaos underneath." I needed to reread that a couple times to pull out the meaning.
But generally his observations are sharp in their clarity. When you're patient and read carefully what Hoagland is conveying, his perception is keen and his passion for his natural surroundings is insightful, very often lyrical.