NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE, know what juneberries look like for that matter, the number of people who can tell frogs from roads, warblers from thrushes, phlox from foxglove or blue maidens from dragonflies is relatively small. These and similar things fill the lengthy passages in early Lawrence or Hardy novels the passages which are the first ones skipped in the laziness of "leisure" reading. People at all conversant with the facts of the natural world tend not to display their knowledge, and we are far more likely to walk into a discussion about more conventionally sensational topics like politics or who is sleeping with whom than into one about whether the trout are rising or if it is a good year for mountain laurel. We know the changes in the season by the sports we identify them with and the thickness and the color of the clothes we wear. Such are the markings of the huge numbers of us who comprise this century's great urban flora.
Among many other things. Edward Hoagland '54 knows juneberries. Moreover, he writes about them and about others of the curios of creation, whether of the natural world or of the more inorganic human one in that hard to define genre of the personal essay. His field of vision is broad. Most adept at chronicling the my read delicate changes and processes of the wilderness. Hoagland is also prescient in his observations of the doings of his own species. With equal amounts of aplomb, he explores topics as varied as the mating habits of the porcupine and the divorce customs of the questionably wise home sapiens.
Hoagland's latest collection of essays. The Tugman's Passage, provides a handful of these observations which testify strongly to the author's boundless curiosity. From the title essay about the life and work of tugboat sailors to the last of the short editorials on nature that Hoagland pens of the New York Times, the work are highly crafted. In stylistic terms, Hoagland's reputation as one of the foremost essayists working is well deserved, he has a terrifically readable idiom of his own fashioning at once colloquial, rhythmic and incredibly even. His writing gives a sense of quiet passion of devotion to the minutiae both of his subject and of his prose.
Idioms and details, though are hardly enough of a foundation on which to construct a personal essay. Rather, as Hoagland points out in a short piece in the book specifically on the form of the essay, the critical ingredient is the quality of mind the essayist impresses on the work. Of course, this is no different from any form of literary expression Yet, the personal essay differs from the short story in the way it communicates its truth a difference which roughly mirrors that between plain speech and storytelling. Even the most inept can usually keep from bludgeoning beyond recognition the moral of a good story aided, as the storyteller is by the imaginations of his listeners. Finding someone who can convey a similar message out of the clods of rough earth or his own experience and who can do so with the subtlety and irony needed to drive the point home poses a somewhat more difficult problem. Perhaps for this reason, few essayists burn in the memory as writers of the first class. It is no cheapening of imaginative literature to assert that for every Orwell or for every Thoreau or for every Montaigne there may be a dozen great novelist: instead, it merely points up the frailty of the unaided intellect and the fantastic power of the imagination.
DOES HOAGLAND have that elusive bent of mind. The answer which rises out of The Tugman's Passage is a very qualified yes. Hoagland has a small measure of that extraordinarily rare common sense... the kind which seems so utterly obvious once we have encountered it and cannot image the ignorance we bore earlier--which one senses in Thoreau, Orwell, and occasionally, E B White Hence. Hoagland's best stuff in The Tugman's Passage, the two essays "The Ridge-Slope Fox and the Knife Thrower" and "Women and Men," sparkle.
In "Women and Men." Hoagland sets about the uneasy task of trying to assess the changing character of sex roles today. Typically, a Hoagland essay is not an argument but a ramble over the terrain, and this essay's apparent meandering belies its thoughtfulness. Jumping adroitly from a concern that old male heroes may soon lapse from memory to a thankfulness that barriers to equal treatment under the law are falling to a meditation on the wondrous attraction of the sexes. Hoagland appears an artful stone-stepper in the twins streams of technology and women's liberation. He muses. "Technology is more leveling than feminism; as is the density in which we live, and our fat standard of living, combined with its recent shrinkage. (That is, we are left with less room to stretch out in a show of either masculine or feminine far out--only the fat.)" And his treatment of the various hostile feminist attitudes toward men, ranging from the "castrate'em now" cry to the more moderate "men are women built differently" belief seems circumspect almost to a fault. After reading the essay one questions whether any way exists for retaining some vestiges of the old masculinity and fernininity without relinquishing the indispensible and still incomplete advances in rights.
The specter of becoming a race in which gender means only having one of two sets of interlocking parts is unpleasant at best. And the concomitant question of how members of both sense may be increasingly becoming sexual objects instead of people--a development growing ironically out of re-called liberating forces of birth control and sexual freedom--leaves one unsettled. Hoagland deals with both delicately and undogmatically, indeed, with an honest degree of personal uncertainty.
"The Ridge-Slope Fox and the Knife Thrower" in both the book's best and most freewheeling essay. In it Hoagland seems more than anything else to meditate simply and carefully on the complexity of life. Again leaping from one topic to the next, he exults in his sightings of animals while wondering if he will catch a glimpse of the fox and then considers what an ordeal solitude actually is, despite its perverse and mostly pseudo-intellectual glamour. Then he considers the differences of life in the city and the country (it is not exactly that life is slow but that "a cow is finally just a cow, a chore is after all a chore, there is small possibility of what is called in the city 'advancement.'... [and] if you keep putting some of them off, you may get away with having to do fewer of them in the end"), the habits of the turtle he has captured, and the strange fondness may have for sadism and masochism. As a paean to the endlessly intriguing things which cross Hoagland's path. "The Ridge-Slope Fox" works brilliantly.
But in some other efforts. Hoagland falters. "Cairo Observed," written in 1976, shows as clearly as ever its author's keen eye with rich descriptions of men in flowing kaffiyehs, paupers begging and the screaming traffic of Cairo. Yet, Hoagland's political analysis of the Middle East is dated and surprisingly simplistic. The piece ends with the lame advice that Egypt faces a variety of grave situations and "it behooves us to wish her well, as we have not always done."
NONE OF THE PIECES are without merit. Even the weakest essay, a biographical essay of Johnny Appleseed cozily entitled "The Mushpan Man," though a sort of Readers Digest version of the weird ascetic's life, has its strengths. Most notably, it recalls to mind a forgotten geography of places with names like Chillicothe and Bucyrus and rivers with names like Broken Straw Creek, the Kokosing and White Woman's Creek. It is a geography far afield from our familiar one of ambition--of graduate degrees, mammoth corporations, fat salaries, and prestigious universities--and one well worth remembering.
The last section of the book consists of an assortment of Hoagland's Times editorials. Uniformly great, they are lyrical reminders of the virtues of juneberries, and if not specifically of juneberries, then of the virtue of noticing the smaller prosaic things and events which often go unnoticed. Whether reading about "poisonous and nonpoisonous varieties of the genus Amanita" mushrooms, or the skin in sheddings of garter snakes, one is thrilled. The sobering comes shortly after, when one remembers the criminally foolish president and his similarly foolish and greedy followers who strive to make the water, as and ground unlivable for mushrooms, garter snakes and people