BOOK REVIEW: Edward Hoagland's 'Sex and the River Styx' Should Satisfy Your Hunger for Essays

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: Edward Hoagland's  'Sex and the River Styx' Should Satisfy Your Hunger for Essays
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.



Publisher's website: www.chealseagreen.com
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