"I just couldn't wait to get off that school bus and into the woods," author Edward Hoagland recalls of his 1940's childhood in Connecticut. A stutter made it difficult for him to talk to anyone aside from close friends, "but I was able to talk to animals. There was no pressure." His love of them led him to take a summer job with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus after his freshman year at Harvard. "I was in the menagerie, working first with creatures like giraffes and rhinos, but I aspired to take care of the lions and tigers," he says. "Once I proved myself, they let me do it, that summer and the next." Hoagland spent another summer hitchhiking across the country, fighting forest fires, and tending to the MGM lions at the World Jungle Compound in Ventura, California.
His circus experience provided the raw material for his first novel, Cat Man, published when he was just 23 - despite his father's efforts to block it. "He was a lawyer for what is now ExxonMobil and did not want me to be a novelist. He wanted me to be a ‘real writer' and produce stories for The Lamp," the oil company's publication for shareholders. That book remains in print after fifty-five years, as does the boxing novel that followed.
Hoagland persisted and wrote more novels, but eventually concluded, "I didn't have the genes for it. Novelists need stronger memories and imaginations." He figured he was more suited to essay writing. Along the way he became friends with literary legends such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Archibald MacLeish, John Updike (who called Hoagland "the best essayist of my generation"), and Wallace Stegner (a former member of our Governing Council).
"Edward Abbey was another friend," Hoagland recalls, "and he radicalized me. I came to agree with him that so-called balanced writing is not really balanced, and I became more polemical in my essays." In 1989, when Abbey died, Hoagland wrote the New York Times tribute to him. For ten years he also wrote the Times's nature editorials.
Of his 20 books, one of Hoagland's favorites is Notes from the Century Before, set in the wilds of British Columbia. Others have reflected experiences in Alaska, India, Tibet, Sudan, Louisiana's bayou county and Antarctica. "We are destroying God's Earth," he says. "It's just going before our eyes, and some of us who write about nature are so dumbfounded we are hardly able to articulate what we're seeing."
Hoagland has been a member of The Wilderness Society for more than a quarter century and has put the organization in his will. He is contributing editor of onearth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and has donated 90 of his 100 acres in Barton, Vermont, to The Nature Conservancy. The author's will provides for all 100 acres to be added to the adjacent Willoughby State Forest.
Five trips to Africa have brought Hoagland face to face with famine and disease, and he sends money to help Ugandan families he knows deal with their crises. Recently, he finished a novel based on what he has seen on that continent.
Despite his stutter, Hoagland became a teacher in the early 1960's and has taught at Columbia, Bennington, Beloit, Brown, Sarah Lawrence, the University of California at Davis, and elsewhere. At age 58, cataracts, retinal disease, and glaucoma combined to make Hoagland virtually blind. A series of operations eventually restored almost all his sight and out of the experience came a memoir, Compass Points: How I Lived. His newest book is Sex and the River Styk.
Hoagland is most at home in the Vermont cabin where he spends about half the year. There is no phone or electrical service. He writes on an Olympia manual typewriter. "I use Xerox paper for the early drafts and erasable bond for the final," he says. "You can make corrections without having to retype the whole page."
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