Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Interesting Emendations: Edward Hoagland's "Calliope Times"




















I see one of my favorite writers, Edward Hoagland, has a new essay collection out titled Sex and the River Styx. It’s received mixed reviews. Phillip Lopate, in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 2011), says, “Side by side with such tiresome crochets, there are passages in these late essays as good as any Hoagland ever wrote.” Tara McKelvey, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (August 14, 2011), says, “While these essays are full of elegiac writing, the sex stuff (where people are involved) is a disaster.” Both reviewers focus on Hoagland as essayist. Lopate calls him a “master personal essayist.” He says in passing that Hoagland “wrote excellent accounts of travel in British Columbia and Africa.” Neither Lopate nor McKelvey mention by name Hoagland’s masterpiece, Notes from the Century Before (1969). This is like writing about Joyce without mentioning Ulysses. Notes from the Century Before is a journal of Hoagland’s trip to Telegraph Creek in northern British Columbia. It's a great, exuberant, rhapsodic, sensual diary written in a tumbling, precise, powerhouse prose. I love every word of it. Hoagland has what Joyce had: a love of the supreme juices of everyday life.

Only three of Hoagland’s many pieces have appeared in The New Yorker: a short story, “The Final Fate of the Alligators” (October 18, 1969), and two essays, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion” (August 7, 1971), and “Calliope Times” (May 22, 2000). Of these, my favorite is “Calliope Times,” which engagingly starts out:

In the spring of 1951, when I was eighteen and finishing my freshman year at Harvard, I wrote to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to ask for a job, spurred in particular by my fascination with animals.

“Calliope Times” was later published as chapter three of Hoagland’s 2001 memoir Compass Points. The two versions differ in a number of interesting ways. For example, here is a passage from the magazine piece:

The elephant men rode, too, from the train, in a more august procession, sitting like mahouts on the elephants’ necks, and they were slow-fuse types, tall-legged, barrel-bodied.

And here is the book version:

The elephant men rode, too, from the train, in a more august procession, sitting on the elephants’ heads, with a leg hanging down on each side of its right eye; and they were slow-fuse types, tall-legged, barrel-bodied.

Note, in the book version, the deletion of “like mahouts,” the repositioning of the riders from the elephants’ necks to the elephants’ heads, and the addition of “with a leg hanging down on each side of its right eye.”

Here’s another example. In the New Yorker version, the main circus tent (the “big top”) is described as follows:

The sea-colored canvas, eleven hundred and forty feet in circumference, mounted in hammocky waves from a hundred and sixteen side poles toward the sixty-five quarter poles, and then higher and higher, with the immensity and serenity of surf, to the baling rings on the center poles, about seventy feet up.

Here’s the Compass Points version:

The sea-colored canvas, eleven hundred fifty feet in circumference, mounted in hammocky waves from a hundred sixteen side poles – each one like a Bactrian hump – toward the sixty-five quarter poles (elephants pulled each of these up), and then higher and higher, with the immensity and serenity of surf, to the bale rings on the center poles, about seventy feet high.

Note, in the book version, the increased tent circumference, the addition of “each one like a Bactrian hump,” the addition of the parenthesis, the change of “baling rings” to “bale rings,” and the change of “up” to “high.”

The Compass Points version contains dozens of such changes. My favorite passage in the piece is this haunting description of what Hoagland heard when he slept out on the flatcars:

Crossing Indiana and Iowa, you could hear the lions sniff at their ventilation slats for the smells of the veldt and roar to see if a lion out there on the prairie would answer; they thumped the walls when they scented the Mississippi, or the forests of Minnesota, or the Platte River in Nebraska. When the train slowed, I was sometimes tempted to open their cages so they could go find a life for themselves in the wild, however abbreviated. These were glory nights, vivid nights.

I recall reading that passage when it appeared in The New Yorker and being bowled over by it. I identified with Hoagland’s urge to let the big cats loose. Reading the Compass Points version, I noticed the passage is slightly different:

Crossing Indiana and Iowa, you could hear the lions sniff for the smells of the veldt at their ventilation slats and roar to see if a lion out there on the prairie answered; then thump the walls when they scented the Mississippi; or the forests of Minnesota; or the Platte, in Nebraska. When the train slowed, I was sometimes tempted to open their cages so they could go find a life for themselves in the wild, however abbreviated. These were glory nights, vivid nights.

I think I prefer the New Yorker version. The semi-colons in the Compass Points passage make the rhythm a little too choppy. The magazine version is smoother.

As usual with these New Yorker “emendations” (see my previous “Interesting Emendations” posts), I’m not sure if the magazine piece was carved out of the much larger block of writing that appears later in book form, or if the book version represents a fleshing out of the original New Yorker article. In Hoagland’s case, I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s the former. His style, with its many digressions and pile-ups of “gorgeously angled syntaxes and frank admissions” (Lopate’s excellent description), clashes with the New Yorker’s Strunkian (“Omit needless words!” “Be concise!”) approach to writing. Readying the piece for publication, the magazine’s editor(s) excised large chunks of Hoagland’s prose. For example, here’s a passage (one among many) that appears in the book, but not in the magazine:

They [seasoned female stars] could scuttle, dragging heavy rigging through a cloudburst in a hand-me-down Chaplinesque overcoat, but then do front flips on a galloping horse down the hippodrome track, and let an elephant lift them up high by gripping a shapely thigh in its mouth and wrapping its trunk around their midriffs.

What a word combination! When was the last time you saw “scuttle,” “rigging,” “cloudburst,” “hand-me-down,” “Chaplinesque,” “horse,” “hippodrome,” “elephant,” “thigh,” “wrapping,” and “midriffs” strung together in the same sentence? I’ll bet never. Therein lies Hoagland’s genius. Passages like that pour out of him. It’s too bad, in the case of The New Yorker’s “Calliope Times,” that so many were cut. If you want to read the full, rich version of the piece, check out chapter three of Compass Points.

Credit: The above photo of Edward Hoagland is by Bob Wagner. It appears in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 2011), as an illustration for Phillip Lopate’s “‘Life Is an Ecstasy.’”

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