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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Edward Hoagland's Brilliant "Of Cows and Cambodia"


Photo of Edward Hoagland by Glenn Russell

Recently, I had the pleasure of rediscovering Edward Hoagland’s great 1971 essay “Of Cows and Cambodia,” included in his wonderful 1973 collection, Walking the Dead Diamond River. I’m indebted to Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s Good Prose (2013) for leading me to it. Kidder and Todd quote “Of Cows and Cambodia” ’s remarkable opening passage –

During the invasion of Cambodia, an event which may rate little space when recent American initiatives are summarized but which for many of us seemed the last straw at the time, I made an escape to the woods. The old saw we’ve tried to live by for an egalitarian half-century that “nothing human is alien” has become so pervasive a truth that I was worn to a frazzle. I was the massacre victim, the massacring soldier, and all the gaudy queens and freaked-out hipsters on the street.

– and comment: “No one gives you permission to write this way. It is like taking a bite of the apple that is the world. You do it. You get away with it. Soon experience entitles you to do it again.”

Not only do Kidder and Todd spotlight Hoagland’s brilliant essay; they also provide a key to appreciating its art. They say,

Most of the work that we call personal essay goes beyond logic and fact into the sovereign claims of idiosyncrasy. This is not to suggest that essays should be illogical, but they maybe, and generally should be, extra-logical – governed by associative more than strictly linear thought.

Governed by associative more than strictly linear thought – this strikes me as a perfect description of Hoagland’s approach, an approach that I admire immensely. “Of Cows and Cambodia” is a superb example of it. The piece is about Hoagland’s “escape to the woods,” to an abandoned farm he owns in Vermont. It brims with delightful, surprising, evocative descriptions – of the land (“Around on my side of Mount Hor a deep, traditional sort of cave corkscrews into the mountains a hundred feet or more, a place where hunters lived, and once an eccentric called Leatherman, who wore skins and lived off whatever he could catch or kill”), the wildlife (“Plenty of deer skirt through, and on the mountainside you can find boggy glades where single deer have made their beds in the fine grassy patches, leaving the imprint of themselves after they run”; “The porcupines, after huddling in congregations through the winter, spread out and fight for territory during the spring, with piercing, nasty screams, though in the evening you can hear them chewing bark high in the spruces, their teeth sounding gravelly-voiced”), his adopted collie, Bimbo (“Worse than just using a dead deer, he singles out a picnicker’s ordure to roll in if he can, smearing his fluffy fur with excrement, wearing it like epaulets, as the most mythic material of all”), a commune (“Everyone went off on jaunts into the countryside or swam or gathered firewood or sat talking all day in the cook tent, fixing salads of sorrel, lamb’s-quarters and wild mustard leaves with little berries and raw eggs stirred in”), his friend Paul Sumner (“He’s got blue eyes and a jug-handle pair of ears, a puckery, sharp-witted face, a twisty smile”), an old farmer (“He was in his middle eighties and walked very slowly, like a frail Galapagos turtle, looking incongruously weightless but leaning heavily while I helped him to edge through the willow-alder thickets”), and, most vividly, an artificial inseminator named Donald Nault, whom Hoagland started accompanying on his rounds:

Nault has five kids and lives in a frail-looking frame house, shingled gray and set on a hilltop that overlooks most of his working territory, which is twenty-five miles square. His wife is a stocky, pretty woman, an ironist, a pertinacious mother, who stuffs bitterns and flying squirrels to decorate the living room. He is a good explainer and seems to smile more than most people do, although he’s perfectly prepared to yell. He’s gangly and has short gray hair and the open-faced look of a high-school science teacher, with thin-rimmed glasses, a spacious physiognomy but narrow bones. His voice is flat-timbred and dispassionate-sounding; he breaks his vowels in half, twanging the halves in different tones. He keeps bees and hunts with bow and arrow for hobbies, and works in the 4-H program, a much more freewheeling proposition than scouting, being geared to what farm youngsters can do off in the boondocks by themselves. Like the bulk-milk pickup drivers, the feed dealers and John Deere men, he’s one of the county’s peripatetics.

How I love that “he breaks his vowels in half, twanging the halves in different tones”! And the reference to the “bulk-milk pickup drivers” is inspired (you hardly ever see them mentioned in literary writing, yet they’re a common sight on country roads, and their trucks with their gleaming stainless steel tanks are eye-catching).

You can see Hoagland’s associative, nonlinear style at work in the above-quoted passage – in the way it leaps from Nault’s wife, who “stuffs bitterns and flying squirrels to decorate the living room” to Nault “is a good explainer and seems to smile more than most people do, although he’s perfectly prepared to yell,” and then swerves from Nault’s voice (“flat-timbred and dispassionate-sounding; he breaks his vowels in half, twanging the halves in different tones”) to his hobbies (“He keeps bees and hunts with bow and arrow for hobbies, and works in the 4-H program, a much more freewheeling proposition than scouting, being geared to what farm youngsters can do off in the boondocks by themselves”).

Look at the unlikely combination of ingredients of that passage: “five kids,” “frail-looking frame house,” “ironist,” “pertinacious mother,” “bitterns and flying squirrels,” “good explainer,” “open-faced look,” “thin-rimmed glasses,” “spacious physiognomy,” “narrow bones,” “flat-timbred,” “dispassionate-sounding,” “vowels,” “different tones,” “bees,” “bow and arrow,” “4-H program,” “boondocks,” “bulk-milk pickup drivers,” “feed dealers,” “John Deere men,” “county’s peripatetics.” Yet it’s all drawn from real life – the surreal reality of the artificial inseminator, as processed by Hoagland’s voracious eye and ear.

Credit: The above photograph of Edward Hoagland is by Glenn Russell; it appears in the May 5, 2012 Burlington Free Press.

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