“The Courage of Turtles” by Edward “Ted” Hoagland (1968)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

Black and White portrait of Hoagland

Edward “Ted” Hoagland is a prominent American essayist, known especially for his nature and travel writing. If the sheer volume of his works wasn’t enough to establish his place among America’s foremost essayists, his essays on American life, from taming circus cats to his meditations on the Transcendentalists, make him one of the most diverse and important essayists of our time.

In 1932, Hoagland was born in New Canaan, Connecticut. He began his writing career with the publication of his novel Cat Man in 1956, two years after graduating from Harvard. Though he began as a novelist, he soon learned after writing and traveling in British Colombia that the personal essay suited him best. Since then, he has published dozens of essays, as well as many novels and short stories. According to Hoagland’s website, “[Hoagland’s] non-fiction has been widely praised by writers such as John Updike, who called him ‘the best essayist of my generation.’ ”

Hoagland has taught at various schools across the country, including Rutgers, Sarah Lawrence, Brown, and Columbia. He currently lives in Vermont and continues to write, just as he did years ago, on a portable typewriter.

Essay’s Form

Hoagland’s  “The Courage of Turtles” interweaves three different anecdotes to illustrate how he has interacted with the natural world as well as to show the reader his observations on the relationship between animals and human beings.

Random House’s publication of “The Courage of Turtles,” 1970

The essay begins as a reflection on the narrator’s childhood. It describes his childhood walks in the woods by the ponds in Connecticut, which later were destroyed for the sake of residential development. He reflects on and describes the turtles he saw as a boy and what they meant to him.

The narrative then shifts to a moment when he witnesses the commercial exploitation of turtles in New York. He subsequently reflects on the burden of caring for these turtles, both physically and philosophically, and reaches a conclusion that is both humanizing and unsettling.

Throughout the essay, the narrator demonstrates an extensive knowledge of turtles by writing about them anthropomorphically, with an acute perceptual sensitivity that gives the animals a personality and emotion. This, along with his poetic prose and his ability to mix natural history with autobiography and social commentary, is what makes this piece particularly innovative.

Immediate Context

The essay initially appeared in the 1968 December edition of The Village Voice, where Hoagland happened to have an editor friend at the time. Hoagland admits to having made thirty-five dollars off of the publication; however, the real reward was being seen by the largest audience he had up to that point enjoyed.

Hoagland and his typewriter, 2011

When “The Courage of Turtles” was first published, The Village Voice had established itself as a periodical to change American journalism. Co-founded by Norman Mailer, Ed Fancher, and Dan Wolf, the paper operated on the premise that good writers were looking for places to publish. An editor could issue an open call for pieces and pick through submissions to find the best work. This approach let the Voice publish good writing at minimal cost, and it also allowed the paper to discover stories other publications weren’t running. The Village Voice became known for its interesting and often surprising content, for journalism that employed conventions of literary essays and fiction, and it served as a fitting home for Hoagland’s essay.

Subsequent Appearances

Only two years after its publication, Hoagland released a collection of essays, and “The Courage of Turtles” served as its title piece. The collection was published by Random House in 1970 and reissued by Warner in 1974, then North Point Press in 1985, and finally by Lyons and Burford in 1993.

The Lyon’s Press publication of “Hoagland on Nature”

More recently, he has included “The Courage of Turtles” in another collection titled Hoagland on Nature, which was published by the Lyons Press in 2003. Hoagland’s passionate defense of nature has included him in a “green tradition” of American literature that extends at least from Thoreau to Edward Abbey.

This famous essay has also been included in the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay (1995), edited by Phillip Lopate.

Bibliographic Materials

Cat Man book cover. Amazon. 28 November 2011. <http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Man-  Edward-Hoagland/dp/B0007E6STQ>

“The Courage of Turtles” book cover. Sawtooth Books. 28 November 2011.          <http://www.sawtoothbooks.com/store/18291.htm>

“Edward Hoagland.” Wikipedia. 28 November 2011.    <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Hoagland>

“Hoagland on Nature” book cover. Open Library. 28 November 2011.        <http://openlibrary.org/books/OL3317660M/Hoagland_on_nature>

Hoagland portrait. Vangobot. 28 November 2011.     <http://popartmachine.com/item/pop_art/LOC+1148250/function.pg-connect>

Hoagland and old book covers. Burlington Free Press. 28 November 2011.             <http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20110626/ARTS04/106260307/Edw             ard-Hoagland-chronology>

Hoagland and typewriter. Burlington Free Press. 28 November 2011.             <http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20110626/ARTS04/106260306/Ted-            Hoagland-making-an-essayist>

Johnson, Tim. “Ted Hoagland: The Making of an Essayist”. 26 June 2011. Burlington      Free Press. 28 November 2011.             <http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20110626/ARTS04/106260306/Ted-            Hoagland-making-an-essayist>

Menand, Louis. “It Took a Village: How the Village Voice changed Journalism.” The New Yorker. 5 Jan 2009. Web. 2 Feb. 2013. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/01/05/090105fa_fact_menand>

Text and images: Catherine O’Connor and Laura Steadham Smith.