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E R N E S T L. F O N T A N A Xavier University The Territory of the Past in Hoagland’s Notes From the Century Before Like Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, Edward Hoagland’s Notes from the Century Before is a record of a journey to the far northwest, a journey in space that is, more deeply, a journey into the past — a past that survives in fragments and ruins, in the piecemeal memories of old men and women, survivors of a diminishing historical space, “a previous existence about to be sealed off and stoppered” (308) -1 The Stikine River was for Hoagland, in the summer of 1966, the weaving highway into the otherwise impenetrable land, the way to Telegraph Creek and its old men, where Hoagland “could step back to the Snake River of 1885, hearing stories which hadn’t worn threadbare with handling” (13). Hoagland’s weaving, discontinuous journal flows as the book’s many rivers, with their clogged consonantal names, the Stikine, the Skeena, the Chutine, the Spatsizi, and carries the reader pastward to a life without complicated intentions, where Hoagland travels without itinerary or booked accommodations, his travels a meandering, thought­ less flow into things seen and heard. It is only at Wrangell, after leaving the interior of British Columbia, that the question of accommodations is posed; “Should I book a room ahead?” (291). Much of the initial confusion the reader experiences in reading the journal grows out of its studied absence of statements of intentionality and direction. But the absence of controlled itinerary is related, as I shall show, to the book’s primarily analogical rather than simple sequential or geographical organi­ zation. Hoagland’s journal is a field of allusive analogical relationships and correspondences between apparently unrelated descriptions of things seen, accounts of things heard, and intimate, spontaneous first-person 1A11 quotations are taken from the Ballantine Books edition of Notes from the Century Before, New York, 1972. 46 Western American Literature confessions of a life lived. These sudden, often unexpected confessions2 make the reader aware that it is the intersections of Hoagland, a New Yorker, a reader of Thucydides and Newman, an ex-Trotskyite, a stutterer, and failed husband, with the “Century Before” that are the real subject of the book. But these intersections are not willed, antici­ pated, or even sought after by the author. It is, in fact, his receptive passivity that enables them to occur. As Hoagland flies over the glacier-covered mountains near the Sustut valley, he notes that “To live is to see, and although I was sweat­ ing against my stomach I was irradiated” (177). But hearing, “Hearing stories which hadn’t worn threadbare with handling,” this is more than seeing, at the center of the book. Hoagland functions very much as a stuttering amanuensis who records the spoken memories of scribeless doers, like Willie Campbell, but who, unlike other writers of literary documentary such as Ronald Blythe and Robert Coles, openly translates these memories into his own more sedentary language, into the studied eloquence of the written word. The old trappers, explorers and farmers of Telegraph Creek, of Hazelton, and of the Spatsizi country do not speak directly to the reader but through the medium of the narrator’s sensibility; “Watching me scribble notes, Dan remembers . . .” (261). Here is Hoagland’s translation of John Creyke’s reminiscences of his trapping territory. As I have before with other people I tried to get Creyke to name a favorite valley in this gigantic ocean of heaped-up land almost too enormous to comprehend — some splendid retreat. But he doesn’t respond. His conception seems to be very different. His own assigned territory is twice as large as Delaware, limited though he feels it to be. He didn’t huddle somewhere in a lovely valley; he traveled through; he went everywhere. There was a range of mountains for hunting caribou and another for hunting sheep— maybe still another for goat. There was a river for salmon and a river for trout. There were rivers after these rivers and ranges after these ranges, uncountable vivid valleys that were a heaving, pelagic green. Once the...


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pp. 45-51
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