We recently learned that Edward Hoagland’s “On Aging” (Spring 2022) will be included in this year’s Best American Essays anthology, edited by Vivian Gornick. It’s a lovely honor for Hoagland, a Scholar contributing editor whose career has spanned nearly seven decades, as well as for Robert Wilson, our long-time editor, for it was in Bob’s final issue before his retirement that “On Aging” appeared.
I had the opportunity to edit an essay of Hoagland’s more than a decade ago, but because he had, by that time, lost nearly all of his eyesight, our usual process had to be adapted significantly. The only way for us to go over the edit was for me to read the manuscript to him on the phone; he would tell me what changes he wanted to make, and I’d mark them on the page. This turned out to be something of an ordeal—slowly reading 6,000 words (punctuation too), all with a miserable cold that had me coughing and sneezing throughout. Often, after I’d read a sentence to him, Hoagland would repeat it back to me, as if he were measuring it, judging the weight of each word, before making subtle changes when the rhythm wasn’t quite satisfactory to him. And when he rewrote sentences, sometimes even whole passages, they always seemed to emerge note-perfect—his occasional stammer barely slowing him down. It was a master class in style, voice, and nuance. When I told him how much I enjoyed the lilt of a particular sentence, he responded, “Yes, that is pretty good, isn’t it.”
Our work took the better part of the day, mainly because Hoagland’s memory so often went scampering, and much of what he’d written reminded him of one story or another from his past. He told me of his experiences in the circus, of his many trips to Africa, of the time he’d ridden a boxcar on a cross-country jaunt. Though taxing, the experience was one of the most instructive and memorable of my professional life. Before I hung up the phone late that afternoon, I mentioned the title I had come up with for his essay: “The Gravity of Falling.” He paused for several seconds and then said, “I like that.” Thus did our long day end, with a simple affirmation, laconic and firm.
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