A Life in This World

A memoir of the writing life in country and city, and Mark Twain encounters the Aga Khan

Image of Edward Hoagland based on phograph by John J. Foley, Jr./Pantheon Books

The child, we're told, is father to the man, and one might reasonably expect a memoir to provide the evidence. But essayist Edward Hoagland tells us little about his childhood ("nerdy, squirrelly, yet bold enough within the sphere of a loner" is about it), next to nothing about his experiences at prep school, and reduces his college years to a short list of eminent mentors inside "sumptuous Harvard" (Archibald MacLeish, John Berryman) and out (Henry Steele Commager). He manages to do his genealogical duty, introducing us to a bewildering array of farmer Hoaglands and merchant Morleys, but this is really an aside.

Hoagland was--and is--simply impatient with preparation, with background: he wants to get on with it. And what "it" is is life in this world, the multivarious experience of a "pell-mell, devoted life." As a young man he loved the plays of Beckett and Pinter, Ionesco and Genet, but the despairing premise of Absurdism was absurd. Most great art--Cervantes, Chaucer, Rabelais, Tolstoy--is celebratory. He thought of himself as a pantheist, with the emphasis, surely, on pan. "My own belief is that whatever heaven exists is here on earth and if you can't be jubilant while you're alive, when do you plan to?"

Like many young men, Hoagland was drawn to the West, to wide open spaces, to the "balm of the wild." But he also embraced the "fizz and seethe" of cities: "Boston's sourball sweetness, with its softer darkness, orangey streetlights, miniature but meta-ethnic neighborhoods--Italians back-to-back with Irish, blacks with Portuguese and Chinese, North End, South End, West End, the weekend street markets at Faneuil Hall, yet Skid Row nearby, Charlestown, East Boston, Roxbury, Somerville, Cambridge, Back Bay"; and later, his West Village neighborhood where "Everyone and practically everything coexisted, the drug deals and leather clubs and prostitution in the blocks beside the river, the bachelor career people getting started, the middle-level couples, hetero- and homosexual, raising children or living quietly...plus the throngs of customers enjoying our savory little food joints, our Indian, Burmese, Ethiopian, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, or Tunisian restaurants, or oddball, raggedybag, cosmopolite shops." He thrived in the polyglot diversity of the Lion's Head ("my Irish saloon" on Christopher Street), and followed his "tropism to crowds" into stadia, street markets, Billy Graham crusades, and protest marches. What he celebrates is diversity--"more species than mine" in the wild places, "more personalities than me" in the cities.

Perhaps the librarian and the gangsterÍs daughteBecause Hoagland's nature essays are widely known, reviewers and dust jackets have repeatedly called him our new Thoreau. But Compass Points portrays a man whose temperament, whose indiscriminate appetite both for the call of the wild and the thrum of the city, whose drive to witness and catalog are Whitmanesque rather than Thoreauvian. What was incubating here, from the beginning, was a new Specimen Days.

While Thoreau traveled widely in Concord, Hoagland has traveled widely. He had hitched and driven and ridden the rails through 43 states before he graduated from college, and then the rest of the world beckoned: the wilds of northern British Columbia and Alaska, Italy, France, Turkey, Samos, Spain, the Sudan, Antarctica. Handicapped by a stutter well into middle age, he would roam the world, "gorge on every waking sight," and tell his stories in print.

Already working a strict regimen of fiction-writing in college, Hoagland wished to "absorb the cruel along with the good." (Classmate John Updike and John Cheever, the New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post writers, weren't "putting the warts in.") He gravitated to fringe cultures and operations, where warts were plentiful, hitting the rails with the Ringling Brothers circus, hanging out in Stillman's boxing gym on Eighth Avenue (it "demeaned you, smeared you in its degradation"), following the fortunes of Cajun trappers, commercial garfishermen, wildfire-fighting Indians, bear biologists, tugboat crews, and gator hunters. His first books, published in his twenties, were novels set in the underworlds of the circus (Cat Man) and the boxing gym (The Circus Home). (His father, who believed that art should be uplifting and who feared for his reputation in the law, tried to stop publication of the first.) These novels, and a third (The Peacock's Tail), though generally well received by critics, sold poorly--they "had style and everything else hard work could give them," Hoagland now says, "but not wisdom"--and he was to spend his mid and late thirties transforming himself by way of journal writing into an essayist.

Hoagland has known a couple of generations of contemporary writers, and readers hoping for literary gossip will find it scattered through Compass Points. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Alfred Kazin turn up, as well as Pynchon, Burroughs, Rexroth, and Ginsberg. (Jerzy Kosinski would call from uptown and ask you over; but when you arrived you had to hunt for him, because he would be hiding in a closet.) Having observed America's literati for the last half-century, Hoagland concludes that nice guys in the writing business finish neither first nor last, but usually in the middle, "Steinbeck a nicer guy than Hemingway and not as good a writer, though better than many; Bernard Malamud a nicer guy than Norman Mailer and not as talented, yet more so than many."

Here, too, is a guidebook (albeit a sketchy one) to Hoagland's love life. For someone who got a slow and awkward start--he published a novel before he lost his virginity--he has held his own during an era of what playwright Peter Weiss called "general copulation." Whether living in New York, roaming the world in search of stories, or anchored for a time in a college town as writer-in-residence, Hoagland found that women responded to his romantic gypsy writer/teacher persona. (His handicap seems to have appealed particularly to nurses and social workers.) He identifies some of his lovers in passing by first name (Leonore, Barbara, Brigit, Linda, Trudy) or, in the classic American fashion, by occupation: "a Beowulf scholar in California...a middle-aged social worker in Iowa City...a chef at Sweet Briar, a librarian in Wisconsin," an art teacher in Houston, a Jewish gangster's daughter from Florida's Gold Coast. Some readers will wish that these teaser references had been omitted, while others will instead regret that the relationships haven't been fleshed out: Who were these women who granted Hoagland temporary moorage, and what was their take on the a!=airs? Perhaps the librarian and the gangster's daughter will write memoirs of their own.

What you do in a Hoagland essay is hang on, gladWe learn little more about Amy, whom Hoagland married in his late twenties and left--he now suspects for no good reason--four years later, a move he concludes was "good for my writing but bad for my soul." In his mid thirties he married Marion Magid, a "formidably well read" editor and translator from the Yiddish at Commentary. Marion introduced her "shabby-Ivy" WASP husband to New York's community of Jewish intellectuals, helped him become an accomplished essayist, and published him in her magazine. A daughter, Molly, was soon born, and together the new family bought a down-at-heels house (spring water, no electricity) and 40 acres near Barton, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, which has now been Hoagland's seasonal alternative to the City and rich source of warty essay material--garter-snake colonies, hippie communes, domestic violence, county fairs--for more than 30 years.

Molly was a joy to raise, and the marriage persisted. Hoagland managed to be faithful for a decade--apparently behavior unprecedented among their circle--but problems arose. Hoagland resumed having affairs (he thinks there is something to this notion that men are polygynous by nature), while Marion, to the consternation of her leftish husband, moved in lockstep when Norman Podhoretz took Commentaryto the right, "banging the drum for the Cold War and fisting the Arabs." The marriage ended after 25 years, but Hoagland, along with Molly, was in attendance, shortly thereafter, when Marion succumbed to cancer.

Compass Points begins with an essay on seeing. If we're "here to see God's world while we can," and if a "writer's work is to witness things, indoors, outdoors, wherever," it follows that nothing else is as important as one's eyes. But when, in middle age, Hoagland's lifelong poor vision deteriorated further, and blindness approached, simple sight became "an ecstasy next to which sex...was small potatoes." He found himself feeling less pity for street people foraging in trash cans "just because they could see. The hell with what you had to eat, if you could see." Fortunately, cutting-edge surgery has, temporarily at least, restored Hoagland's sight, provisioning him once again with the "scrumptious colors of food on my plate," the faces of his students at Bennington College, the loom of Wheeler Mountain over his place in Vermont.

Readers opening this memoir expecting conventional progression and formal elegance will be disappointed, but Hoagland isn't going to apologize for that. Compass Points is, after all, a collection of essays, and essays, the author tells us, are more like life than fiction: short on plot, "anticlimactic, repetitive and yet random," looping in form, "sprinkled with subordinated memories." What you do in a Hoagland essay is hang on, glad for the ride if unsure of its destination. Both "ride" and uncertainty are, indeed, built into his universe, whose bedrock reality--and a recurrent trope in the work--is Brownian motion, the unpredictable zigs and zags exhibited by particles suspended in a fluid. And by every particle of us, and by every one of us moving through the world like ricocheting billiard balls.

In a fragment called "Americana, Etc.," published 30 years ago in his first volume of essays (The Courage of Turtles), Hoagland describes in the crush of city crowds the "unexpected exhilaration of being a mote in a vast winding creature buoyed by itself." Now, approaching 70, he returns to that image, this time portraying his sense of the hereafter. "We will be motes in the ocean again soon, leached out of the soil of some graveyard, and everlastingly rocking."

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