Something of a secret here on the Vineyard, Edward Hoagland lives in a lovely old house on a quiet street in Edgartown, lunches at The Anchors, and prowls the town from the courthouse to the post office to the library to the bank, where he spurns the ATM so he can chat up the tellers inside. A shy guy (so he says) who’s been hobbled by a stutter all his life, he shuttles about a bit cautiously these days, but only until he recovers from a cornea transplant and regains a reasonable amount of vision, maybe by his 82nd birthday, late next month. When he can see where he’s going again, he’s liable to head off almost anywhere, something he’s been doing since 1953, when he decided to be a freelance writer. He shares the house in Edgartown with Trudy Carter, his partner for the past 26 years, a licensed social worker who works for Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.
In the literary world, Hoagland has been as well-known and respected as perhaps anyone else alive, at least in this country, for decades. How many writers can draw on peers like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, Annie Proulx, Philip Roth, Wallace Stegner, and Annie Dillard for blurbs on the back of their books?
Early this month, he published “On Nature” (Lyons Press), a reissue, with some new material, of his 2003 collection of essays. “The Devil’s Tube” (Arcade), a collection of short stories that spans 60 years, will be released in December. In 2011, when he was 78, he published “Sex and the River Styx,” a collection of essays, followed in 2012 by “Alaskan Travels”(Arcade), a chronicle subtitled “Far-Flung Tales of Love in Adventure” (all true), and in 2013 by “Children Are Diamonds”(Arcade), a novel set amid civil war and massacres in central Africa.
It’s been a run of fertility (his word) that Hoagland is proud to point out, but he also calls it “astonishing,” because he considers it so rare. Why would anyone stop writing, he wonders, unless they had to?
Writing has been everything to Hoagland from a very early age. “As a stutterer, I was unable to talk to anyone but close friends and my parents,” he said in a conversation last week. “I longed to converse.”
Then came the dream of producing a great American novel. “When I was 18,” he said, “I pictured my career like a comet which blazes until you’re 32, and then you’re finished, but your work will be read by later generations.” Not to waste any time, he sold his first novel, “Cat Man,” which he wrote in pencil in the third subbasement of Widener Library, before he graduated from Harvard. It was the first of 23 books so far, along with hundreds of essays and short stories, and countless book reviews. Typically quick to quantify, he said that “Cat Man” ran to 110,000 words, and that he had spent about 11,000 hours on it.
Suspicious that a doctorate and academic life might suck the sap from him, Hoagland headed out into the world, and around it. He walked prodigious distances in New York, hitchhiked across the U.S., spent three months in Sicily, Paris, Greece — wherever a story or his curiosity took him. He’s been almost everywhere, but Alaska and Africa have drawn him back time and again.
Still, he has always been drawn to teaching. Between 1963 and 2005, he taught at 10 colleges and universities, from U.C. Davis to Bennington — a succession of part-time jobs that fed his appetite for engaging with young people, but insulated him from the perils of academia, its infighting and endless meetings. Teaching was also a hedge against loneliness, which he calls an occupational hazard for a writer. He simply wasn’t interested in a “tenured position and a swimming pool.” What if Harper’s called and wanted to send him to India, or American Scholar(where he is a contributing editor) asked him to weigh in on geezerdom?
His aversion to entrenchment started early: When he was 12, he announced to his parents that he was a socialist — this from a child of privilege who was brought up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in New Canaan, Conn. And he travels light, without a fixed itinerary, often booking only the first night’s accommodation when he arrives somewhere. He prefers to let random interactions and spontaneous decisions help shape the story he’s tracking down.
There’s nothing accidental about Hoagland’s writing, however. He’s kept notes for 60 years before using them, and he never lets up. When he’s home, he works every day for an average of 50 hours each week, just as he did at college in the early 1950s. He writes 20 words an hour on the first draft of an essay, 10 for fiction — and the same on the second draft. On the third, he speeds up to 30 words per hour. He spends three or four days on a book review, about three months on an essay, and up to two decades on a novel.
Because he can’t read right now, he’s off book reviews for the time being, but usually he’s got a review, an essay, and a novel cooking simultaneously, using two identical Olympia portable typewriters. “That way you never lose any time, or energy,” he said. “If the novel’s not going well, I can turn to an essay. … I always tend to have a novel in progress, because I would still love to write a marvelous, marvelous novel.”
One typewriter is on a small desk in his small study, the other on top of a dryer in a narrow hall leading to that study so he can unkink from time to time. “I’ve never used a computer; I wouldn’t know how to turn one on,” Hoagland said, sounding more practical than defiant: Why waste time figuring out to operate a new gadget?
Though the allure of a great novel has never faded entirely, over time he understood that his talents were as an essayist. “My aptitudes were not those of a novelist,” he said. “I didn’t have the memory or the imagination of a great novelist.”
And he wanted to endure. “Passionate, enthralling novels are a young person’s game,” he said. “Essayists live longer: they draw on considered opinion, decades of experience, moderation, tolerance.”
Too many essayists are unable to avoid the restrictions of the form, either in scope or tone, and they end up sounding pedantic. Hoagland managed to avoid this common pitfall — perhaps because he has a great ear, certainly because he’s worked hard at it. It’s because he gets it — that the form is only the framework, ultimately uninteresting without the sheathing, the floorboards, the shingles and the caulking — that his essays are so rich, so unusual.
Two elements in Hoagland’s essays help make them stand out. First is the way he inserts himself, in all his warty glory, into the story, which helps take the sting out of an unsettling, or simply unpleasant, train of thought: If he can go there, maybe I can too. Second, he is a master of transition. His segues are so seamless, at times seeming almost haphazard, that you don’t know you’ve changed gears until you look at the speedometer. It’s tempting to decide he’s a natural, with otherworldly gifts that make it all look easy, like Fred Lynn tending to center field at Fenway.
It’s not always easy reading, however. Sentences can go on, and on, and it can be hard to keep your seat on what sometimes feels like a runaway horse. It can be demanding, but it’s never inaccessible — probably because it’s so precise. And the rewards are absolutely worth the effort. Once you get the hang of it, it’s infectious and affecting, and it’s hard to stop reading, even if the topic doesn’t interest you at first. You know, somehow, that you are in the hands of a master, and that you may miss something amazing if you bolt. Best bet is to relax, appreciate his craft, and let him fly the plane.
Meanwhile, today, Hoagland is worried about the future. At an age when most people look back — sometimes forlornly, often sentimentally — he writes about the present, aggressively pointing out the not-so-wonderful condition of our world, hoping we’ll wake up and take charge, but fearing that we’re hooked on the secondhand realities served up by inescapable technological sops, and thus dispirited.
But he isn’t about to give up, no matter the odds. He loves life too much and he’s too curious. Remember, this is a guy with a handicap that’s partially caused by insecurity who’s put himself in precarious situations throughout his life — exploring rivers most of us have never heard of in Alaska, hitching a ride into the teeth of a vicious civil war in the south Sudan, and creating memorable accounts afterward. So it shouldn’t be surprising that, when asked if he still loves to write or is mostly writing from habit these days, he jumped in: “No! I love it!”