by Paul Lefebvre
When writer Edward “Ted” Hoagland turned 80 in December, he had 22 books under his belt. Today, he has one more and is working on another. Of course there’s an essay in the works, from the man writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.” And then there’s a journal he’s been keeping that will be published posthumously.
Some people who come to the Northeast Kingdom think there is nothing to do. Not Hoagland. He bought a house on Wheeler Mountain in the early ’60s, and has been living there ever since as a summer resident.
To the extent it is in the boonies, the Northeast Kingdom has undoubtedly contributed to his impressive literary output.
“I’m doing very well on what is my sixth novel because, well there is no phone, no electricity, which is fine at this time of year,” says Hoagland, who sat for a taped interview at the Chronicle’s office last week. “I don’t use all the daylight there is; I fall asleep before it’s dark.”
Hoagland came to Vermont to buy a house and land when he was about 35. He had been introduced to the state by a college friend whose father, the eminent historian Henry Steele Commanger, had a house in Newfane. Hoagland says the house was “crammed with books” and rural enough to take walks on dirt roads and see tracks from wildlife, “which, of course, I loved.”
A love of wildlife and wilderness landed Hoagland in southern California as a young, hotshot firefighter in the early ’50s. Poking through the country on his off hours, he became so intrigued by mountain lions that he traveled to far-away places, such as the mountains of Alberta, Canada, to see one. This obsession may account for his willingness to risk life and limb when he became a caretaker for MGM’s signature lions, who appeared to produce a loud roar at the beginning of every picture the movie company made.
The company had a retirement home in California for all the lions it had employed since the ’40s. It was also keeping “a very sweet female mountain lion,” which happened to be in heat when Hoagland was there. He says he would often sit next to her cage when no one else was around. Until one day when he was struck with “the impulse to crawl into her cage.
“She was very surprised, and she went to the back of her cage, turned around and sprang at me,” he says.
But as she went to strike him in the face with a paw, she withdrew her claws.
“It was a love tap,” Hoagland says.
Hoagland doesn’t say whether the experience taught him to conquer his fears. But to this day he strikes a fearless posture in the face of adversity.
“If I saw a black bear in the woods, I would say, ‘You are not a grizzly.’ I love animals. I am not going to make you unhappy, but you are not going to scare me.”
Or when he encountered a potential mugger on the street he would say, “You are not a tiger,” and continue on his way.
When Hoagland came to Vermont looking for a place, he was living in New York City, a connection that appears to have helped him find what became his heart’s house. From Avis Harper he got passed on to Em Hebard, who had lived in New York, Greenwich Village, Hoagland’s old neighborhood. And together they found the place on Wheeler Mountain.
“I loved the house to start with,” he says. “I knew it as soon as I saw it. And it wasn’t just the house, it was also the cliffs.”
He figures he’s spent a third of his life there.
“When people ask me about it, I say I’m going to my heart’s home.”
Hoagland says he came to Vermont rather than Maine, New Hampshire, or the Adirondacks because of the people. Prior to Hoagland’s purchase, the man who had lived in the house made corn whiskey and brewed bathtub beer.
“For a long time after I bought the house, old customers would periodically drive up and would be disappointed there was no white lightning,” he say.
From living in Barton, he got to know Phil Brooks, a taxidermist, and Paul Brochu, who owned an exceptionally clever hound dog.
“Paul could call the dog and point to the fox, and the dog would stop chasing the coon and follow the fox. And if they happen to come onto a bobcat track, which is much more valuable, the dog would just pick up the bobcat track.”
The state shared physical characteristics that he had seen elsewhere in his travels. But there was something else. The people. And not just those who shared his interest in mountain lions or wildlife.
“Vermont combined the landscape of the West, I mean it looked like Idaho,” he says. “But the people of the East I have always loved. I’ve been to Alaska and British Columbia, too, nine times. But I don’t like the people who live there as much as Vermont.”
Vermonters, he says, have “more of a sense of conservation.”
At the time he bought the house, he had written three books and was working on his fourth. Although he’s a prolific writer, Hoagland writes with the concentration of a monk. He says it takes him three or four months to write an essay, and four to five years to write a book. He routinely goes from fiction to non-fiction with the facility of a Northeast Kingdom native who can switch from English to speaking French.
If he becomes stymied while writing a novel, he picks up where he left off writing an essay. And often, working on the essay, he figures out the next conversation or scene to use in the novel.
Since Hoagland only spends summers in Vermont, he had never written a book from beginning to end while residing in Barton. But, perhaps not surprisingly, he was in residence at Wheeler Mountain when he wrote the essay, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” which was published in 1971 by The New Yorker.
Other essays of Vermont origin include “Of Cows and Cambodia,” and the “War in the Woods,” after an outing with houndsman Paul Doyle. During the ’70s, Hoagland also wrote “The Moose on the Wall,” which took its title from a head mount inside the Howard Bank and featured his taxidermist pal, Mr. Brooks.
But among Kingdom readers with long memories, Hoagland may best be known for the essay he wrote about the girlie shows at the fair, which caused the uproar that led to their early and premature demise.
“Unfortunately,” says Hoagland. “It was not my intention.”
The shows continued for three or four years elsewhere before they were banned. Hoagland says his essay took the church-going people of Barton by storm. “Of course they stay away from that so didn’t know what happened inside until I wrote about it,” he says. “But they found out why boys went to the fair as boys and came back men, which they had never known before.”
After his spate of Vermont essays, Hoagland traveled to Africa. He went twice during the ’70s; once in 1976 and again in 1977. He went during a time when there was a lull in the fighting. On his return, he wrote African Calliope: A Trip to the Sudan, first published in 1979.
War had returned to central Africa and the Sudan — “that I love so much” — when Hoagland made a second round of visits, once in 1993 and again in 1995. The war caused widespread famine and Hoagland says he had to be there. Strafed by MiGs and living in a church compound close to the war zone, his experience this time around resulted in what some critics believe is his best book, Children are Diamonds.
“It took me 20 years to produce this novel because the experiences are based on my own experiences,” he says. “I did do a couple of pieces for The Nation, but I couldn’t exorcize them through those pieces.”
Hoagland was working as a freelance journalist when he accompanied a transport of food into a relief workers’ compound where thousands and thousands of starving refugees had gathered. It was the first shipment of food since the killing of four UN aid workers four months ago. The scene beggars description.
“They had eaten all the insects, all the grasshoppers, all the song birds,” Hoagland says. “All the area smelled of smoke for in order to smoke out the insects and the rodents, they had burned everything off.”
There were 58 trucks in the transport, carrying corn. He recalls watching children running alongside the lorries, gathering spilled kernels that they would bring to their mothers after acquiring a handful.
It was that moment, he says, that he had the most powerful experience of his life. Hoagland was in his sixties at the time and his hair had turned prematurely white. The women and children equated white with power, and in Hoagland they saw someone they believed to be their deliverer.
“So, they asked me if I was the head of the United Nations,” says Hoagland, who after all these years still chokes up with the memory.
“Are we forgiven?” they asked him.
Hoagland told them he had just arrived from America, and he says they looked at his boots and asked if he had walked.
The most powerful emotion he experienced came moments later when he heard the mothers tell their children: “That white man can save your life.”
And, just like that, he remembers it happened. “These wobbling, staggering children with huge bellies came up and touched me.”
Throughout his career, Hoagland focused on being the best American essayist he could be. But it’s an attitude he’s extended to the very craft of writing, and one that leaves no regrets. Every book he has written, he says, “was the very best I could do at the time.”
contact Paul Lefebvre at firstname.lastname@example.org
For a review of Mr. Hoagland’s newest book, Children are Diamonds, click here.