Ten years ago Edward Hoagland, who had been legally blind for three years, underwent a series of risky—and, ultimately, successful—operations to restore his sight. One of the best contemporary American essayists, known especially for his nature and travel writing, Hoagland had always been highly dependent on his eyesight. "My sense of divinity was visual," he writes in "In the Country of the Blind," the stunning opening essay in his memoir, Compass Points: How I Lived.
The loss of his eyesight stalled Hoagland's careers as writer and teacher, deprived him of the pleasure of walking—"one of life's centerpieces"—robbed him of his confidence and left him frustrated, occasionally in tears. The restoration of his eyesight rendered him "transcendentally gleeful." At least momentarily.
"For a year or so after those operations I was incapable of being unhappy or depressed," Hoagland said during a recent phone interview. He rightly believes his opening essay conveys this sense of exhilaration, that "it is an affirmation of the intense joy of life, which only people who have temporarily lost some part of their life can feel."
Hoagland added, "Unfortunately I couldn't maintain that ebullience. I think I tend to be happier than the average person, but I'm back to normal now, alas."
Well, not quite.
Another extraordinary thing happened to Hoagland during his period of blindness. After more than half a century of stuttering, his stutter almost completely vanished. "I still stutter," Hoagland says, "but perhaps only a tenth as much as I used to. It just seemed that I had to talk since I could no longer see. So I just started talking."
Hoagland's inability to talk easily with other people is a theme—and a fact of his life—that surfaces in many of the 11 essays that comprise the chapters of Compass Points. Such afflictions usually invite superficial psychological analysis. But the shapely complexity of Hoagland's sensibility defeats such easy analysis. In fact, one sure measure of the quality of a personal essay is how adroitly it eludes summary or categorization. By that standard, several of the essays in this book are exceptional. To say, for example, that a lively essay called "Calliope Times" is about Hoagland's experiences joining the circus when he was 18, or that the shaded "Entropy, Alas," is about the breakup of his second marriage, is to say both too little and too much. Like the best literary memoirs, Compass Points contains worlds within worlds.
But, still, those worlds were shaped to one extent or another by Hoagland's stuttering. His abiding interest in nature is surely at least partly a response to his difficulty in communicating with other people. In the chapter "Hitting One's Stride" he writes that the main reason he turned from writing fiction to writing essays was "the painful fact that I stuttered so badly that writing essays was my best chance to talk." And having to contend with the humiliating consequences of his stuttering seems to have allowed him to achieve the unflinching honesty that is the most luminous quality of this memoir.
So, Hoagland responds without hesitation or embarrassment to my question about the difficulty of writing truthfully about even the most intimate aspects of one's life: "For half a century I was hardly able to talk. The fact that my sexual performance was uncertain was really not as constantly embarrassing in all situations as not being able to talk," he explained.
"I lived in New York for 30 years. I was a published writer all during those years. My first novel was published just as I turned 23. My picture at that time was in Time and Newsweek as well as the New York Times. I was precocious as a writer, and I got invited to literary parties. But I stuttered so badly that I was sometimes an embarrassment at those parties," Hoagland recalled. "People would turn away because of my facial contortions, what I call flabbering. My whole face would contort and I would unintentionally spit."
"The only people I was able to talk to through all those years were two or three close male friends plus any woman with whom I was intimately involved. Especially my wives, of course. I didn't stutter at all with my wives," the author said. "If I did have a love affair, it was like having handcuffs unlocked and taken off. I was able to talk to anyone I made love with. So if my lovemaking left something to be desired, it was, in my view and in my experience of other people's reaction, more than made up for by the fact that I was suddenly able to pour my heart out to them."
In Compass Points Hoagland doesn't exactly pour his heart out—his essays are too well wrought for that—but he does write movingly and for the first time about his strained relationship with his father, a straitlaced corporate lawyer for what is now Exxon who tried to block the publication of his son's first novel and hinder his early career as a writer.
"He was afraid my writing would endanger my parents' painstakingly achieved social status to which they had climbed over a long period of time," Hoagland says. "Indeed, he specifically told me that it would destroy their social life, injure his professional career as a corporation lawyer and hurt my sister's chances of marrying well. And of course none of that happened." Instead Hoagland's father was congratulated on his son's literary success by the company CEO.
Hoagland also writes with passion, and growing pessimism, about the environment. "Becoming a committed conservationist," he says, "one also becomes—unfortunately—a pessimist because you start paying attention to the destruction of habitat wherever you are."
He advocates political radicalism and social conservatism. "Political radicalism opposes the forces that are destroying nature, such as rampant capitalism, private enterprise with no limitations put on it, no environmental limitations," he says. "Social conservatism opposes what removes us individually from nature, such as computerization, the dissolution of communities—human communities—and of course the destruction of natural areas, of nature, of habitat, and the dissolution of traditional social boundaries which fit human beings to live in nature, boundaries which involve altruism, courage, community and personal attachments."
Edward Hoagland, who turned 68 at the end of the last millennium, thinks he'll be most remembered for his nature writing. "Because people will want to know what these wild places were like when there are no more wild places. There will be no more wild places! There will be national parks that will be like glorified zoos. But there simply will not be wild places."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.