New Hoagland essays due soon, memoirs to follow

February 14, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Ted Hoagland's latest collection of essays, "Tigers & Ice" (The Lyons Press), will be out in mid-March. I've spent the past several weeks slowly reading an advance copy, a little at a time, enjoying his stylish observations about people and places far away.

Two long essays, one about a 1993 trip to India, one about a later trip to Antarctica, make up the bulk of "Tigers & Ice."

Hoagland thinks his piece on India, "Wild Things," is probably the best in the collection but says other readers have singled out a short essay, "A Peaceable Kingdom," about his summer home in northern Vermont.

A yellow sticky note between the loose pages of my advance copy marks the beginning of that essay. "The best" is the cryptic note I wrote. This is how it begins: "It's too good to be true, I've always thought, for the past 30 years, when spring rolls around once again and I drive up to my warm-weather home, now the only occupied house on a four-mile stretch of dirt road that crosses a mountain notch in northeastern Vermont." The ensuing descriptions of the house, the land and the wild animals that live there manage to transport the reader to the side of the road, peering over at Hoagland's property.

Maybe this clarity of writing is the result of a bout of blindness. Hoagland was judged legally blind for several years before his sight was restored in 1992.

He started working on his memoirs when he was blind. What else could he write about if he could no longer see clearly? Nothing but memories. But after his vision was surgically restored, he took full advantage of the gift by gorging on travel and rich sights. Hence the trips to India and Antarctica. So before he went back to working on his memoirs he wrote "Tigers & Ice."

His memoir, "In the Country of the Blind," isn't quite finished but he says it will be out next year.

"In it, I'm going to describe what it's like to be blind and in a period of six weeks recover nearly 20/20 vision," he said by telephone from his late mother's home in Edgartown, Mass.

"I'm going to write about prep school (Deerfield Academy) college (Harvard, 1954), the Army, my early romances, my first book, two divorces, getting older, living on the Lower East Side of New York, living in Boston, living in San Francisco, and my only child, Molly," he added.

When Hoagland isn't traveling, writing in Edgartown, or spending the summers at his Vermont home, he's teaching at Bennington College. He has suffered from a mild speech impediment, a stutter, since the age of 10.

"I was born in Manhattan on Dec. 21, 1932, in the depths of The Depression," he said. "That was good for me because (the times) produced a small generation of writers. My father did almost everything he could to discourage me from being a writer including not wanting me to go to Harvard, which he suspected rightly of being a writing college. He told me specifically when I was of college age that there were three professions to aim for: law, medicine and the cloth.

"He asked me to use a pen name when my first book came out so I wouldn't embarrass him and even wrote to the publisher of 'Cat Man' to stop publication," he added.

His father's efforts failed and "Cat Man" (a description of his adventures working for the circus) was published in 1956 when Hoagland was just 23. Did his father's meddling harm their relationship?

"It certainly made my stutter worse," Hoagland said, with a small laugh. "He loved me, but he wanted me to be something other than a writer. He was a corporate attorney and he worried about me. But the irony is, when my book came out the CEO of his company (what is now Exxon) congratulated him on my success. Later, he resigned from the oil company and tried to become a writer himself, which he could not do. He got cancer and died at age 63. I never saw anything he wrote because he destroyed everything before he died.

"When we both knew that his days were numbered we became affectionate with each other. He was very pleased when I began to get teaching jobs at respectable colleges and universities and he could refer to me as a college professor." Hoagland's mother, Helen, to whom "Tigers & Ice" is dedicated, died last spring at age 96.

He is staying at her house, unearthing 19th century family photographs, fixing things, writing, walking on the beach with his sheltie dog, Cisco, and caring for a nameless box turtle that eats a worm a day year round. He will teach a literature class at Bennington this spring and then will have the pleasure again of returning to his peaceable kingdom.

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