WHEN, several years back, Edward Hoagland lost his teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont for writing a controversial essay, novelist Robert Stone came to Hoagland's defense on behalf of PEN, a writers' organization.
"The best and most memorable writing does not always reinforce our rightmindedness, nor should it," Mr. Stone wrote to Bennington's president in Hoagland's defense. "The best writers often catch us off guard and make us uneasy. In doing so, they serve our inner life."
Through some 40 years of writing - five novels, two volumes of travel pieces, and seven collections of essays - this challenge to readers has been one of Hoagland's chief goals. Or rather it has been the effect of his own search using the tool he knows best. In "Balancing Acts," his latest book of essays, he writes, "... one of an essayist's jobs is to push on the seesaw of public opinion, reconsider eclipsed orthodoxies, and air bottom-drawer ideas."
Through it all, Hoagland has had to do his own sometimes difficult balancing: Migrating back and forth between city and country at the risk of being tabbed a "nature writer" by his colleagues back in New York. Coming from a privileged background, yet choosing the more hand-to-mouth existence of a freelance writer. (His father tried to dissuade Hoagland's first publisher from accepting his son's work.) And being in the contemporary literary world but not of it.
You can see Hoagland working through the stress and strains of this in his writing.
"The work of an essayist," he finds, "is, precisely, to pour his heart out." In this sense, he can be favorably compared to some of the best American writers who did draw their inspiration from nature - Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey. In some of the 25 essays published in this collection, he explores their work - their independence and ideas and means of expressing these - in the context of their own intellectual eras (Thoreau and transcendentalism, for example).
Hoagland is an intellectual, but he's also an extraordinary reporter. Whether in Yemen or Wyoming, in Belize or the Okefenokee Swamp, or especially in Alaska, he finds beauty and truth - among his fellow travelers and those he encounters as well as in the landscape.
Hoagland is more than an observer, however, very much part of the scene and activity although not in an obtrusive or egocentric way. His reactions are part of the experience and, legitimately, ours.
"Honesty is a key to essay writing: not just a `room of one's own' but a view of one's own," he writes. "The lack of it sinks more talented people into chatterbox hackwork than anything else."
Or as he put it after the Bennington flap (the college finally offered him his job back), "Any essayist who is always `politically correct' should have his head examined."
Hoagland, who attended prep school with John McPhee and was a Harvard classmate of John Updike, has strong views about the state of American literature today.
"Much of the current literary scene," he observes, is characterized by "greed, talking-head ego-slavering, provincialism, racism, and romanticism of drugs and crime."
He laments that "novelists in America have lost a good deal of their moral force." One reason, he says, is "a feeling lately that to be thought ethical would be an embarrassment."
Speaking of widening class divisions and the rise of homelessness in this country, for example, he wonders "why no writer of a more youthful vim (Steinbeck was thirty-six when he did The Grapes of Wrath) has hit those mean streets with a spellbinding anger."
Hoagland quite correctly observes that "the twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity." His own work to date holds up well by these standards.
And if John Updike is right in judging Hoagland to be "the best essayist of my generation," then one can expect much more writing that is intelligent and true while remaining instinctive - serving the inner life, as novelist Stone said, while occasionally catching us off guard.