Visceral journalism, the kind of writing that relies on gut feelings to get the head working, lost a rare practitioner last month when Henry Beetle Hough died at 88. He was the editor and former owner-publisher of the Vineyard Gazette, the Massachusetts weekly that was, by editorial policy, "devoted to the interests of the six towns on the Island of Martha's Vineyard."
Hough's devotion expressed itself for 65 years. He was a country editor -- and island editor -- whose 24 books gave him a national audience. A final book will be published next month. On such environmental issues as whether Martha's Vineyard ought to be McDonaldized or Dairy Queened, he could write with the ire of an I. F. Stone. On the pinkletinks of May or the biotic wetlands near Ox Pond Meadow, he had the lyricism of Hal Borland or the naturalist Aldo Leopold. In virtuosic attention to pure English, he was often the match of E. B. White.
Hough had little trouble letting readers know where he stood, and he told them where they stood too. Under the Gazette's page one masthead was this: "Island of Martha's Vineyard, seven miles off southeast coast of Massachusetts. Winter population, 12,000; in summer, 62,000. Twenty miles from city of New Bedford, 80 miles from Boston and 150 miles from New York." Over the top of page one, like a headline bannering the incontestable, would be a line of poetry, as in this recent selection from W. H. Auden: "Stand stable here / And silent be, / That through the channels of the ear / May wander like a river / The swaying sound of the sea."
In his columns, editorials and books, Hough listened to the sounds that swayed within his own heart. He wrte in "Soundings at Sea Level" that "I see no shame in the shared quality of feeling, no matter how tenderly or sensitively held, though perspective and proportion do have their importance. At times we weep with Odysseus or shed tears out of longing for Ithaca, and it is natural that we should. Our tears may be for lost love and youth, or any of the lost things that Thomas Wolfe wrote about. The lostness is what counts."
As a boy, Hough summered with his family on the island. It was a time when the butcher shop had sawdust on the floor and Vineyarders used phones that had to be hand cranked. The phone at the Hough home was on a 17- party line. "When dials began to appear," he reminisced, "most of us remained cool to them. . . . Dials did away with the operators who were uniquely helpful in town life. Our own Laura Paul, for instance, knew where everyone was, who everyone was, and what the special relationship of town and island required. When dials came, the whole social order changed."
Hough's writing on nature and conservation avoided the finery of rich metaphors and instead stuck with the physicality of place, his island. Of the pavers, choppers and diggers who came to the Vineyard in the name of development, he wrote: "My sympathies are with the dispossessed, the fauna and flora so long and so beautifully accommodated, and I do not think that broad, open fields regularly subdued by high-powered agricultural equipment can produce habitats for wildlife of any account whatever."
In taking on the moderns, Hough did not neglect the ancients: "In high school my teacher praised the 'Odyssey' for its often- repeated metaphor, 'When the rosy-fingered dawn appeared.' But in all my watching sunrises I have never seen any fingers in the eastern sky -- layers, patches, streaks, and singular creatures, but never fingers, and of all the morning hues 'rose' seems to me the rarest."
Hough had another rebuke for Homer: "The 'Odyssey' persists in my mind also for that other unfortunate figure, 'They smote the foaming water with their oars.' A clumsy attempt at locomotion, surely, and how odd for a seafaring race not to feather its oars even in childhood, by instinct if not by instruction, in the way known to the generations of Martha's Vineyard."
This relish of controversy was intellectual mostly, because in personal relations Hough was a kind spirit who sugared the pills he dispensed. The medicine was no less effective.
Recent issues of the Gazette have carried a seawall of columns in tribute to Hough's career and contributions. For some, emotions crested following his death. A page one story told of one "inimitable" citizen who wanted the flags of Edgartown flown at half- mast in honor of Hough. Local officials, said the story, "gave him the runaround when he came forward with the suggestion. He finally took matters, and the halyards of town flags, in his own hands."
That, it would now appear after 65 years of faithfulness, is what Hough had been doing: taking things into his own hands and then delivering the printed results into the hands of the waiting readers.