William Hoffman Essay - Critical Essays

Hoffman, William

Introduction

William Hoffman 1925-

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hoffman's career through 2001.

Hoffman is known for composing gritty, realistic works which advocate stable, transcendent values, continual self-discovery, and personal sacrifice as a means to spiritual redemption in a fallen world. Though a regional writer, his works transcend the concerns of the American South through the essential humanity of their characters and themes, which together mirror much of the turmoil of the last half of the twentieth century. The dehumanizing effects of war are clearly delineated in The Trumpet Unblown (1957), while the impact of economics on personal lives is central in The Dark Mountains (1963). Tidewater Blood (1998) exemplifies Hoffman's many narrative strengths, and his four short story collections reflect his philosophical beliefs and agrarian bent.

Biographical Information

Born in 1925 in Charleston, West Virginia, the son of a coal miner, Hoffman was raised by his grandmother, and a strict Presbyterian upbringing strongly influenced his later fiction. Hoffman graduated from high school at the Kentucky Military Institute in Lyndon, Kentucky. At age eighteen he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served in the medical corps from 1943 to 1946. His experiences in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge shaped three of his novels, The Trumpet Unblown, Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958), and Yancey's War (1966). Upon his return to the United States, Hoffman enrolled in Hampden-Sydney College, from which he graduated in 1949. Intending to become a lawyer, Hoffman attended Washington and Lee University during 1949-50, where he took a creative writing course. He so enjoyed writing that he decided to make it his life's work; accordingly, he participated in the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop from 1950 to 1951. He worked briefly as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and then went to New York City, where he held a minor post at the Chase National Bank. Hoffman returned to Virginia in 1952 in response to an offer from Hampden-Sydney College to become an assistant professor of English. When he returned to Virginia, he began writing fiction and adopted the schedule to which he still adheres, writing from five until nine in the morning, teaching, and then writing again in the afternoon. The discipline this schedule imposed resulted in the completion of two novels, The Trumpet Unblown and Days in the Yellow Leaf. He continued teaching at Hampden-Sydney through 1959, when he resigned to devote himself to writing full-time. During his time away from academic duties he published two more novels, A Place for My Head (1960) and The Dark Mountains. In 1964 he returned to Hampden-Sydney as a writer-in-residence, a post he held for the next seven years. Also in 1964, he purchased a pre-Civil War farmhouse on fifty acres of land near Charlotte Court House for his family, a wife and two daughters. Over the next several years he developed his small farm into a model of self-sufficiency and harmony with the environment of Southside Virginia. Yancey's War, another novel, appeared in 1966, and in 1967 he published a drama, The Love Touch. Two novels, A Walk to the River (1970) and A Death of Dreams (1973), as well as his first short story collection, Virginia Reels (1978), were published in the next decade. Hoffman retired from Hampden-Sydney in 1983 but continues to write. His work has won several prestigious literary prizes, including best story of 1988 from the Virginia Quarterly Review for “Sweet Armageddon,” the Andrew Lytle Prize from the Sewanee Review for “Dancer,” and the Jean Charpiot Goodheart Prize for Fiction, awarded by Shenandoah. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in 1976 and was inducted as a Virginia Cultural Laureate in 1986. Hoffman was awarded the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1992 and the O. Henry Prize in 1996. He was elected to the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 1998, and was a recipient of their Hillsdale Prize for fiction in the same year. Tidewater Blood won the Dashiell Hammett award in 1999. Hoffman has received two honorary D. Litt. degrees, one from Hampden-Sydney College in 1980 and another from Washington and Lee University in 1995.

Major Works

Hoffman's sense of place is paramount in his works; almost all of them are set in West Virginia, Virginia, or the Chesapeake Bay area. His work shares much of the outlook and many idiosyncrasies of other Southern Agrarian authors, yet his themes are universal and strongly influenced by the circumstances of his own life. Critics divide his novels into three categories, those concerned mostly with the following: war, the culture of Virginia and West Virginia, and spirituality. In both his novels and his short stories, Hoffman's characters attempt to define themselves, search for distant or unknown fathers, cope with random violence, examine the devastating effects of war, or question the rampant materialism of the last half of the twentieth century. The Trumpet Unblown tells the story of a young Virginian, Tyree Jefferson Shelby, who altruistically volunteers for service, but in the course of observing unspeakable brutality and venality on both sides loses all faith in humanity. Days in the Yellow Leaf recalls the inevitability of Aristotelian tragedy in the unfolding story of the protagonist, Tod Young. A conscientious objector during World War II, his father considers him a traitor and coward, yet Tod remains in the town of his childhood. In his determination to be his own man and to avoid hurting others, he loses everything except, in the end, reconciliation and mutual understanding with his father. Yancy's War depicts the life of an inept man whose incompetence takes not only his own life but the lives of the men under his command. Hoffman recalls his own West Virginia heritage in The Dark Mountains, a rich novel about the coal mining industry during the rise of the labor union movement. Hoffman traces three generations of a family, showing their rise, decline, and ultimate accommodation to circumstances. In A Walk to the River, a minister stands falsely accused of committing adultery with the wife of the town's leading citizen. Jackson LeJohn, the chair of the church's board, is charged with overseeing the investigation and congregational meetings that result in the conviction of an innocent man and in the course of discharging his duties, he discovers important things about himself.

Hoffman writes repeatedly about moral decay and rampant materialism in modern American society, a concern that led to three novels sometimes categorized as philosophical or religious in theme—The Land that Drank the Rain (1982), Godfires (1985), and Furors Die (1990). The Land That Drank the Rain is a modern day retelling of the tribulations of Job. The protagonist, Claytor Carson, has been living a dissolute life in California but returns to his roots in the Cumberland Mountains seeking spiritual renewal. A character named Vestil Skank, alternately sympathetic and repugnant, is Carson's tormentor and ultimate savior. As Carson attempts to redeem Skank from a life of squalor and degradation, he learns that only through self-sacrifice, personal courage, and interaction with others can he experience redemption. Furors Die traces the maturation and relationship of two boys who come from different socioeconomic circumstances but whose lives are irrevocably intertwined. Wylie, born wealthy and given a Southern gentleman's pedigree, and Amos, poor but talented, experience a reversal of fortunes. As the transformation in their lots occurs, their true characters are revealed, permitting self-understanding and growth. Tidewater Blood, covers Hoffman's entire fictional geography. Several members of an aristocratic Virginia family are murdered at a family reunion. Suspicion falls immediately on Charles LeBlanc, the black sheep of the family. A disgraced Vietnam veteran, dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, LeBlanc has been living hermit-like in a swamp. As law enforcement officers attempt to capture him, he embarks on a quest to his family's roots in West Virginia, where he must come to terms with his family's past in order to prove his innocence. Conflicting cultural values and the power of the past over events in the present, themes that Hoffman explores repeatedly in his works, are strong elements of Tidewater Blood. Hoffman's spare prose, setting, and central themes are evident in his four short story collections. The stories in Virginia Reels are deeply pessimistic and reflective of Hoffman's Calvinist heritage. The stories in By Land, By Sea (1988) and Follow Me Home (1994) are less dark than those in the first collection, but describe characters caught in fateful forces that have moved beyond their ability to either recognize or control. In contrast to the first two volumes of short stories, Follow Me Home contains protagonists with strong values—admirable human beings who have attained innocence through experience. Doors (1999) contains ten linked stories that illustrate the fictional town of Tobaccoton, Virginia, which some critics have compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

Critical Reception

Although long favored by critics, Hoffman's works have languished among readers, except for a small following of devoted fans. Though the nationally esteemed Sewanee Review has, as of 1991, published more short stories by William Hoffman than by any other author, his literary reputation has been slow to extend beyond his home state and Southern vicinity. His supporters note that the range and richness of his work, while confined in setting, is universal in exploring the psychological processes of self-discovery, maintenance of ethical values, and the means to redemption. The Trumpet Unblown has been favorably compared to Ernest Hemingway's great war novels and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, and the characters of The Dark Mountains have been favorably compared to those in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. While some critics see profundity, even mythic power, in the sparse quality of his narrative style, Hoffman's terse diction has been faulted by some as overly simplistic. Despite such criticism and a long career of relative underrecognition, Hoffman's two recent mystery novels, Tidewater Blood and Blood and Guile (2000), have earned him a wider popular readership. His thematic concerns, reiterated in all his works, link him to the tradition instituted by such important Southern authors as Warren, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor.

Principal Works

The Trumpet Unblown (novel) 1957

Days in the Yellow Leaf (novel) 1958

A Place for My Head (novel) 1960

The Dark Mountains (novel) 1963

Yancey's War (novel) 1966

The Love Touch (drama) 1967

A Walk to the River (novel) 1970

A Death of Dreams (novel) 1973

Virginia Reels (short stories) 1978

The Land That Drank the Rain (novel) 1982

Godfires (novel) 1985

By Land, By Sea (short stories) 1988

Furors Die (novel) 1990...

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Criticism

Gloria Galloway (review date 7 April 1968)

SOURCE: “Author First Wrote Love Letters for a Fee,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 7, 1968, p. H14.

[In the following essay, Galloway traces Hoffman's early experiences as a writer, his relationship with his wife, and discusses with the author aspects of Hoffman's house in the town of Charlotte Court House, Virginia.]

Author William Hoffman, who got his “professional” writing start composing love letters for classmates at the tender age of 16, now finds himself cast in the role of country squire.

As author-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College, he teaches creative writing, a field dear to his heart, and as the owner of “Wynard,” a pre...

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Robert Buffington (review date Winter 1972)

SOURCE: “The Intolerable Wrestle,” in Modern Age, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 109-11.

[In the following review of A Walk to the River, Buffington discusses Hoffman's Southern concerns and prose style, finding shortcomings in the novel's dramatization.]

William Hoffman is one of the writers indicted in Floyd C. Watkins’ The Death of Art: Black and White in the Recent Southern Novel (University of Georgia Press, 1970). Professor Watkins’ thesis, simple to argue, is that the fictions of Hoffman, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Spencer, Harper Lee, Jesse Hill Ford, Peter S. Feibleman, and others, including even William Faulkner and Robert Penn...

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Gary Davenport (review date Summer 1983)

SOURCE: “The Fugitive Hero in New Southern Fiction,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 439-45.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport offers a positive assessment of The Land That Drank the Rain.]

Being an American, over a century after Henry James’s celebrated remark, is still a complex fate. What is perhaps more noteworthy in our age of easy mobility, mass communication, and increasing national uniformity is that it is still a complex fate—and a virtually unique fate—to be a southerner. More accurately it is a paradoxical fate. The southerner exists at the intersection of two deeply rooted conflicting traditions: on the one hand stand...

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Walter Sullivan (review date Fall 1985)

SOURCE: “About Any Kind of Meanness You Can Name,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 649-56.

[In the following excerpt, Sullivan commends Hoffman's prose style but finds Godfires to be a reprise of well-worn views and attitudes about the contemporary American South.]

The three novels discussed here are all more or less southern, but otherwise they are about as different as they could be. The hero of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, from which I take my title, is born in Tennessee, but the action of the novel occurs in the American West. Lewis Green's The Silence of Snakes is set in the mountains of North Carolina between the world wars,...

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Robert Merritt (review date 3 April 1988)

SOURCE: “Spirit Prevails in Well-Crafted Tales,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 3, 1988, p. F5.

[In the following review of By Land, By Sea, Merritt praises Hoffman's abilities as a literary craftsman and poignant storyteller.]

William Hoffman is an old-fashioned writer, and this seems to account for both the pleasures of his stories and for some of their annoying traits.

Being an old-fashioned writer from Virginia—Hoffman lives in Charlotte County and was for seven years writer-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College—means that these stories are close to the land and occasionally to the Chesapeake Bay, and they belong to the sense of...

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Christine Neuberger (review date 15 May 1988)

SOURCE: “Southside Life Inspires Author,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, May 15, 1988, pp. C1–C2.

[In the following review, Neuberger relates how Hoffman enjoys living in a small, agrarian community in Virginia, and discusses the inspiration Hoffman draws from the landscape and the people around him.]

Like almost everyone else in this small Southside town. Bill Hoffman can be seen each morning ambling to the post office, greeting others along the way.

In the afternoons, Hoffman will do chores around the small farm he and his wife share with their horses, dogs and cats.

But a typical resident of Southside, Hoffman is not.

...

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Greg Johnson (review date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: “Wonderful Geographies,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 406-16.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson offers a favorable evaluation of By Land, By Sea, though arguing that some of the stories “lapse into melodrama.”]

“The truth is,” Eudora Welty has written, “fiction depends for its life on place.” Her well-known essay, “Place in Fiction,” champions the significance of a story’s setting: “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” The importance of location, according to Welty, transcends any critical commonplaces about...

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William Frank (review date 21 March 1990)

SOURCE: “Hoffman Doesn't Dodge Life,” in the Farmville Herald, March 21, 1990, pp. A1, A3.

[The following review of Furors Dieprovides a plot summary of the novel and lauds Hoffman's abilities as a skilled writer, praising his proficiency with symbolism, language, satire, and setting.]

To the followers of the fiction of William Hoffman, it will come as no surprise that he has dedicated his latest novel—his tenth, Furors Die—to his former minister and his wife. In the first place, Bill Hoffman has always been interested in, and, in his fiction, has never dodged questions of a moral, philosophical, or theological nature: One recalls immediately Tod...

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Robert Merritt (review date 20 May 1990)

SOURCE: “Old-Fashioned Values,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, May 20, 1990, p. G5.

[In the following brief review of Furors Die, Merritt praises Hoffman's talent for describing character and place, but denounces the novel for its old-fashioned attitudes, particularly in regard to its portrayal of sexual relations.]

When William Hoffman is described as an “old-fashioned” writer, what it means is that he's a Southern writer who tries to maintain the old Southern values—to life, as well as literature—in a changing world. In this, his 10th novel, the former writer-in-residence at Hampden-Sydney College and longtime resident of Charlotte Courthouse tries to...

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William L. Frank (essay date February 1991)

SOURCE: “The Fiction of William Hoffman: An Introduction,” in Hollins Critic, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, February, 1991, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Frank provides an overview of the central themes, regional settings and motifs, prose style, and narrative presentation in Hoffman's fiction. Frank's analysis, which aims to enlarge Hoffman's readership, focuses on several representative works—the novels The Trumpet Unblown, The Land That Drank the Rain, and Godfires, and the short story collection By Land, By Sea.]

During the past thirty-five years William Hoffman has published ten novels, two collections of short stories, and over three dozen...

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Gary Davenport (review date Spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Fiction and the Furniture of Consciousness,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. C, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 323-30.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport praises Hoffman's skill as a novelist and offers a positive assessment of Furors Die.]

“Caelum, non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt”: those who rush across the sea change their climate, not their minds. Thus ran Horace’s advice to his travelling friend Bullatius. Given the right sort of mind, you will find what you seek anywhere, even at squalid Ulubrae—or, given the wrong sort, nowhere. Horace’s line has enjoyed a modicum of fame, no doubt because there have always been enough impenetrably...

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Ron Carter (review date 11 September 1994)

SOURCE: “Hoffman Energizes His Tales,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, September 11, 1994, p. F4.

[In the following brief review of the short stories in Follow Me Home, Carter deems the tales to be carefully constructed, humorous, and compelling, but denounces Hoffman for the fact that some of the stories and dialogue seem contrived.]

“We read to know we're not alone,” says a character in the recent film, Shadowlands. Literature comforts us with the knowledge that others share our doubts and fears, our disappointments and heartaches. And it extends this comfort by letting us enter the lives of others and experience the secret longings and broken...

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Fred Chappell (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “Taking Measure: Violent Intruders in William Hoffman's Short Fiction,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIV, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 396-412.

[In the following essay, Chappell draws attention to the recurring motif of an outsider entering into an insular community, or “pocket society,” in Hoffman's short fiction. As Chappell notes, this theme in Hoffman's stories is often dramatized by episodes of violence and menacing reversals that give depth, suspense, and resolution to his narratives.]

The term pocket society describes a definable aggregate of individual people that possesses recognizable dynamic qualities and important, though often changeable,...

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Bill Frank (review date 1 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Hoffman's Novel ‘Tight, Taut, Compelling …’,” in Farmville Herald, April 1, 1998, p. 2B.

[In the following review, Frank enthusiastically praises the literary merits and compelling, thrilling story in Tidewater Blood.]

Move over John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Sue Grafton—there's a new kid on the mystery writer's block! Charlotte County novelist William Hoffman's Tidewater Blood is tight, taut, compelling and convincing.

Two months ago my wife and I were on our way to visit my brother in New Port Richey, Florida via Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of my wife's sister we had with us a twelve hour tape of Dean Koontz'...

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Ron Carter (review date 12 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Hoffman Turns to Suspense,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 12, 1998, p. F4.

[In the following review, Carter lauds Hoffman's characterization and sense of place in Tidewater Blood,but denounces the author for couching the deeper story about the conflict between Virginians and West Virginians within the trappings of a murder mystery.]

Although Cold Mountain and Paradise have managed recently to elbow their way onto the bestseller lists, the top slots are still populated mainly by novels about secret political/economic/terrorist cabals threatening to destroy entire populations unless their demands are met.

In such...

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Bill McKelway (review date 29 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Surprise Ending,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 29, 1998, p. D1, D3.

[In the following review, McKelway extols the virtues of Tidewater Blood, noting that the book marks a departure for Hoffman due to its suspense thriller characteristics, whereas his other works typically feature philosophical examinations and deeper symbolic levels at their core.]

He doesn't remember exactly when the idea came to him, but it dawned on Virginia writer William Hoffman that murdering someone with a time-delayed explosion would make for a novel crime.

Fortunately, the idea has spawned a possible best seller rather than a police record.

...

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Steve Clark (review date 30 April 1998)

SOURCE: “His Novel's Success is ‘Thrilling’ News,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, April 30, 1998, p. B1.

[In the following review, Clark discusses the release of Tidewater Blood, noting Hoffman's easy-going affability and the author's venture into the suspense thriller market with the novel.]

William “Bill” Hoffman came to town yesterday to promote his new novel, Tidewater Blood.

The book, a modern suspense thriller involving an aristocratic Virginia family whose roots go way back, is off to a fine start artistically and commercially.

It has been proclaimed a page-turner by some literary critics, and it is...

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William L. Frank with William Hoffman (interview date 24 May 1999)

SOURCE: “Hoffman Opens His Door: Author Discusses Writing, New Short Story Collection,” in Farmville Herald, June 4, 1999, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following interview, Hoffman discusses his approach to writing, his short story collection Doors,and the thematic concerns of his fiction.]

Editor’s Note: The following interview took place at the home of Bill and Susan Hoffman at their home, Wynyard, in Charlotte Court House, on Monday, May 24. The occasion was the publication of Mr. Hoffman’s fifteenth book and fourth short story collection, Doors. … The interview was conducted on behalf of the Farmville Herald by Bill Frank, Professor Emeritus of...

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Gordon Van Ness (review date 4 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Hoffman's Doors Offers Look at Human Nature,” in Farmville Herald, June 4, 1999, p. 8.

[In the following review, Van Ness offers a positive assessment of Doors.]

“Begin with an individual,” Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1926, “and before you know it you find you have created a type.” Fitzgerald’s “type,” a determined, upper-class young woman, courageous and attractive and independent, competing at life and love for the highest stakes—her future—, centered all his stories. William Hoffman’s fourth collection of stories, titled Doors, also presents a type, though one not so readily defined—an outsider who is not restricted to...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Ron Carter (review date 27 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Hoffman Evokes Sense of Place,” in Richmond Times Dispatch, June 27, 1999, p. F4.

[In the following brief review, Carter offers a positive evaluation of the stories in Doors.]

Few writers have an ear so finely attuned to the pulsebeat of a place as William Hoffman. In the 10 stories collected here [in Doors], all of which appeared previously in prestigious literary quarterlies, Hoffman creates a rich and lovingly detailed tapestry that encapsulates the life of Southside Virginia from its fox-hunting elite to its harried tobacco farmers, confident “come-heres,” and watermen (or, in this case, waterwomen). In the spare, precise prose that...

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William L. Frank (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Novels of William Hoffman: One Writer's Spiritual Odyssey from World War II to the Twenty-First Century,” in The Fictional World of William Hoffman, edited by William L. Frank, University of Missouri Press, 2000, pp. 58-87.

[In the following essay, Frank provides an overview of Hoffman's novels, which he divides into “war novels,” “Virginia/West Virginia novels,” and “philosophical/spiritual novels,” and examines the recurring motif of spiritual longing, disillusionment, and redemption in these works. According to Frank, “Hoffman's real subject is not initiation, but his own spiritual odyssey.” A portion of this essay originally appeared as a review of...

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Gordon Van Ness (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The American Adam in the Southern Wasteland: William Hoffman's Follow Me Home and the Ethics of Redemption,” in The Fictional World of William Hoffman, edited by William L. Frank, University of Missouri Press, 2000, pp. 24-45.

[In the following essay, Van Ness examines the theme of spiritual redemption in the short stories of Follow Me Home. Van Ness identifies Hoffman's protagonists as American incarnations of the biblical Adam, situated in a fallen “southern wasteland.” As such, Hoffman's protagonists are viewed as independent, self-reliant individuals whose rediscovery of old-fashioned morality and the virtues of the heart lead to renewal and “a spiritual...

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Paula Span (essay date 4 February 2001)

SOURCE: “Bestseller Dreams,” in Washington Post, February 4, 2001, p. W11.

[In the following essay, Span surveys Hoffman's career as a writer who has been critically acclaimed but has yet to achieve the status of bestselling author, focusing upon the promotion of his novel Blood and Guile.]

Bill Hoffman walks into the Volume II Bookstore in Blacksburg, Va., on a Wednesday evening and immediately wishes he could walk right out again.

It's the chairs. Past the poster promising “10٪ Off William Hoffman Books During Event,” past the stacks of his novels Tidewater Blood and the just-published Blood and Guile, in the center of this...

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