William Hoffman Introduction - Essay

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.