A Hoffman Redux

Published 10:32 am Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dropping in again on William Hoffman, author, is an inspirational struggle, probably soulful in nature.  “Men in Trees and Men on the Water,” wrote Maria Spalding Hadlow in her master’s thesis at James Madison University.

The lure of “Trees” (mountains) — the “Water” (rivers and bay) became the invitation for Hoffman’s carefully constructed literature. It is striking how Hadlow’s scholarship harks back to friend, Don Gehring’s observation: “There’s a whole bunch of us … in us.”

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Henry William Hoffman, born in Charleston, W. Va., went to Charleston public schools. Serving in World War II (both Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge), he returned home on a hospital ship. Enrolling at Hampden-Sydney College, he received his degree in 1949; Hoffman would spend a post-graduate year at Washington & Lee University with Tom Wolf. His honorary doctorate there followed later.

Hoffman’s character development included depravation of place — grasping  justifications — unexpected virtues of simple resilience — desperately searching for an elusive integrity.

As a 1950s Hampden-Sydney College student, I witnessed the “early Hoffman” in that special place — cool, understated, wise-for-his-time, war-scarred young novelist journeying to where his creativity would beach. We shared our membership installation to ODK honorary fraternity.

In our retirement move to Westham Green condos, I carefully examined our new book shelves; the novels were lined up chronologically — 13 novels, four books of short stories. Recalling his awards: 1992 John Dos Passos Prize For Literature; O. Henry Prize, 1996; the Dashiell Hammett Award for his “Tidewater Blood” (1998), brought rekindled admiration.

Students affectionately called him “shaky” with his occasional World War II shell-shock spasms. All took deep pride in having a novelist-in-residence. His stories reminded us that there’s a little bit of ostrich in all of us – never to abate.

Daniel M. Hawks, assistant curator for Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, recalled his Hoffman creative writing class: one morning each student in the class was required to read the opening paragraph of the “piece” he had been assigned to write. One of the men near the front of the class (whose name I cannot remember) began by saying, “The air was filled with excitement”. Hoffman immediately jumped out of his chair pointed his arms into the air as if he had a hunting rifle and yelled “Bang, bang, bang! I just killed excitement!”

Much later a wonderful reunion of two old friends at Washington & Lee University, Tom Wolf and William Hoffman, was recorded. They discussed a year in Virginia letters — their year — in Lexington, now six decades ago.

Taking creative writing classes, Hoffman and Wolf helped launch W & L’s prestigious literary magazine: “Shenandoah.” Fascinating exchanges between these old friends brought published intricate insights. Each of them remembered the title, plot, even character names of the first story the other published.

Tom Wolf observed that fictional characters had their ways. “I think clothes often are a give-away of who a person thinks they are … a kind of a little window that opens.” Hoffman laughingly agreed.

Richmonder Elizabeth Seydel Morgan, publisher of poetry, directed this awareness to Hoffman readers. “There they were, two Virginia gentlemen talking about the writing life, double-breasted suits and their halcyon days at Washington & Lee.”

Maria Hadlow’s concluding interview brought Hoffman’s assorted thoughts together:  “I was brought up as sort of a privileged character. My mother and father were poor, so we moved in with my grandmother … We went to Florida in the winter. I was sent to private schools and summer camp … my father lost his house and business — everything and his marriage broke up. So I’ve got these two things. I’ve got the side that had the money and the privileges; I’ve got the side that didn’t have anything … so I see it from both side … ” 

He wrote from multiple hearts — multiple places — innumerable spiritual susceptibilities, with deep agonies of an eternal soul. Robert Merritt once described him as a writer with eye for detail, simplicity of dialogue, allowing us in on not only a South as it was, but also a South as it is. This was evident in my Hoffman favorite: “A Place For My Head” (1960).

Dr. John L. Brinkley, H-SC historian and classics professor, reminded us: Hoffman could be blunt with his students, but the intent was always pure.

I suspect Maria Hadlow is warmly comforted by this.

Raymond B. Wallace Jr. is a retired public classroom teacher, a retired trustee of the Virginia Retirement System Trustee, and author of “Essex Memories & Beyond.“ Blog: www.raywallacewrites.com.