Tom Wolfe, Richmonder.
The Wall Street Journal designated author Tom Wolfe as one of America’s losses – one of its greatest men of letters – a journalist, novelist and profound cultural observer.
Maria Spalding Hadlow, daughter of Henry and Kaye Spalding, wrote a superb master’s thesis at James Madison University on Virginia author, William Hoffman, including his relationship with Wolfe. Hoffman’s work often referenced the lure of trees (mountains); the water…. that is where his characters and literature struggled.
It is striking how Tom Wolfe’s and William Hoffman’s work harks back to my friend, Don Gehring’s observation: “There’s a whole bunch of us…in us.
While Tom Wolfe was a Richmond native attending St. Christopher’s – then on to Lexington and Washing & Lee; William Hoffman hailed from Charleston, West Virginia, attended public school, graduating from Hampden-Sydney College.
Hoffman’s character-development included depravation of place – grasping justifications – unexpected virtues of simple resilience – desperately searching for an elusive integrity. Tom Wolf stirred the internals of American culture, never once avoiding “balloon puncturing” always spotting the grim modernist…and instructing all the way. Hoffman was serious: Wolfe was simply delicious in his words.
As a 1950’s 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 O D K Honorary Fraternity.
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!”
Tom Wolfe and Bill Hoffman were old friends. A wonderful reunion of the young old friends, Wolfe and Hoffman, happened at Washington & Lee University; it was recorded. They discussed a year in Virginia letters – their year – in Lexington, now six decades ago.
Taking creative writing classes, Hoffman and Wolfe 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 Wolfe 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.”
Hoffman often dressed conventionally, while Tom Wolfe was noted for his white (my mother called the Panama) suits. The one time I had a short opportunity to speak with Wolfe, I reminded him that he reminded me of Senior Senator Harry F. Byrd and his white outfits. Wolfe told me he would take it advisedly.
I suspect Maria Hadlow is warmly comforted by this.