Hoffman was born Henry William Hoffman in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 16, 1925, the second child of Julia Beckley and Henry William Hoffman. After his parents divorced, Hoffman, his sister Janet Kay, and their emotionally unstable mother lived with Hoffman’s wealthy grandmother in her coal-baron father’s home. Despite their father’s absence, their mother’s illness, and the, the children had a happy childhood.
Hoffman was educated in the Charleston public schools and after graduation attended the Kentucky Military Institute, finishing in 1943. He entered the U.S. Army in September 1943 and served as a medic in the Normandy campaign and at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. After receiving four battle stars, Hoffman was sent home on a hospital ship, emotionally exhausted, and, in his words, “in pretty bad shape.” He was discharged in February 1946.
He immediately enrolled at Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1949. He studied law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, where he took a creative writing course “just as a lark.” After publishing his first short story inin 1950, he quit law school and enrolled at the Iowa Writers’Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa. He stayed only one year, however.
After working in Washington, D.C., for the Evening Star newspaper and for the U.S. Department of Defense, and then in New York City for Chase National Bank, Hoffman returned to Hampden-Sydney. He taught at the college from 1952 until 1959, and served as a writer-in-residence from 1966 until 1973, when he retired. Hoffman and Alice Sue Richardson were married in 1957 and lived first in Farmville and then in Charlotte Court House, where they bought the antebellum home Wynyard.
Hoffman’s early novels are dominated by the Second World War. His time in Europe serving as a medic was an experience the writer has admitted he never got over, and the protagonist of The Trumpet Unblown, like Hoffman, is sickened by the horror of combat. In Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958), an emotionally scarred World War II veteran is accused of murder. And in Yancey’s War, the title character, a Virginia recruit and veteran of World War I (1914–1918)—middle-aged, “roly-poly,” and “sagg[ing] in the yellow-hot sun like a stick of butter set on end”—performs an unlikely feat of heroism.
Much of Hoffman’s subsequent fiction is centered not on the war but on place, and in particular on Virginia. His first collection of short stories, Virginia Reels (1978), features nine stories set throughout the state, including the fictional town of Tobaccoton—a stand-in for Farmville. The 1963 novel The Dark Mountains is set in coal country and features James MacGlauglin, an uneducated Scottish immigrant turned wealthy coal baron based on Hoffman’s own great-grandfather. In Lies, a tenant worker’s son, now a wealthy businessman, returns home to face some difficult truths. Like so much of Hoffman’s writing, it dwells on community, family, the changes of the modern world, and the elusiveness of the American dream.
Hoffman is most widely known for his mystery novels, including Godfires (1985), a story about a down-on-his-luck commonwealth’s attorney investigating the murder of a wealthy local man. In the middle of what might otherwise be a rather formulaic plot, Hoffman inserts what the New York Times called “a fanatical theological dialogue between two voices at first identified only as master and slave.” The device allows the author to explore murder, sin, and forgiveness, placing Godfires, according to the Times, “beyond the realm of suspense novels … and into a frightening exposition of human nature.”
In addition to his novels and short stories, Hoffman authored two plays, The Love Touch (1967) and The Spirit in Me (2007). Although never published, The Love Touch had a successful run at thein Abingdon, Virginia, during the summer of 1967. A serious drama with content both starkly religious and violent, it was later revived, although unsuccessfully, in Richmond and at Hampden-Sydney College. The Spirit in Me, based on a short story of the same title, had a reading at the 2007 meeting of the Fellowship of Southern Writers in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
William Hoffman died in Farmville on September 13, 2009.
- The Trumpet Unblown (1955)
- Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958)
- A Place for My Head (1960)
- The Dark Mountains (1963)
- Yancey’s War (1966)
- The Love Touch (play, 1967)
- A Walk to the River (1970)
- A Death of Dreams (1975)
- Virginia Reels (1978)
- The Land That Drank the Rain (1982)
- Godfires (1985)
- By Land, by Sea (1988)
- Furors Die (1989)
- Follow Me Home (1994)
- Tidewater Blood (1998)
- Doors (1999)
- Blood and Guile (2000)
- Wild Thorn (2002)
- Lies (2005)