[(essay date 2000) 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 Furors Die, in the Farmville Herald on March 21, 1990.]
In the forty-five years since William Hoffman published The Trumpet Unblown, he has published ten other novels, four collections of short stories, and over fifty uncollected stories. Obviously there are numerous ways to approach a body of fiction this large, written over such a long period of time. In her master's thesis, Mary Davis has suggested that the most striking aspect of Hoffman's novels has to do with the initiation of his male protagonist, and she has skillfully revealed how each novel shows a young man's entry into the real world, either escaping from a sheltered innocence or reentering the world of reality from a position of withdrawal and observation.1
Yet if one stands a distance from Hoffman's fictional world and focuses primarily on the novels, he senses that Hoffman's real subject is not initiation, but his own spiritual odyssey. Consequently, I have divided the eleven novels into three groups: (1) the "war novels"--The Trumpet Unblown (1955), Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958), and Yancey's War (1966); these show the effects of war both on the novels' protagonists and on all those with whom he comes in contact following his wartime experiences; (2) the "Virginia/West Virginia novels"--A Place for My Head (1960), The Dark Mountains (1963), A Walk to the River (1970), A Death of Dreams (1973), and Tidewater Blood (1998); in these novels we discover the importance of place, the fragility of human relationships, the influence of the past upon the present, and the emptiness of material success; and (3) the "philosophical/spiritual novels"--The Land That Drank the Rain (1982), Godfires (1985), and Furors Die (1990); in these, both the central characters and the author struggle with questions of spiritual disillusionment, the possibility of redemption, the enormous power of love to suffocate or bring about renewal, and the apparent failure of religion to provide the means for acceptance or salvation.
Although The Trumpet Unblown is actually Hoffman's second novel, it is his first published novel, and we will begin with it. The Trumpet Unblown is largely autobiographical, and ironically, because Bill Hoffman in reality is a gentle, caring man, contains more violence and brutality than any of Hoffman's other early novels. A reader quickly discovers the influence of Ernest Hemingway, especially the Hemingway of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the probable influence of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, especially in scenes and descriptions of military field hospitals where men are depicted as mechanical, detached. But although many of the scenes and characters are based on Hoffman's own experiences in World War II, the...