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CHARLES FENNO HOFFMAN
Forty years ago, a man tall and of gallant bearing, with frank, handsome face and notable charm of manner, was a conspicuous figure among the literati of New York City. This man, then in the prime of intellectual promise, was Charles Fenno Hoffman, an American writer, who for more than thirty years was an inmate of the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital at Harrisburg, where he died on the 7th of June last. Few can be living who knew him before his retirement from the world, and to those who have since become acquainted with his writings, his long seclusion was as a seal upon his existence. Yet a new generation may be willing to read a brief sketch of an author whose songs still have power to charm,
and whose name will always be associated with the early triumphs of American literature.
Ir. Hoffman was born in New York City in 1806. He was the son of Judge Hoffman by a second marriage, and brother of Ogden Hoffman, the famous advocate, of whose forensic eloquence there are many striking traditions. The father was also a distinguished pleader, a contemporary of Hamilton, Burr, and Pinkney, with whom he often successfully contended for the honors of the bar. The name of Fenno was derived from the maternal grandfather, John Fenno, who won celebrity as an exponent of the old Federal party during the administration of Washington.
Charles entered a Latin grammar school in New York at the age of six, where he remained three years; thence went to an Academy on the H son, from the severe discipline of which institution he freed himself by running away; and it was then thought best to provide a tutor for him. . This instructor was found in the person of an accomplished clergyman living in New Jersey. It was during a visit home from his tutor that the sad accident occurred which resulted in the loss of his right leg. He attempted with some playmates to leap from a pier onto a passing steamboat, and was caught between the wharf and vessel. The leg was amputated above the knee, and for the rest of his life he walked on a cork substitute, so well constructed and managed that few would suspect his loss. This calamity chanced when he was about twelve years old, and quenched for a season his young ardor for physical exercise; but far from proving a permanent deprivation, his infirmity seemed to feed an ambition already eager to excel in all manly sports; and, later, with rod and gun, in horsemanship, or even at swimming, he was not easily surpassed.
He entered Columbia College at fifteen, and remained three years, leaving without having graduated, and perhaps more proficient in the ex ercises of the gymnasium than in the studies of the classes. That his Alma Mater held him in esteem, however, may be inferred from the fact, that at the first semi-centennial anniversary of the college the honorary degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him. On leaving college he began the study of the law in Albany, and when twenty-one was admitted to the bar. For three years thereafter he practiced in the courts of the City of New York, and at the same time wrote anonymously for the New York American, though his first published efforts were of an earlier date. It was owing quite as much, probably, to the family predilection for law as it was to temperament and fitness, that he essayed a legal career, and his perfunctory practice was soon abandoned for the more alluring and congenial field of literature.
From association in the editorship of the American. above mentioned, he successively controlled the Knickerbocker Magazine, and American Monthly Magazine, having established the former in 1833. In the autumn of that year he made a remarkable journey on horseback through the North-western States and Territories, returning home by a circuitous route through the South-west and Virginia. The literary outcome of this adventurous trip-extraordinary as a test of nerve, courage and endurance -was “ A Winter in the West," a graphic and spirited narrative of observation and travel, published in 1835. “ Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie," appeared in 1837, a work in which the author's love of woodcraft and knowledge of Indian legend and tradition found felicitous and effective expression. During the same year, while editor of the American Monthly Magazine, his first novel, “ Vanderlyn," was published in the pages of that periodical. His labors and his pen were not confined to the American Monthly, for during his long editorship of that journal he also conducted for a year the New York Mirror, and contributed miscellaneously to the New Yorker and many other papers. Greyslaer ; a Romance of the Mohawk,” his finest story, appeared in 1840, and was an immediate and deserved success. Two editions were circulated in New York, one in Philadelphia, and one in London, in the same year. This novel, though founded on a famous criminal trial (Beauchamp, for the murder of Colonel Sharpe), was a distinct literary creation, and placed the author in the front rank of American writers of fiction. Forest life and savage warfare are here described with rare felicity and vigor; traits of character are delineated with an eye keenly observant of human instinct and the exigency of circumstances; love wings his way through storm and trial to a haven of rest; we are moved in turn by the courage and devotion of Greyslaer ; the free, careless grace of De Roos; the bluff sturdiness of Balt; and the imagination is kindled by the vivid and stirring picture of the Battle of Oriskany. “The Red Spur of Ramapo," a characteristic tale, was written but never published. The manuscript was destroyed by accident, it was said, and the story was never rewritten. A “Life of Jacob Leisler," completes the list of Mr. Hoffman's prose productions, exclusive of a series of papers on international copyright, essays on various subjects, fugitive pieces, etc., read and admired in their day, but which have never been collected.
His first appearance as a poet was made in 1842, in a volume entitled “ The Vigil of Faith, and other Poems." I say first appearance, for although he had written more or less verse during his course of authorship, contributed anonymously or under various noms-de-plume to periodicals of the time, this was the first collection between covers bearing his name. It may be said at this point that Mr. Hofiman was by nature a poet, and at no time free from poetic impulse and aspiration. His thoughts ran easily into metrical form, and many legendary and descriptive pieces and graceful lyrics had their birth in the pages of his romances. That admired song, "The Myrtle and Steel,” is sung by the gallant De Roos in “Greyslaer.” Only in poetry it seems to me, could Hoffman's feelings find true and selfsatisfying expression. His affectionate disposition, his love of beauty; his fine out-of-door breezy enthusiasm; his glowing fancy, his warm heart; all found in song, opportunity and joyous freedom, and that music which ever wooed him, even amid the restrictions of prose.
“The Vigil of Faith," was followed in 1844 by “The Echo, or Borrowed Notes for Home Circulation," and during four years succeeding he published “ Lays of the Hudson " and “Love's Calendar, and other Poems," the last-named volume being the best collection of his lyrics. There is no record of any further poetical labor, and his last recorded literary connection was the editorial charge of the Literary World. In 1873, twenty years after hi: retirement, a new edition of his poems was given to the public, edited by his nephew, Edward Fenno Hoffman, and containing a feeling tribute to the author's character and worth from his friend and contemporary, the late William Cullen Bryant. This collection, designed to be reasonably complete, presents the author in full variety, and the poet may here be seen in all his moods. The editor has grouped the poems under the several heads of “Forest Musings,” “Lays of the Hudson,” "Love Poems,” “Songs and Occasional Poems;” and in the course of his preface says, “It is rather a venture to reproduce poems which have remained so long a time in obscurity; but in the conviction that a true appreciation of the beauties of nature and purity of sentiment are qualities which will always be admired, I have strong hopes that they will regain their former position of popularity with the public.'
The qualities mentioned will easily appear to the sympathetic reader. The “Forest Musings” and “ Lays of the Hudson," reveal a love of nature, an enjoyment of her whole wide domain, at once sincere and exhilarating. We feel that he knew each hill, dale, river, mountain fastness, and forest haunt; that he guided his bark on the lake, heard the song of the hunter, and sat by his own camp fire. This intimacy with nature quickened his perception of her aspects, and his descriptions often leave a picture on the mind, by their fidelity and color. A single example may be given of his felicity in this respect. It is the opening stanza of his poem of “Indian Summer."
“Light as love's smile the silvery mist at morn
Floats in loose flakes along the limpid river ;
As high in air he carols, faintly quiver ;
Beaded with dew the witch-elm's tassels shiver ;
In “Love Poems" there are many verses neatly turned, and some few that in grace and fancy remind one of Moore; occasionally a happy effort of vers de société may be met; there are lays of sentiment and affection, but in the main they all tend to indicate poetical aptitude rather than lyric flow and vigor, and are not characteristic save in feeling and sensibility.
Mr. Hoffman is more likely to be remembered by his songs. These, though few, have that quality of spirit and utterance which appeals not in vain to the popular heart. The soldierly ardor of “Monterey"; the chivalrous ring of “The Myrtle and Steel,” the festive grace of “Sparkling and Bright"; and the romantic fervor of “Rosalie Clare”; will not cease to charm, and will live in memory when more ambitious efforts are forgotten. The last-named ballad is well remembered by the present writer. He recalls a day in his boyhood, when, at the house of Henry Inman, he heard it sung by the painter's beautiful and accomplished daughter.
A few words in conclusion respecting Mr. Hoffman personally. He was a general favorite in society, and his wit, bright intelligence, and genial manners, made his companionship very attractive. He was loved by the young, for he sympathized with, them in their sports and enthusiasms, and from his knowledge of nature and his own adventurous experience drew the stories that take children captive. He was a gallant and noble gentleman, and a wide circle of friends mourned the affliction that befell him. The record of his promise and his calamity is a regretful and pathetic page in the annals of his country's literature.