November 23, 2012

Irving and Hoffman: the poor little fellow

A little boy suffered an accident in New York resulting in the loss of his leg, prompting a letter from Liverpool dated November 23, 1817. The little boy was future author Charles Fenno Hoffman; the letter-writer was Washington Irving. Writing to Hoffman's mother, Irving offered his sympathy:

It is with utmost concern that I have heard of the accident that has happened to Charles, not merely on his account, but on account of the shock it must have given to your feelings, already so much harassed by repeated afflictions. I hope the poor little fellow has recovered his health, and that you have been enabled to sustain this new trial.

Irving knew the family through Matilda Hoffman, the half-sister of Charles, to whom Irving was engaged when she was a teenager. She died in 1809, but Irving kept in touch with the family (and, incidentally, never married). His letter shows a genuine concern — and, of course, impressive literary ability, made all the more interesting because his fiction rarely showed such sentimentality:

The heart must battle with its own sorrows, and subdue them in silence; and there are some minds, as there are bodies, of such pure and healthful temperament, that they have within their natures a healing balm to medicine their own wounds and bruises. To the soothing influence of such a spirit, my dear friend, I trust for your once more recovering tranquility after all the sorrows and bereavements you have suffered.

Irving also offered an update on his own circumstances, worried that his future prospects "are somewhat dark and uncertain." Two years later, he would begin publishing the work which would put him at the forefront of early American writing: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Readers would have to wait much longer before Hoffman, then nine years old, offered his own literary contributions to the world.

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