The Fenno-Hoffman papers contain the personal correspondence of three generations of the Fenno and Hoffman families of New York City. It appears that the collection was initially assembled by Maria Fenno Hoffman, who was the bridge linking the Fennos and Hoffmans, or one of her children. The majority of the letters in the collection are addressed to Maria, and those written following her death are mainly from her three children. As a whole, the collection forms a diverse and uniformly interesting resource for the study of family life, politics, and literary culture in the early Republic. The Fennos and Hoffmans seem all to have been blessed with literary talent and excellent educations, enjoying interests ranging from politics and commerce to publishing and writing, but cursed with short lives and disastrous fortune. Their correspondence creates a vivid impression of a once-wealthy family struggling with adversity and personal loss. Yet despite all of their connections to the centers of political and social power, and despite all the setbacks they encountered, the overriding impression gleaned from the Fenno-Hoffman correspondence is of the centrality of family in their emotional and social lives.
The collection can be roughly divided into two, interrelated series: the letters of the Fenno family, and the somewhat later letters of the Hoffmans. Within the Fenno series are 25 letters from John Fenno to his wife, Mary, and six from Mary to John, written primarily during two periods of separation, in the spring of 1789, and summer, 1798. This correspondence conveys a sense of the passionate attachment these two held for each other, expressed with their exceptional literary gifts. John discusses the founding of the United States Gazette in 1789, including a visit with Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia where he had gone to purchase type. His letters are full of political commentary relating to the establishment of the federal government in 1789 and the young nation's Quasi-War with France, 1798. Although Fenno's letters to his wife are filled with political opinions, he urged her not to get involved in political controversies herself, nor to form opinions of her own. Mary apparently felt free to express herself to her husband, but significantly, her letters tend to mirror his staunchly Federalist political sympathies. The collection also contains four letters from John Fenno to his children, in which he discusses the French Revolution (1794) and general political news (1797-98), while doling out some fairly standard fatherly advice.
All nine of the Fenno children who survived infancy are represented as writers in the Fenno-Hoffman Papers, each one of whom seems to have been blessed with literary talent. The most frequent correspondents among the Fennos -- Maria, Charles J., and Edward -- display an intense interest in the affairs of their family, and express a powerful attachment for one another.
The collection contains twenty letters from Maria Fenno Hoffman (1781-1823), wife of lawyer and judge Josiah Ogden Hoffman (1766-1837), and most of the other letters in the collection were addressed to her. The letters written by Maria were nearly all addressed to her children and contain information on the family, laden with large doses of motherly advice. Among her most notable letters is one addressed to Washington Irving, whose fiancée, Matilda Hoffman, Maria's step-daughter, had died shortly before their wedding day.
The young British Navy officer, Charles J. Fenno, wrote thirty-nine letters, all to his siblings, and the collection also includes one letter to Charles from British Navy officer Charles Williamson (1757-1808), advising him to take an appointment in the West Indies. Fenno's letters include detailed descriptions of his attempts to cope with the debts incurred by his brother, John Ward Fenno, his part in the Tripolitan War and the turmoil in Haiti in 1802-3, naval sparring between French and English on the high seas, and family matters. With the typical Fenno style, Charles' letters provide an excellent view of these conflicts from the perspective of a young junior officer. His last letter was written while on vacation at Coldenham, N.Y., five weeks before his death.
Charles' younger brother, Edward, wrote 69 letters to his sister and surrogate mother, Maria, and 31 to his brother, James, along with a few miscellaneous letters. As lengthy as they are literate, Edward's letters provide an engrossing, running commentary on all facets of life in New Orleans during the 1820s and 30s, when it was still more a French city than American. His interests range from politics to business, high society to love affairs (his own, as well as others'), the annual yellow fever season, death and dying, race relations, piracy, and military exploits. They offer an intimate and detailed view of Louisiana during the years in which it was undergoing a rapid Americanization, and Edward's membership in the American militia, and his keen observational abilities provide a memorable account of the changes. His last letter to Maria, written a month before her death, discusses the necessity of family loyalty.
Comparatively speaking, the other Fenno children are represented by only scattered letters. Only two letters survive from the shortest-lived of the adult Fennos, John Ward, both written in 1797. In these, Jack discusses the acute controversy between Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) and the Federalist Gazette of the United States. Three of Harriet Fenno Rodman's letters survive -- containing social news and observations -- along with seven poems, including love poetry to her husband. Harriet's daughter, Anne Eliza Rodman, is represented by 24 letters, mostly addressed to her aunt Maria Hoffman, that include excellent descriptions of politics, society, and race relations in St. Augustine. George Fenno's four letters, also to his sister Maria, reflect the tedium felt by an educated urbanite set down in the countryside. Mary Elizabeth Fenno Verplanck's nine letters describe social life in Philadelphia, Fishkill, and Ballston Springs, and her efforts to mend a serious rift between her fiancée (later husband) and her brother-in-law Josiah. The ill-fated Caroline Fenno apparently had little time to write before dying, leaving only two letters describing life in Albany in 1804. James Bowdoin Fenno's six letters concern the business climate in South Carolina and Georgia and, as with all other Fenno correspondence, underscore the importance of family ties.
The second major series of correspondence in the Fenno-Hoffman Papers is centered on the children of Josiah Ogden Hoffman and his second wife Maria Fenno, Charles Fenno, George Edward, and Julia Hoffman. This series also includes eight letters from Josiah to his wife and sons, consisting principally of advice to his wife on how to run the household and, to his sons, on how to study industriously and become a credit to their "indulgent father." The letters he received in his old age from his children are particularly revealing of Josiah's personality. In these, Josiah appears as a hypochondriac and as a literal-minded businessman obsessed with commerce who had difficulty understanding any mindset other than his own.
As a poet and writer, Charles never ceased to perplex and irritate his father. Charles was a sensitive, observant man and an exceptional literary talent whose ability to express his thoughts and feelings grew as he grew older. His 62 letters to his brother (1826-1834, 1845) and sister (1833-1845) include discussions of many issues close to his heart, from his literary career to the "place" of the artist in society, from the continual rack and ruin of his personal finances to his family relationships, pastimes, politics, and general reflections on life. His letters to George are pun-filled and witty, even when he was in the throes of adversity. Charles wrote nine letters during his famous western trip, 1833-34, some of which were rough drafts intended for publication in the American after his sister Julia edited them. His letter of July 22, 1829 offers a marvelous description of an all-night party, and the single extant letter to his father (April 26, 1834) exhibits an uncharacteristic interest in politics, perhaps to please the elder Hoffman. There are also five excellent letters from a classmate of Charles, written while Charles was recuperating from the loss of his leg in New York. These are enjoyable, but otherwise typical schoolboy letters describing the typical assortment of schoolboy pranks.
The largest run of correspondence in the series of Hoffman letters, and the core of the collection, consists of the 63 letters from Julia to George. Julia's letters (1834-45) relate her experiences in several residences, particularly in the Philadelphia home of Jewish philanthropist, Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869). Julia comments frequently on Charles's literary activities and George's checkered career as a civil engineer. Much of what she writes is commonplace yet her style makes each episode intrinsically interesting. There are no letters from George. Considering that George was Julia's executor in 1861 and was responsible for Charles's well being after being committed to an asylum in 1849, suggests that George may have assembled the collection. The only item in the collection written by George is a love poem written for Phoebe on their first wedding anniversary. He was the recipient of letters from his brother and sister, but also his cousin William J. Verplanck, niece Matilda Whitman, sister-in-law Virginia Hoffman, and nephew Ogden Hoffman, Jr.
There is a single letter from Ogden Hoffman (1794-1856), Josiah's son by his first marriage to Mary Colden, in which he gives friendly advice to his young half-brother Charles. Ogden appears to have been a valued friend to his half-siblings. He was considered the outstanding criminal lawyer of his generation. There are no letters from the servant, Caty, but there are several excellent discussions of her, particularly in Julia Hoffman's letter of February 18, 1837 and James Fenno's letter of December 1, 1821.
Among the few miscellaneous pieces written by non-members of the family are four letters from Rebecca Gratz, a close friend of the family whose name runs throughout the entire collection, particularly in Julia Hoffman's correspondence.