Wolff, Tobias 1945–
Wolff, Tobias 1945–
(Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff)
PERSONAL: Born June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, AL; son of Arthur Saunders (an aeronautical engineer) and Rosemary (Loftus) Wolff; married Catherine Dolores Spohn (a clinical social worker), 1975; children: Michael, Patrick, Mary Elizabeth. Education: Oxford University, B.A. (with first-class honors), 1972, M.A., 1975; Stanford University, M.A., 1978.
CAREER: Stanford University, Stanford, CA, Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, 1975–78; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, Peck Professor of English, 1980–97; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English, 1997–. Member of faculty at Goddard College, Plainfield, VT, and Arizona State University, Tempe. Former reporter for Washington Post. Military service: U.S. Army, 1964–68 (Special Forces, 1965–67); served in Vietnam; became first lieutenant.
MEMBER: PEN, Associated Writing Programs.
AWARDS, HONORS: Wallace Stegner fellowship in creative writing, 1975–76; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing, 1978 and 1985; Mary Roberts Rinehart grant, 1979; Arizona Council on the Arts and Humanities fellowship in creative writing, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, 1982, for In the Garden of the North American Martyrs; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1985, for The Barracks Thief; Rea Award for short story, 1989; Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography, and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, both 1989, and Ambassador Book Award of the English-speaking Union, all for This Boy's Life: A Memoir; Whiting Foundation Award, 1990; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, 1993; Lyndhurst Foundation Award, 1994; National Book Award finalist, and Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's Prize for Nonfiction (England), both 1994, and Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography finalist, 1995, all for In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination in fiction category, and Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, both 2003, and PEN/Faulkner Award nomination in fiction category, John Gardner Memorial Book Award, and Northern California Book Award, all 2004, all for Old School.
Ugly Rumours, Allen & Unwin (London, England), 1975.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (short stories), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1981, published as Hunters in the Snow (also see below), J. Cape (London, England), 1982.
(Editor) Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories, Wampeter (Green Harbor, ME), 1982.
The Barracks Thief (novella; also see below), Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1984, published as The Barracks Thief and Other Stories, Bantam (New York, NY), 1984.
Back in the World (short stories; also see below), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1985.
(Editor) A Doctor's Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987.
The Stories of Tobias Wolff (contains Hunters in the Snow, Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief), Picador (London, England), 1988.
This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1989.
(Editor) The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, Picador (London, England), 1993.
(Editor and author of introduction) The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (memoir), Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor) Best American Short Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Night in Question: Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor and author of introduction) Writers Harvest 3, Dell (New York, NY), 2000.
Old School (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, New Yorker, Granta, Story, Esquire, and Antaeus.
ADAPTATIONS: This Boy's Life: A Memoir was made into the movie This Boy's Life, 1993, produced by Art Linson, directed by Michael Caton-Jones, starring Robert De Niro as Wolff's stepfather, Ellen Barkin as Wolff's mother, and Leonardo DiCaprio playing Wolff as a teenager.
SIDELIGHTS: Tobias Wolff, a short story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, and journalist, has received critical acclaim since the publication of his first collection of short stories in 1981. Both Los Angeles Times book reviewer James Kaufman and New Statesman contributor Bill Greenwell labeled the stories collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs "impressive," and Chicago's Tribune Books writer Bruce Allen deemed Wolff's work "one of the most acclaimed short-story collections within memory." In the twelve tales that comprise In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, according to Nation reviewer Brina Caplan, Wolff "scrutinizes the disorders of daily living to find significant order; in the best of [these] stories … he informs us not only of what happened but of why it had to happen as it did…. Distant in age, class and geography, [his characters] have in common lives crowded with the results of previous choices." Best Sellers reviewer James C. Dolan advised readers to "relax and enter into the sometimes comic, always compassionate world of ordinary people who suffer twentieth-century martyrdoms of growing up, growing old, loving and lacking love, living with parents and lovers and wives and their own weaknesses."
Among the characters of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs—all of whom, claimed Alane Rollings in Chicago's Tribune Books, readers can "care for"—are a teenage boy who tells morbid lies about his home life, a timid professor who, in the first genuine outburst of her life, pours out her opinions in spite of a protesting audience, a prudish loner who gives an obnoxious hitchhiker a ride, and an elderly couple on a golden anniversary cruise who endure the offensive conviviality of the ship's social director. Rollings concluded that Wolff's "ironic dialog, misfit heroes, and haphazard events play beautifully off the undercurrent drift of the searching inner mood which wins over in the end." New York Times Book Review critic Le Ann Schreiber admired Wolff's avoidance of "the emotional and stylistic monotone that constricts so many collections of contemporary short stories," pointing out that "his range, sometimes within the same story, extends from fastidious realism to the grotesque and the lyrical…. He allows [his] characters scenes of flamboyant madness as well as quiet desperation, moments of slap-happiness as well as muted contentment." In addition, observing that the time covered by the collection's stories varies from a few hours to two decades, Schreiber declared Wolff's vision "so acute" and his talent "so refined" that "none of them seems sketchy" and that, in fact, they evoke our "amazed appreciation."
Wolff's novella The Barracks Thief won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award as the best work of fiction of 1984. Linda Taylor maintained in her review of the work for the Times Literary Supplement that The Barracks Thief "is a book to be taken in all at once: the ingenuousness of the narration and the vulnerability of the characters are disarmingly seductive." Narrated retrospectively by one of three paratroopers stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during the Vietnam years, the story focuses on an event that leaves a lasting impression on the trio. Assigned to guard a nearby ammunition dump on a steamy Fourth of July evening in 1967, they face the threat of an approaching forest fire. The temptation to allow the dump to ignite and explode proves exhilarating and unites them in a bond of friendship. "The world of The Barracks Thief contains no answers," observed New York Times reviewer Walter Kendricks. "We are left to make up our own minds whether it is better to die spectacularly or to dribble on for decades in safe conventionality." Kendricks also hailed Wolff's "boundless tolerance for the stupid sorrow of ordinary human entanglements" and his "command of eloquent detail." America critic Andre Dubus concluded, "If words on paper could make sounds, you would hear me shouting now, urging you to read this book."
Wolff's 1985 short-story collection, Back in the World, derives its title from the expression used by servicemen during the Vietnam War to refer to post-war life at home in the United States. The experience of returning home, however, proves more disillusioning than hopeful to the veterans in Wolff's stories. Feeling alienated from society and powerless to change their circumstances, his characters capitulate to whatever life deals them, only briefly—if at all—challenging fate. They seek relief from their cheerless, detached existence in drugs, casual sex, and, as Tribune Books contributor Allen saw it, "contriving falsely romantic or interesting versions of themselves and their experiences." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani noted that Wolff suggests for these people "the power of some kind of redemption in their fumbling efforts to connect with one another, and even in their sad attempts to shore up their dignity with their pipe dreams and clumsy fictions." This "power of … redemption," according to Kakutani, "enables these characters to go on, and it is also what invests these stories with the burnished glow of compassion."
This Boy's Life: A Memoir "is about growing up, as inevitably any such memoir must be," commented Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. The autobiographical work addresses Wolff's teenage years, when he and his mother moved from Florida to Utah to Washington State to escape her abusive boyfriend. Wolff had lost contact with his father and brother—fellow writer Geoffrey Wolff, author of The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, an autobiography about his youth spent with their father—following his parents' divorce. In Washington his mother remarried, and Wolff experienced difficulties with his new stepfather. Yardley remarked that, in part, This Boy's Life "is the story of what happens to a child when the peculiarities of a mother's romance place him at the mercy of a man who is neither his father nor his protector, but it is not a self-pitying lament and it is not really a tale of abuse and neglect."
New York Times Book Review critic Joel Conarroe praised the literary quality of the book, noting that This Boy's Life "reads very much like a collection of short stories, each with its own beginning, middle and end. Lifted from their context, the individual chapters would be at home in the fiction pages of any good magazine." Francine Prose made a similar observation in the New York Times Magazine: "Its strategy is novelistic," she noted of the book; "details have been altered, events ordered and edited, to give Wolff's memoir the shape of fiction." Prose added that Wolff "admits to having omitted things from This Boy's Life—real events he chose to leave out lest the true account of his life seem too markedly patterned and shaped. 'It would have seemed too contrived,' he says. 'Too much like a novel.'"
Some critics viewed Wolff's acclaimed memoir In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War as a logical continuation of This Boy's Life. However, the author told Nicholas A. Basbanes in a Publishers Weekly interview that the book is not a sequel. "I'm a really different person in the new book," Wolff said. "I see it as a story about a young man going off to war, and the kind of moral transformations that take place." The book, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1994 and received England's Esquire-Volvo-Water-stone's Prize for Nonfiction, recounts Wolff's one-year Vietnam tour of duty in thirteen chapters, or "episodes." Paul Gray commented in Time that each of the thirteen chapters "reads like a rigorously boiled-down short story, but the effects never seem artificial or contrived." Gray called the book a "terse, mesmerizing memoir."
While In Pharaoh's Army focuses on events that took place during the Vietnam War, as Basbanes noted in Publishers Weekly, readers who are "in search of riveting battle scenes will have to look elsewhere; of far greater moment is the maturation of Tobias Wolff. The immature lieutenant who arrives in the war zone returns home as a man ready to spend four years at Oxford University … and to begin his life as a writer." Judith Coburn observed in the Washington Post Book World that throughout the work Wolff "tells stories, awful, hilarious stories, often at his own expense, of what it was like day-to-day, trying to get by." Although Wolff does not write specifically of atrocity and carnage, critics infer abominations from the very simplicity of his stories. Richard Eder suggested in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "because there was no actual horror, we see more clearly what underlay the horror."
While Bawer, in the New York Times Book Review, questioned the "limitations" of Wolff's literary style applied to the horrors and intensity of war, he nonetheless stated: "There is a great deal of precise, evocative writing here." Gray commented in Time that the war taught Wolff "how to portray life as both desperately serious and perfectly absurd."
The Night in Question collects fourteen short stories in which Wolff's characters search for the essence of life that lies hidden beneath quotidian surfaces. To quote Jay Parini in the New York Times Book Review, these protagonists search for "something authentic, something they can unmistakably call their own." Moral judgment is sometimes compromised in these tales, as in "The Chain," where an attack by a vicious dog precipitates an act of revenge that backfires. "Storytellers appear everywhere in the collection," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "Often they are troublemakers, the enemies of the prevailing moral order…. One might even say that the most significant conflict in these stories is that between the moralists and the ironists." A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "Understatement, irony, and surprising juxtapositions are the key ingredients of these generally accomplished and resonant fictions—the best of which are certainly among the most accomplished being written in our time." Parini concluded that readers of The Night in Question "will be stirred by Mr. Wolff's marvelous stories, by their pure unexpectedness and—perhaps most of all—by their music."
Wolff moved to longer fiction in 2003 with his award-winning novel Old School. In this book—written, memoir-fashion, in the first person—he deals with growing up and dishonesty, themes that have also resonated throughout his stories as well as his several memoirs. The unnamed protagonist of the novel is an aspiring writer attending a prestigious East Coast boarding school that solicits well-known writers to visit. The year is 1960, when certain literary celebrities held an almost godlike mystique, and none was perhaps more godlike than Ernest Hemingway. It is also an era when the narrator's hidden truth—that he is Jewish—would put him at a disadvantage if it were known, and developing his writing has become a way for him, as Wolff writes, "to escape the problems of blood and class"; writers are beyond politics. His desperation to meet Papa Hemingway in a private conference—a privilege competed for via an essay contest—is thus great, and as he fears exposing his inferior self through his essay he resorts to plagiarism and is ultimately expelled.
Wolff's "hero is cast out of paradise" at the close of Old School, wrote America contributor John B. Breslin, adding that, "Like the prodigal, he will make his return, in time, as a successful and legitimate writer." Praising the novel as an effective bildungsroman, Breslin also commented on the sociological underpinnings of Wolff's novel, particularly the depiction of the mid-twentieth-century prep-school world. While the narrator's teachers and administrators challenge him to excel in the closed world of literature, where words become currency, his insecurities and fear of exposure also illustrate "the unspoken prejudices and self-satisfaction" of this cloistered environment. In another sense, Old School "is a nuanced portrayal of a young man falling—and staying—in love with words," as Amy Weldon maintained in her review for the Carolina Quarterly, echoing the opinion of Francine Prose who found the novel to be primarily a story of a developing intellect. "Not a word is wasted in this spare, brilliant novel about the way that reading changes and forms our lives," Prose wrote of Old School in People, "and about how one learns to become a writer—and a conscious human being."
In addition to his writing, Wolff serves as a professor of English and creative writing at Stanford University. In an interview posted on the Stanford University Web site, he commented upon the role teaching plays in his working life. "The greater world doesn't really much care whether you write or not," he said. "It doesn't care about the things that I care most about, and here I am surrounded by people who love writing, who devote their lives to literature and teaching literature and to seeing it as a way of understanding the world and understanding oneself that no other thing can quite afford. That's a very privileged position to be in. Teaching allowed me the time to do my own writing in a way that nothing I'd ever done before had. At a certain point I probably could have lived on my writing and stopped teaching. But I think my life would feel a little empty without it because of the intellectual heat I experience with brilliant young writers and the unexpectedness of what goes on in workshops." "I've learned at least as much from my students as they've learned from me," he concluded. "I know that's a cliché, but it happens in my case to be absolutely true."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hannah, James, Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1996.
America, September 8, 1984, Andre Dubus, review of The Barracks Thief; March 22, 2004, John B. Breslin, review of Old School, p. 24.
American Heritage, November, 1994, review of In Pharaoh's Army, p. 120.
Atlantic, December, 2003, pp. 128-129.
Best Sellers, November, 1981, James C. Dolan, review of In the Garden of North American Martyrs.
Bloomsbury Review, March-April, 1995, p. 13.
Booklist, September 1, 1994, p. 2; January 1, 2004, p. 778.
Boston Review, December, 1985.
Carolina Quarterly, winter, 2004, Amy Weldon, review of Old School, p. 60.
Entertainment Weekly, November 7, 2003, p. 38; November 21, 2003, p. 90.
Esquire, October, 1994, p. 133.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 8, 1986.
Hudson Review, summer, 1982; autumn, 1986.
Kirkus Reviews, August 16, 1996, review of The Night in Question; September 1, 2003, p. 1100.
Kliatt, May, 2004, Janet Julian, review of Old School, p. 54.
Library Journal, November 1, 2003, pp. 126-127.
Life, September, 1990, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 3, 1982; November 17, 1985; January 8, 1989, p. 3; November 5, 1989, p. 12; June 6, 1993, p. 15; October 16, 1994, pp. 3, 10.
Mosaic, March, 1999, p. 149.
Nation, February 6, 1982, Brina Caplan, review of In the Garden of North American Martyrs, p. 152.
New Leader, November-December, 2003, pp. 37-39.
New Statesman, July 23, 1982, p. 22; August 12, 1983, p. 27; February 9, 2004, Helen Brown, review of Old School, p. 52.
Newsweek, January 23, 1989, p. 64; October 24, 1994, p. 78.
New York, April 12, 1993, p. 58.
New York Times, November 25, 1981; October 2, 1985, p. 27; October 28, 1985; October 30, 1985; January 12, 1989; October 3, 1996, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Seizing the Imagination with Moral Questions."
Papers on Language and Literature, spring, 2003, p. 144.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1981, p. 11; June 2, 1982; October 17, 1982, p. 45; October 20, 1985, p. 9; October 5, 1986, p. 58; January 15, 1989, p. 1; November 27, 1994, p. 10; November 3, 1996, Jay Parini, "Interior Archeology."
New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1989, Francine Prose, review of This Boy's Life, p. 22.
People, October 7, 1985; Janurary 12, 2004, Francine Prose, review of Old School, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, August 29, 1994, p. 55; October 24, 1994, pp. 45-46; August 5, 1996; October 13, 2003, p. 57.
School Library Journal, April, 2004, p. 182.
Seattle Times, December 3, 2003, Michael Upchurch, review of Old School.
Time, December 2, 1985, p. 99; February 6, 1989, p. 70; October 31, 1994, p. 81; December 1, 2003, p. 98.
Times (London, England), May 4, 1989; May 11, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 1975, p. 269; July 30, 1982, p. 815; January 24, 1986; November 6, 1987, p. 1227; May 13, 1988, p. 532; May 12, 1989.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 18, 1981; December 8, 1985; January 22, 1989.
Village Voice, January 31, 1989.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1982.
Wall Street Journal, January 3, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, December 26, 1982, p. 12; November 3, 1985, p. 5; January 22, 1989, p. 3; November 6, 1994, pp. 3, 12.
Writer's Digest, August, 1989, p. 52.
Continuum Online, http://www.alumni.utah.edu/continuum/ (summer, 1998), Anne Palmer Peterson,"Talking with Tobias Wolff."
New York State Writers Institute Web site, http://www.albany.edu/ (August 16, 2004), "Tobias Wolff."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (December, 1996), Joan Smith interview with Wolff.
Stanford University Web site, http://www.stanford.edu/ (October 16, 1998), "A Conversation with Tobias Wolff."