Author and professor
Born Tobias Jonathan Ansell-Wolff III, June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, AL; son of Arthur (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.
Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 1975-78; Peck Professor of English, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, 1980-97; professor of English and Creative Writing, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 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: Wallace Stegner fellowship in creative writing, 1975-76; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing, 1978; Mary Roberts Rinehart grant, 1979; O. Henry short story prize, 1980; Arizona Council on the Arts and Humanities fellowship in creative writing, 1980; O. Henry short story prize, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, for In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, 1982; O. Henry short story prize, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing, 1985; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, for The Barracks Thief, 1985; Rea Award for short story, 1989; Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography, for This Boy's Life: A Memoir, 1989; Ambassador Book Award of the English-speaking Union, for This Boy's Life: A Memoir, 1989; Whiting Foundation Award, 1990; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, 1993; Lyndhurst Foundation Award, 1994; Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's Prize for Nonfiction (England), for In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, 1994.
As enthralled critics have so often observed, American author Tobias Wolff is a master storyteller. His short stories, novels, and memoirs have earned him an assortment of sought-after fellowships and grants, three O. Henry short story prizes, and the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Much of Wolff's fiction is built from reworked recollections, and his memoirs—supposedly works of nonfiction—are embellished or edited versions of his personal history. "All my stories are in one way or another autobiographical," Wolff explained to Contemporary Authors' Jean W. Ross. "Sometimes they're autobiographical in the actual events which they describe, sometimes more in their depiction of a particular character. In fact, you could say that all of my characters are reflections of myself."
Wolff tries to treat his characters honestly once he has developed them. He revealed to Francine Prose in the New York Times Magazine that he felt an "affinity" for Raymond Carver's "standards of honesty and exactness," and his refusal "to destroy his characters with irony that proved his own virtue." Accordingly, with sparse prose, Wolff dwells on realistic, telling moments that represent or challenge the lives of his own characters. As often as not, they are left in the abyss of the daily existence in which they were introduced; they are not allowed happy endings or forced to suffer terrible, moral-proving consequences. Wolff is thus described as a realist and minimalist.
As Wolff demonstrates in his memoir, This Boy's Life, his childhood was difficult, but ultimately rewarding. His mother, Rosemary Loftus, was the daughter of a navy man who beat her every day. Although she provided security for Wolff, she also accepted a number of violent, unstable, or otherwise destructive men into her life. Tobias Wolff's father, Arthur Samuels Wolff, was a charming and talented liar who concocted a false history for himself and settled down with Loftus in Connecticut.
The New York Times Magazine's Prose noted that Arthur Wolff was a con man who, while "charming, charismatic, endlessly inventive," was also "a forger, a passer of bad checks, a car thief, a deadbeat extraordinaire, a compulsive spender, a dandy, and a heavy drinker." His deceptions were numerous. Arthur Wolff was the son of a Jewish doctor, but he presented himself as an Episcopalian. Although he had been expelled from various boarding schools, he convinced people that he had degrees from Yale and Oxford. Wolff had also been rejected from the military because of his dental record, but he claimed he had been a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. "Some of Arthur Wolff's schemes worked astonishingly well," commented Prose. "Using faked credentials, he fast-talked himself into a job as an aeronautical engineer and became a top-ranking executive in the booming postwar aviation industry." Eventually, though, his slippery maneuvering resulted in multiple arrests, three jail terms, and two ruined marriages.
The elder Wolff's storytelling talents influenced Tobias. In fact, as he told Contemporary Authors' Ross, "Both my father and my mother were great raconteurs, and my brother is also a wonderful storyteller. It's always been the most natural kind of thing for me to do." Wolff began to write stories when he was just six years old. "I don't know exactly at what time the idea hardened in me to become a writer, but I certainly never wanted to be anything else." Rosemary left Arthur Wolff when Toby, as Tobias was called, was just five years old. Geoffrey, the couple's elder son, stayed with his father on the East Coast. Rosemary and Toby made their way to Florida, where they lived with her boyfriend, Roy. When Roy's abuse became overwhelming, Rosemary and Toby fled to Utah, where Rosemary thought that she could get rich picking up uranium. Instead, Rosemary found an office job, and her boyfriend from Florida found her. They lived together until he proposed marriage, and then she decided to flee from him once again, this time to Phoenix, Arizona. But instead of waiting for the Phoenix bus at the station, she and Toby took the bus that came before it. That bus deposited the two of them in Seattle, Washington.
After a time in Seattle, where Wolff renamed himself Jack (in honor of novelist Jack London) and made trouble at school, Rosemary married Dwight, a mechanic and house painter with three children of his own. They moved to the small town of Chinook, Washington, where Wolff was determined to work harder in school and create an entirely new reputation. Dwight's attitude and behavior, however, precluded that possibility. As Richard Eder of Los Angeles Times Book Review pointed out, Dwight treated Tobias "as a perpetual interloper and rival."
Dwight tormented and humiliated Wolff with continuous lectures and constant harassment. "Tobias' stepfather assigned him a battery of tedious jobs," related the New York Times Magazine's Prose, "stole Tobias' paper-route earnings, [and] traded Tobias' beloved rifle for an ugly, incontinent, gun-shy hunting dog." When Wolff joined the Boy Scouts, Dwight volunteered as an assistant scoutmaster and thus extended his influence beyond his home. Incredibly, as Wolff wrote in This Boy's Life, Dwight once painted the interior of their entire house, including the Christmas tree and the piano, white.
It is in this environment, wrote Joel Conarroe in the New York Times Book Review, that Wolff "gets an informal education in humiliation, betrayal, and injustice, and learns how to fight, cheat, steal, gamble and, especially, lie." Life at home with Dwight and at Concrete High School became increasingly unbearable. Finally, at the age of 16, Wolff contacted his brother, Geoffrey, who had not even known where Wolff and his mother had been living. Geoffrey began to write to his younger brother, and Arthur Wolff invited his younger son to visit him in La Jolla, California. The day after Tobias arrived, Wolff left for a trip to Las Vegas with his girlfriend, and left Tobias alone. Later, when Tobias's brother Geoffrey arrived, Arthur had a serious nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Tobias and Geoffrey used the time to get acquainted.
"Geoffrey was the first person I'd ever met for whom books were the only way in which you could in good conscience spend your life. I already had the notion that I wanted to be a writer, but I'd never been with people to whom books mattered, people who had a sense that this was something a sane person would want to be," Wolff told Prose in the New York Times Magazine. In fact, Geoffrey Wolff is an accomplished novelist as well.
Geoffrey had been to Choate and was in school at Princeton. Tobias wanted those things for himself, too, but he knew that his poor grades would not help his cause. Aware that he needed an outstanding academic record to gain acceptance to top schools, he invented one. Wolff forged his transcript and improvised enthusiastic letters of recommendation on school stationary. Noted Wolff in This Boy's Life, "I wrote in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself . And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seems to me I saw, at last, my own face." Wolff's fabricated history was convincing enough to get him a scholarship to the prestigious Hill School, far from his horrible stepfather in Washington. Unfortunately, Wolff's education had not prepared for him for the rigors of scholarship at the private institution, and he was eventually expelled.
Instead of finishing high school, Wolff eventually joined the army. As he explains in his book In Pharaoh's Army, he became a member of the Special Forces, learned Vietnamese, and was sent to Vietnam as an adviser. After serving in the Vietnam War, he visited England. Wolff set his sights on attending Oxford University. He managed to pass the entrance tests after months of study, and, fascinated with his courses, became a serious student. He graduated with a first class honors degree and stayed at Oxford to pursue a master's degree. After a short stint working as a Washington Post reporter, Wolff settled in California. He supported himself with odd jobs and concentrated his efforts on his writing. Wolff's talents were recognized with a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which allowed him to write in residence at Stanford. He eventually earned another master's degree at that university.
Wolff published Ugly Rumours in 1975, then sold several stories to various magazines and journals. Perhaps the most notable of these stories was "Smokers," published in Atlantic. In 1981 he unveiled In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. This collection of 12 stories was received with praise and enthusiasm by critics. The characters in these collections, from a boy who lies about his family at school to a shy professor who finally manages to speak her mind, are presented within the contexts of the daily lives they have created for themselves. As Le Anne Schreiber in the New York Times Book Review remarked, Wolff's range in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs "extends from fastidious realism to the grotesque and the lyrical." She congratulated Wolff on his ability to allow his characters "scenes of flamboyant madness as well as quiet desperation."
Wolff's 1984 book The Barracks Thief earned the writer more praise from critics and readers alike, and was recognized as the best work of fiction with the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985. Although, as Walter Kendrick in the New York Times Book Review pointed out, the character of Philip Bishop "plays a minor role in the events that give" the story its title, The Barracks Thief is "principally" Bishop's story. The work begins by describing Bishop's childhood, while the conclusion discusses how that childhood led to Bishop's decision to become a soldier. The core of the novella features Bishop's haunting memory of a reckless moment in his past.
The histories of Bishop, Lewis, and Hubbard, three young paratroopers, merge forever in Bishop's mind on the day in 1967 when they are ordered to guard an ammunition dump at Fort Bragg. The three soldiers perversely consider allowing a forest fire to reach the dump and explode it. Lewis later becomes a thief and is thrown out of the army, while Hubbard deserts the force. Bishop, though, goes on to become a "conscientious man, a responsible man, maybe even what you'd call a good man a careful man, addicted to comfort, with an eye for the safe course . I would never do what we did that day at the ammunition dump, threatening people with rifles, nearly getting ourselves blown to pieces for the hell of it."
In the New York Times Book Review, Kendrick explained that the characters in The Barracks Thief "are portrayed with clear-eyed generosity" and that Wolff leaves it up to his readers to decide whether it is best to live and die in "safe conventionality" or recklessness. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Linda Taylor observed that readers may want to take in the book "all at once—the ingenuousness of the narration and the vulnerability of the characters are disarmingly seductive."
Wolff's next book was 1985's Back in the World. The title alludes to the shared daydreams of American soldiers in Vietnam who told each other about what they would do when they returned home, known as "back in the world." Back in the World, a collection of ten short stories, presents an interpretation of what that world is like for many people. In the words of New York Times Book Review contributor Russell Banks, Back in the World reveals "the inner lives of middle-class loners in the Sun Belt lapsed materialists in a material world trying to ignite a spiritual flame despite being cut off from all traditional sources of the spirit—family, church, art, even politics."
This Boy's Life: A Memoir, released in 1989, was an autobiographical book that describes, according to Eder, how Wolff "masked and masqueraded his way through a childhood and adolescence that might otherwise have unhinged him." The story begins in 1955 with the flight of Tobias and his mother from Florida and concludes soon after his concoction of a glowing school record has won him admission to the Hill School.
According to Publishers Weekly, Wolff "characterizes the crew of grown-up losers with damning objectivity." Eder commented that This Boy's Life "is a desperate story. The desperation is conveyed in a narration that is chilly and dispassionate on the whole, vivid in detail, and enlivened by disconcerting comedy." Times Literary Supplement critic John Clute reminded readers that This Boy's Life is a story about lying, and implied that it demonstrates the benefits of stretching the truth in writing fiction. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989. The book was made into the film This Boy's Life in 1993, and starred Robert De Niro as Wolff's stepfather, Ellen Barkin as Wolff's mother, and Leonardo DiCaprio playing Wolff as a teenager.
The 1994 book In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War was a long-awaited account of Wolff's memories of his year in Vietnam. Wolff told Ron Fletcher of Bloomsbury Review that he hadn't intended to write another memoir after he finished This Boy's Life, but a story he wrote about Vietnam was a catalyst for the generation of the memoir. He explained that to "bring out" such memories "is, in some ways, to disarm" them, and "with any luck you understand the experience better." The first version of the manuscript was a long one, and Wolff found it necessary to shorten it. "A lot of writing is recognizing what should be mentioned and what should go unsaid," he told Fletcher.
In Pharaoh's Army describes the author's training for the special forces and his experiences as an army adviser to a Vietnamese division in the Mekong Delta. His tour of duty is neither glorious nor exciting. While his life is threatened on occasion, he spends most of his time in a muddy village where he performs mundane jobs (like arranging the trade of a rifle for a color television for a superior officer). Wolff does not excel as a soldier. When he is ordered to lead a company on a jump, he misses the target by five miles. Publisher's Weekly noted that the book "records his sense of futility and growing disillusionment with the war." The book details the author's decision to leave the army and depart for San Francisco. Later, at Oxford University, his study of English literature allows him to regain his sense of direction.
Although In Pharaoh's Army focuses on Wolff's year as a soldier in Vietnam and its aftermath, flashbacks recall other memories and explore other experiences, including those with his father. He also remembers the year he spent in Washington, D.C., studying Vietnamese and conducting a romance (which ultimately failed) with a Russian aristocrat. Publishers Weekly praised In Pharaoh's Army and the "great candor" with which he "charts his evolution as a human being and a writer." The year of its release, the book was nominated for the National Book Award and received England's Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's Prize for Nonfiction. In 1995, it was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award.
Wolff's next book, 1996's The Night in Question, was a collection of 14 short stories in which the characters search for identities beneath their everyday existences. According to Jay Parini in the New York Times Book Review, Wolff's characters want to find "something authentic, something they can unmistakably call their own." Moral judgment is sometimes compromised in these tales. In 2003, Wolff's first full-length novel, Old School, was published. In the book, students at a New England boys' boarding school in the 1960s submit a piece of writing to win a private meeting with a famous author. The narrator of the novel strives to win the contest so he can meet with Ernest Hemingway. "His hunger to meet Hemingway at any cost leads to a series of shattering lessons that have as much to do with life as with literature—revelations about honesty and deception, identity and loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, and about the crucial difference between fiction and falsehood," explained Francine Prose in People. The novel was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2003, and both a Los Angeles Times Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004.
In addition to writing his own works, Wolff has edited several short story collections featuring the work of other writers. Wolff also serves as a professor of English and creative writing at Stanford University. Working as a teacher has its advantages, Wolff told Ross in Contemporary Authors. "I still consider myself lucky to be in a profession where I am given a lot of time to write—a lot more than I would be in any other profession—and not only that, but where people care about writing and give you room to breathe if you're a writer; where you're with other people for whom writing is the most important thing."
Wolff also spends months writing and revising each story. He explained his need to write and rewrite in his Contemporary Authors interview with Ross. "Obviously by the time I come to write the last draft I know where every word is going to go, and every comma. It's in my mind from beginning to end, but there have been lots of surprises along the way that I hope the reader will feel even if I don't feel them when I'm writing the last draft."
Ugly Rumours, Allen & Unwin (London), 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), 1982.
(Editor) Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories, Wampeter (Green Harbor, ME), 1982.
The Barracks Thief (novella; also see below), Ecco Press, 1984, published as The Barracks Thief and Other Stories, Bantam (New York, NY), 1984.
Back in the World (short stories; also see below), Houghton (Boston), 1985.
(Editor) A Doctor's Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, Bantam, 1987.
The Stories of Tobias Wolff (contains Hunters in the Snow, Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief), Picador (London), 1988.
"Smorgasbord," The Best American Short Stories, edited by Mark Helprin and Ravenel, Houghton, 1988.
This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1989.
"Migrane," Antaeus, spring-autumn 1990.
"Sanity," Atlantic, December 1990.
(Editor) The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, Picador, 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, 1994.
The Night in Question: Stories, Knopf, 1996.
(Editor and author of introduction) Writers Harvest 3, Dell (New York, NY), 2000.
Old School (novel), Knopf, 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including the Atlantic, New Yorker, Granta, Story, Esquire, and Antaeus.
Contemporary Authors, vol. 117, Gale, 1986, pp. 494-98.
Hannah, James, Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (Boston), 1996.
Wolff, Tobias, The Barracks Thief, Ecco Press, 1984.
Wolff, Tobias, This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Atlantic Monthly, 1989.
Bloomsbury Review, March/April, 1995, p. 13, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, November 7, 2003, p. 38; November 21, 2003, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 8, 1989, p. 3, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1981; June 2, 1985, p. 42; October 20, 1985, p. 9; January 15, 1989, p. 1, p. 28; November 3, 1996.
New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1989, pp. 22-28.
People, April 26, 1993, p. 13; January 12, 2004, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, December 9, 1988, p. 50; August 29, 1994, p. 55; October 13, 2003, p. 57.
School Library Journal, April 2004, p. 182.
Times Literary Supplement, November 6-12, 1987, p. 1227; May 12-18, 1989, p. 508.
"Talking with Tobias Wolff," Continuum, http://www.alumni.utah.edu/continuum/summer98/finally.html (September 29, 2004).
"Tobias Wolff," Salon.com,http://archive.salon.com/dec96/interview961216.html (September 29, 2004).
"Tobias Wolff," Stanford Today, http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/stanfordtoday/ed/9809/9809fea101.shtml (September 29, 2004).
"Wolff at the door," Guardian Unlimited,http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,1130428,00.html (September 29, 2004).