Authors: Tobias Wolff

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and memoirist


Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is one of the most highly respected writers of short fiction to have achieved prominence in the 1980’s. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 19, 1945, the son of Arthur and Rosemary (Loftus) Wolff, and grew up in the state of Washington, where he and his mother had moved some six years after his parents’ divorce in 1951. Wolff left his home in rural Washington to attend preparatory school at the Hill School in Pennsylvania but failed to graduate from that institution. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Special Forces, serving from 1964 to 1968, during which time he served in Vietnam, Wolff earned a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1972 and a master’s degree from Oxford in 1975. He spent the 1975-1976 academic year at Stanford University, having won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. He earned a master’s degree from Stanford in 1978, the same year in which he received his first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Like many other contemporary writers, Wolff has supported himself by teaching. He has served on the faculties of Stanford University, Goddard College, Arizona State University, and Syracuse University and has been a reporter for The Washington Post. Wolff published his first collection of stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in 1981. The book received exceptional reviews, and the following year it earned for Wolff the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction. In the stories’ range of characters, situations, and literary techniques, this collection revealed Wolff to be a writer not merely of promise but of manifest achievement as well.{$I[AN]9810000798}{$I[A]Wolff, Tobias}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wolff, Tobias}{$I[tim]1945;Wolff, Tobias}

Wolff’s second book, the novella The Barracks Thief, confirmed his narrative gifts. Originally a novel-length manuscript, it was subjected to intense revision that eliminated inessential characters as well as unnecessary passages of exposition and that introduced greater complexity of narrative technique–including Wolff’s startling yet successful shifts from third-person to first-person points of view. Widely admired by reviewers, The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985 as the best work of fiction published during the preceding year. The year 1985 also saw the publication of Wolff’s second collection of stories, Back in the World. Frequently set in either California or the Pacific Northwest, all the stories in this volume use third-person points of view that tend to distance the reader from the characters. Although this collection did not generate as enthusiastic a response from reviewers as did Wolff’s first two books, it continued to develop a number of his characteristic themes and situations.

Since the publication of Back in the World, Wolff has also published The Barracks Thief, and Selected Stories, a volume that reprints six of the twelve stories from his first collection, The Night in Question, another short-story collection, and This Boy’s Life, an autobiographical memoir that appeared in 1989. In vivid, often humorous, sometimes painful scenes, Wolff’s memoir recounts his experiences from age ten through enrollment at Hill School. With utter candor, he records the duplicity with which he created an assortment of identities for himself and describes the difficult relationship he had with his stepfather. Among the book’s major strengths are its honesty, its hopefulness amid disillusionment, and its repudiation of self-pity.

This Boy’s Life was made into a film starring Robert De Niro. Although Wolff disliked the film’s gratuitous sex scene, he had little other criticism, stating that the film reinvented him the way he had reinvented himself from memories. In Pharoah’s Army, a memoir of Wolff’s Vietnam years, received mixed reviews. A few considered it pale compared with This Boy’s Life, but most critics hailed In Pharoah’s Army as an unflinching depiction of a young man’s struggle to come to terms with himself. Nonetheless, the book was a National Book Award finalist and a nominee for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography.

In an essay on the fiction of Paul Bowles, Wolff describes the characters of Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) as “refugees of a sort peculiar to our age: affluent drifters dispossessed spiritually rather than materially.” The same might be said of many of Wolff’s characters. Against what Wolff calls, in the same essay, “that voice in each of us that sings the delight of not being responsible, of refusing the labor of choice by which we create ourselves,” Wolff seeks to bring his characters into the realm of responsibility, where questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, are central. His stories–written in a style marked by clarity, grace, and an unpretentious metaphorical richness–take their place in the tradition of realism, not among the metafictions of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and John Barth.

Some of Wolff’s fiction assumes the shape of moral parable, as in the title story of his first collection and in “The Rich Brother,” the concluding story in Back in the World, with its fablelike opening and its affirmation of the responsibilities that brotherhood imposes. Other stories, such as “Next Door” and “The Liar,” the opening and closing pieces in his first book, culminate in visionary glimpses of a world that impinges on ordinary reality but rarely coincides with it, a world of tranquillity, love, and compassion. Yet despite the clear ethical concerns of his stories, Wolff often complicates the moral judgments of his readers. In The Barracks Thief, for example, the novella’s shifting narrative perspectives enlist the readers’ sympathy for Lewis, the thief. In “Coming Attractions,” a teenage girl who makes a practice of shoplifting and who keeps whatever lost belongings she finds in the movie theater where she works, is shown, at story’s end, struggling selflessly to raise a bicycle from a swimming pool so that she can give it to her younger brother. Such unanticipated acts of generosity occur regularly in Wolff’s fiction, suggesting the mysterious depths of human motivation and the regenerative potential of people’s capacity for change. Although Wolff’s characters are frequently flawed, directionless human beings, Wolff presents many of them in situations in which they discover unsuspected or obscured dimensions of themselves, as does the protagonist of “The Other Miller.” Wolff’s stories, grounded in their author’s belief that “storytelling is one of the sustaining arts,” thus serve to evoke moral and spiritual alternatives to the spiritlessness of so much of contemporary life. They affirm the possibilities of renewal. Wolff’s themes of human frailty, possible regeneration, and moral imperatives reflect a Christian perspective, a vision that haunts rather than pervades his work.

BibliographyChallener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff. New York: Garland, 1997. Compares the poverty-stricken childhoods of several notable writers, analyzing what led them to overcome early hardship and go on to literary greatness. Includes a bibliography and index.Desmond, John F. “Catholicism in Contemporary American Fiction.” America 170, no. 17 (1994): 7-11. Notes Wolff’s Christian ethos and comments on his use of liars and lying as means of exploring the manipulation of reality in his fiction.Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction 64. New York: Twayne, 1996. A good critical study of the short fiction of Tobias Wolff.Kelly, Colm L. “Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff’s ‘Say Yes.’” Mosaic 32 (March, 1999): 149-166. In response to sociological approaches to literature, argues that stories like Wolff’s are polysemous and therefore not reducible to any single interpretation; provides a deconstructive reading of the story, setting it off against three possible readings derived from current sociological theory, in order to show how the story deconstructs the theories that attempt to explain it.Peters, Joanne M., and Jean W. Ross. “Tobias Wolff (Jonathan Ansell).” In Contemporary Authors, edited by Hal May. Vol. 117. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Peters gives a brief overview of Wolff’s work, but more important is the interview by Ross. In the interview, Wolff talks about his reasons for writing short stories, the writers who have influenced him, his working methods and sources of inspiration, his own reading, and his teaching of creative writing.Prose, Francine. “The Brothers Wolff.” The New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1989, 22. Prose’s fine article, which is also collected in The New York Times Biographical Service (February, 1989), introduces the writing of the Wolff brothers, Geoffrey and Tobias. Traces how they grew up apart but became inseparable, even bearing striking resemblances to each other. The article also provides background on their parents, particularly their father.Wolff, Tobias. “A Forgotten Master: Rescuing the Works of Paul Bowles.” Esquire 103 (May, 1986): 221-223. Wolff’s article not only helps rescue a forgotten master but also provides an index of what Wolff values in writing. He praises Bowles for the mythic quality of his stories, the clarity of his language, his ability to shift moods at will, and his ability to depict a wide range of international characters. He feels that Bowles’s pessimism might have contributed to his lack of popularity.Wolff, Tobias. Interview by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Publishers Weekly 241 (October 24, 1994): 45-46. A brief biographical sketch and survey of Wolff’s career; Wolff discusses his writing habits and his works.Wolff, Tobias. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” Contemporary Literature 31 (Spring, 1990): 1-16. Wolff discusses lying in his story “The Liar” and the nature of “winging it” in his story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” Wolff also talks about the fable aspect of his story “The Rich Brother,” as well as his fiction about the Vietnam War.
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