|Born||Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff
June 19, 1945
Birmingham, Alabama, United States
|Genres||memoir, short story, novel|
|Spouse(s)||Catherine Dolores Spohn (m. 1975; 3 children)|
Life and career
Wolff was born in 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Rosemary (Loftus) and Arthur Samuels Wolff, an aeronautical engineer. Wolff's father was from a Jewish background, though Wolff did not discover that until he was an adult (Wolff himself is Catholic). After attending Concrete High School in Concrete, Washington, Wolff applied to, and was accepted by, The Hill School under the self-embellished name Tobias Jonathan von Ansell-Wolff, III. He was later expelled. He served in the US Army during the Vietnam War era. He holds a First Class Honours degree in English from Hertford College, Oxford (1972) and an M.A. from Stanford University. In 1975 he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford.
Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford from 2000 to 2002.
Prior to his current appointment at Stanford, Wolff taught at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1997. While at Syracuse he served on the faculty with Raymond Carver and was an instructor in the graduate writing program. Authors who worked with Wolff while they were students at Syracuse include Jay McInerney, Tom Perrotta, George Saunders, Alice Sebold, William Tester, Paul Griner, Ken Garcia, Dana C. Kabel, Jan–Marie Spanard, and Paul Watkins.
Wolff is best known for his work in two genres: the short story and the memoir. His first short story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published in 1981. The collection was well received and several of its stories have since reappeared in a number of anthologies. Its publication coincided with a period in which several American authors who worked almost exclusively in the short story form were receiving wider recognition. As writers like Wolff, Raymond Carver, and Andre Dubus became better known, many proclaimed that the United States was in the midst of a renaissance of the short story. (The 20th-century North American version of realism these writers used was often labelled Dirty realism).
Wolff repudiated this characterization. In 1994, in the introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, he wrote:
To judge from the respectful attention this renaissance has received from reviewers and academics, you would think that it actually happened. It did not. This is a rhetorical flourish to give glamour, even valor, to the succession of one generation by another. The problem with the word "renaissance" is that it needs a dark age to justify itself. I can't think of one, myself... The truth is that the short story form has reliably inspired brilliant performances by our best writers, in a line unbroken since the time of Poe.
Wolff's 1984 novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for 1985. Most of the action takes place at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where three recent paratrooper training graduates are temporarily attached to an airborne infantry company as they await orders to report to Vietnam. Because most of the men in the company fought together in Vietnam, the three newcomers are treated as outsiders and ignored. When money and personal property are discovered missing from the barracks, suspicion falls on the three newcomers. The narrative structure of the book contains several shifts of tone and point of view as the story unfolds.
In 1985, Wolff's second short story collection, Back in the World was published. Several of the stories in this collection, such as "The Missing Person," are significantly longer than the stories in his first collection.
Wolff chronicled his early life in two memoirs. This Boy's Life (1989) concerns itself with the author's adolescence in Seattle and then Newhalem, a remote company town in the North Cascade mountains of Washington State. The memoir describes the nomadic and uncertain life Wolff and his mother experienced after the divorce of Wolff's parents and then his mother's subsequent marriage to an abusive husband and stepfather. In Pharaoh's Army (1994) records Wolff's U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam. A third collection of stories, The Night in Question, was published in 1997. Our Story Begins, a collection of new and previously-published stories, appeared in 2008.
Whether he is writing fiction or non-fiction, Wolff's prose is characterized by an exploration of personal/biographical and existential terrain. As Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, "Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff's main theme." He has also spoken of the personal nature of his work elsewhere: "I have to be able, with a straight face, to tell myself that something is nonfiction if I say it’s nonfiction. That’s why, although there are autobiographical elements in some of my stories, I still call them fiction because that’s what they are. Even though they may have been set into motion by some catalyst of memory."
In 1989, Wolff was chosen as recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story. Wolff has received the O. Henry Award on three occasions, for the stories "In the Garden of North American Martyrs" (1981), "Next Door" (1982), and "Sister" (1985). On March 4, 2009, he was awarded The Story Prize for Our Story Begins.
Wolff's work has found a wider audience through its adaptation to film. This Boy's Life became a feature film directed by Michael Caton-Jones which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin.
Tobias Wolff's older brother is the author Geoffrey Wolff. A decade before Tobias Wolff wrote This Boy's Life, his brother wrote a memoir of his own about the boys' biological father, entitled The Duke of Deception.
Wolff's mother, having settled in Washington, D.C., eventually became President of the League of Women Voters.
Tobias Wolff is married and has three children.
Awards and honors
- 2006 PEN/Malamud Award (co-winner)
- 2014 Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement, Oregon State University
- Ugly Rumours (1975)
- The Barracks Thief (1984) (novella) ISBN 0-88001-049-5
- Old School (2003) ISBN 0-375-40146-6
Short story collections
- In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) ISBN 0-88001-497-0
- Back in the World (1985)
- The Collected Short Stories ISBN 0-7475-3153-6
- The Night in Question (1997) ISBN 0-679-78155-2
- Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (2008) ISBN 978-1-4000-4459-7
- Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories (1983) ISBN 0-931694-17-5
- Best American Short Stories (1994)
- The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (1994) ISBN 0-679-74513-0
- This Boy's Life (1989) (memoir) ISBN 0-8021-3668-0
- In Pharaoh's Army (1994), a memoir about his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. ISBN 0-679-76023-7
- "Tobias Wolff". This Goodly Land: Alabama's Literary Landscape. Alabama Center for the Book, Auburn University. May 30, 2008. Retrieved May 21, 2010.
- Prose, Francine (February 5, 1989). "The Brothers Wolff". The New York Times.
- End notes for This Boy's Life
- Homes, A.M. "Tobias Wolff", ‘’BOMB Magazine’’ Fall, 1996. Retrieved on [2012-07-24]
- Übermensch, an excerpt from the novel Old School in Narrative Magazine (Fall 2003)
- Jack Livings (Fall 2004). "Tobias Wolff, The Art of Fiction No. 183". The Paris Review.
- Stifled Truth, an appreciation of Wolff's publications to date, by Wyatt Mason in the London Review of Books
- Tobias Wolff Speaks on his latest work, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, at a book store in Northern California (April 2008)
- Tobias Wolff reads his short story, "Say Yes" recorded at the Progressive Reading Series, San Francisco 2008
- 'Old School', an interview with Tobias Wolff in the Oxonian Review