Study Guide

Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226322-Wolff.jpgTobias Wolf Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff was born June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Rosemary Loftus and Arthur Saunders “Duke” Wolff. His older brother, Geoffrey, also became a writer of fiction and memoirs. When Wolff was four years old, his parents separated; he lived with Rosemary while his brother stayed with their father. In 1955, Wolff and his mother moved to Seattle, where she remarried. The stressful period of this marriage is described in Wolff’s 1989 memoir, This Boy’s Life. Wolff managed to escape to a boarding school in Pennsylvania, from which he was expelled in 1963. Shortly afterward, he entered the armed services and served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. A few years after his military service, he attended Oxford University in England, earning a B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature. In 1975, he married Catherine Dolores Spohn. Further study took him to Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner fellow in creative writing and earned an M.A. in English in 1978.

Following graduation from Stanford, Wolff began teaching at colleges and universities, including Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont (1978); Arizona State University (1979); Syracuse University in New York (1980-1997); and, beginning in 1998, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Throughout his teaching career, he has published dozens of short stories as well as his novella The Barracks Thief (1984), his memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994), and his autobiographical novel, Old School (2003). His principal collections of short stories are In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985), and The Night in Question (1996).

Wolff’s early life was marked by a sense of confusion about his identity, in part because of his separation from his father, who was a rather mysterious figure himself, as Geoffrey Wolff discloses in his memoir, The Duke of Deception (1986). His mother’s remarriage exposed him to a difficult stepfather, and his own rebellious personality led to a fascination with the kinds of things children are most encouraged to avoid, such as smoking, guns, and lying. His rebellious traits warred with his natural intelligence and literary gifts, leading to his expulsion from prep school (an incident fictionalized in Old School) and subsequent enlistment in the armed forces during the Vietnam War. Wolff has expressed surprise that from such beginnings he has ended up leading a productive and relatively sedate life as a writer and teacher.

Tobias Wolff Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Given the emphasis in Tobias Wolff’s writing on lies and the construction of identity, it is fitting that his literary reputation rests on both fiction and memoir. His fiction often draws from his life, and his memoirs admittedly contain some subjective recreations of the truth. A theme of self-doubt and, at times, self-blame, runs through much of Wolff’s writing; his descriptions of the many ways people disappoint one another contain elements of apology but also of forgiveness. Although his work is never overtly religious, some stories include confessions of sin and an expressed desire to reform and to make amends. Others, however, are portraits of people struggling with a half-realized sense of inadequacy, which often takes the form of coldness or hostility toward others. Wolff’s chiding of human failure includes sympathy and rarely becomes simply satire.

Tobias Wolff Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Readers are lucky to have two prime sources dealing with Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff’s parents and Wolff’s early life: Wolff’s own memoir and a recollection of his father entitled The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father (1979), written by Wolff’s older brother, the novelist Geoffrey Wolff. Together, these works portray a remarkable family, though Rosemary Loftus Wolff, Wolff’s mother, wryly observed that, if she had known so much was going to be told, she might have watched herself more closely.

The one who bore watching, however, was Wolff’s inventive father, a genial Gatsby-like figure who, in pursuit of the good life, forged checks, credentials, and his own identity. He began as Arthur Samuels Wolff, a Jewish doctor’s son and boarding-school expellee, but later emerged as Arthur Saunders Wolff, an Episcopalian and Yale University graduate. A still later reincarnation was as Saunders Ansell-Wolff III. On the basis of forged credentials, he became an aeronautical engineer and rose to occupy an executive suite. During his time, however, he also occupied a number of jail cells. Still, he showed remarkable creativity in his fabrications, so perhaps it is not surprising that both his sons became writers of fiction. Family life with him was something of a roller coaster, exciting but with many ups and downs. Eventually, this instability led to the family’s breakup in 1951: Twelve-year-old Geoffrey remained with the father, while...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Tobias Wolff Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)

Tobias Wolff Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Tobias Wolff was born in 1945 in Alabama. His parents divorced when he was a boy. Wolff’s mother retained custody of him, while his brother...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Tobias Wolff Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Tobias Wolff was born as Jonathan Ansell Wolff on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, Arthur Wolff, was an aeronautical...

(The entire section is 1072 words.)

Tobias Wolff Biography (Short Stories for Students)

The widely respected author Tobias Wolff followed an unlikely and meandering path to such a position. As his memoir This Boy’s Life...

(The entire section is 365 words.)