Old School, Tobias Wolff’s first novel, concerns tradition. Tradition, it shows, is personal, self-made. Accordingly, even the most intellectual of traditions, such as that of a nation’s great literature, comes as much from native illusions and bamboozle as from the succession of native genius as one generation of writers supplants another. Hilarious, tender, discomfiting, and harshly candid, the novel depicts this succession intimately.
Old School takes place in a New England preparatory school for boys. The institution is old, most of the students come from wealth and privilege, and tradition suffuses the atmosphere. Among these traditions is the faculty’s cultivation of literature. The English teachers are the leading intellects of the school, and some have personal connections to literary luminaries of the day. Furthermore, each year the school invites three famous writers to read from their own work and to judge a student literary contest. The winner gets a private interview. The novel’s central character, who is unnamed, yearns with all his heart to win the contest and so receive the blessing of one of these great writers. Most keenly, he hopes Ernest Hemingway, scheduled to visit, will be the one to anoint him as a successor.
Early on, readers are likely to forget that they are reading fiction. Wolff’s prose is so transparent, the point of view of an ambitious teenager so persuasively presented, and the story seemingly so effortless that the novel reads like a memoir. It fosters a sense of displacement, both intellectual and social, to 1960 and particularly the high school literary club milieu of the aspiring writer.
It is a novel nonetheless, carefully structured toward a disturbing climax that forces readers to consider what it takes to become a first-rate writer and what is meant by literary tradition. At the heart of the story are two characters, Arch Makepeace, the school’s dean and a literature teacher, and the young narrator. A much-beloved fixture of the school, Makepeace is in late middle age and carries with him a literary aura because, first of all, he speaks of literary works as communicating to him directly, not simply as objects of analysis and, second, because he was an ambulance driver during World War I, where he became friends with Hemingway. School legend has it that Makepeace was the model for the leading character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). Makepeace’s origins are humble, but he has walked with the great and made himself part of tradition thereby.
The narrator appears to be Makepeace’s parallel, except that he is just starting on his career, whereas Makepeace is finishing his. A senior, the boy comes from a sad, dissembling home in Seattle. His father is a widower, and his background is commonplace. He is a scholarship student, but he longs to appear to be from the class of wealth and heritage. He bends all of his wit to create the impression that he is. He is, in other words, an strikingly adolescent mixture of ambition and pretense.
Spaced throughout the academic year, the visitations of the three writers show development in the narrator’s character even as they intensify the suspense. They also expose the underpinnings of literary reputation. The first to come is Robert Frost, an august figure in American letters who recently has read at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a unique honor. Wolff’s portrait of Frost is witty, venerating. First the headmaster, Frost’s former student, introduces him at the reading, and all the trappings of tradition seem in place. Frost, though, is roguish. He plays upon his reputation as the wise old American poet to charm the students, making a show of fumbling and talking to himself, and picks on earnest Mr. Ramsey, a British-born English teacher, to rib.
For his part, the narrator watches it all in a funk. He has lost in the poetry contest that Frost judged. Instead, Frost chose a poem by the editor of the school’s literary magazine, George Kellog. A humorless grind, Kellog wrote a poem in imitation of Frost’s style, but Frost believes it to be a parody and is delighted because of it. Aghast, Kellog barely can bring himself to meet Frost for the winner’s interview, much to the narrator’s disgust.
If Frost represents the grand American literary tradition, then Ayn Rand personifies the assault on it by modernism—or, again, so it seems. The author of The Fountainhead...
(The entire section is 1838 words.)