Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
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 mother took five-year-old Tobias, who had been born June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, one of several locations where the family had chased the American Dream. Henceforth reared separately, sometimes a country apart, the two boys were not reunited until Geoffrey’s final year at Princeton University.
Meanwhile, Tobias and his mother lived first in Florida, then in Utah, and finally in the Pacific Northwest, where his mother remarried. The stays in Utah and the Pacific Northwest are recounted in This Boy’s Life, which covers Wolff’s life from the age of ten until he left for Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, (where he faked his references to be accepted). He attended Hill School for a time but did not graduate and instead ended up joining the military. From 1964 to 1968, Wolff served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and toured Vietnam as an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit, experiences he recounted in his second volume of memoirs, In Pharaoh’s Army. After this service, deterred by the antiwar movement in the United States, he traveled to England, where he enrolled at Oxford University. He received a B.A., with first class honors, from Oxford University in 1972.
Returning to the United States, he worked first as a reporter for The Washington Post, then at various restaurant jobs in California, and finally entered the Stanford University creative writing program. He received an M.A. from Stanford in 1978. While at Stanford, he met and became friends with other writers, including Raymond Carver, and taught for a period of time. While pursuing his own writing, Wolff has taught creative writing at Goddard College, Arizona State University, and Syracuse University. In 1975, he married Catherine Dolores Spohn, a teacher and social worker; they had two sons, Michael and Patrick.