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...
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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...
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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.)