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.
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.
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...
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