Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff books and biography


Tobias Wolff

Wolff on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 2005.
Born: June 19, 1945 (1945-06-19) (age 62)
Flag of United States Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Occupation: Writer
Influences: Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Guy de Maupassant[1]
Influenced: Tom Perrotta, David Sedaris

Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff (born June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama) is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.

He is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, although he has written two novels (most recently Old School).



Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford from 2000 to 2002.

Prior to his current appointment at Stanford, Wolff taught at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1997. While at Syracuse he served on the faculty with Raymond Carver and was an instructor in the graduate writing program. Authors who worked with Wolff while they were students at Syracuse include Jay McInerney, Tom Perrotta, George Saunders, Alice Sebold, William Tester, Ken Garcia, and Paul Watkins.


Wolff attended The Hill School (from which he was expelled) after transferring from Concrete High School in Concrete, Washington. He holds a First Class Honours degree in English from Hertford College, Oxford (1972) and an M.A. from Stanford University. In 1975 he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford.


Tobias Wolff is best known for his work in two genres: the short story and the memoir. His first short story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published in 1981. The collection was well received and several of its stories have since reappeared in a number of anthologies. Its publication coincided with a period where several American authors who worked almost exclusively in the short story form began to receive wider recognition for their work. As writers like Wolff, Raymond Carver, and Andre Dubus became better known, many proclaimed that the United States was in the midst of a renaissance of the short story. (The 20th-century North American version of realism these writers used was often glibly labelled Dirty realism). Wolff, however, repudiates any such claims. In 1994, in the introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, he wrote,

"To judge from the respectful attention this renaissance has received from reviewers and academics, you would think that it actually happened. It did not. This is a rhetorical flourish to give glamour, even valor, to the succession of one generation by another.

The problem with the word "renaissance" is that it needs a dark age to justify itself. I can't think of one, myself... The truth is that the short story form has reliably inspired brilliant performances by our best writers, in a line unbroken since the time of Poe."

Wolff's 1984 novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for 1985. Most of the action takes place at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where three recent jump school graduates are temporarily attached to an airborne infantry company as they await orders to report to Vietnam. Because most of the men in the company fought together in Vietnam, the three newcomers are treated as outsiders and ignored. When money and personal property are discovered missing from the barracks suspicion falls on the three newcomers. The narrative structure of the book contains several shifts of tone and point of view as the story unfolds.

In 1985 Wolff's second short story collection, Back in The World was published. Several of the stories in this collection such as "The Missing Person" are significantly longer than the stories in his first collection.

Wolff chronicled his early life in two memoirs. This Boy's Life (1989) concerns itself with the author's adolescence in Seattle and then Newhalem, a remote settlement in Washington State. It describes his penchant for fabrication and his mistreatment by an obnoxious, boorish stepfather. In Pharaoh's Army (1994) records his U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Wolff's writing is united by an exploration of existential terrain. As Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, "Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff's main theme."

In 1989 Wolff was chosen as recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story. For each of the stories 'In the Garden of North American Martyrs' (1981), 'Next Door' (1982), and 'Sister' (1985), Wolff received an O. Henry Award.


Wolff's work has found a wider audience through its adaptation into film. This Boy's Life was adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Ellen Barkin.


Tobias Wolff's older brother is the author and University of California, Irvine professor Geoffrey Wolff. Geoffrey wrote a memoir of his own about the boys' father, entitled The Duke of Deception.

Readers of Wolff's memoirs will be interested to learn that Wolff's mother, having settled in Washington DC, eventually became President of the League of Women Voters.

Tobias Wolff is married, and has three children.

Partial bibliography

  • Ugly Rumours (1975), a novel.
  • In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), a collection of short stories. ISBN 0-88001-497-0
  • The Barracks Thief (1984), a novella. ISBN 0-88001-049-5
  • Back in the World (1985), a collection of short stories.
  • This Boy's Life (1989), a memoir, later made into a film. ISBN 0-8021-3668-0
  • Best American Short Stories (1994), editor.
  • The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (1994), editor. ISBN 0-679-74513-0
  • In Pharaoh's Army (1994), a memoir about his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. ISBN 0-679-76023-7
  • The Collected Short Stories ISBN 0-7475-3153-6
  • The Night in Question (1997), a collection of short stories. ISBN 0-679-78155-2
  • Old School (2003), a novel about a student attending an elite boarding school. ISBN 0-375-40146-6.


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