Novelist Tobias Wolff’s school of hard knocks


Toby @Stanford

Tobias Wolff is one of Stanford’s treasures. The National Medal of Arts winner and professor emeritus of English is one of the nation’s leading writers. He didn’t have it easy, though, and recounts the story in This Boy’s Life. His mother was was the daughter of a naval officer who lost all of his money in the 1929 crash when she was 13. When Wolff was 4, she left her husband and drove with her two sons to Sarasota, Florida. After the divorce, his father married money and took his older brother Geoffrey, while Tobias stayed with his mom. “He sent my mother nothing, not even the small amount a judge had ordered,” he recalls.

He also tells the story in “Tobias Wolff’s Rough Ride,” in the Wall Street Journal here. (And thanks to Liddie Conquest for the heads-up!) Two excerpts:

My mother didn’t scare easily. She had been through a lot after we left my father in 1950. When she remarried in 1957, we lived in Newhalem, Wash., a hamlet of 200.

My stepfather was a drinker. He liked to stop at a tavern 15 miles downriver. He often returned to the car drunk and sped home with my mother, stepsister and me. He took pleasure in frightening us.

The road to Newhalem climbed high above the river on the right. Despite Mom’s pleas to slow down, he took hairpin turns too fast, nearly sending us tumbling down to the river.

My mother’s face would be frozen in terror, but she never said another word. She probably just added the near-death experiences to a long list of reasons to leave him, which eventually she did.

Mother, son, and dog, Sheppy, in Florida, 1950. (Wolff family)

I was born in Birmingham, Ala., where my father, Arthur, was a project manager at Bechtel Corp. He converted civilian planes into military aircraft. My family moved to Atlanta and then to Old Lyme, Conn. My father didn’t belittle my mother, Rosemary, or lay a hand on her. His abuse was extreme irresponsibility and infidelity.


In Sarasota, my mother met a man, and we lived with him for a couple of years. He was a good-looking guy, a former cop, who had been living in a trailer off his disability checks. He was physically abusive.

When she left him, my mother drove us to Utah. She was convinced we could become rich by prospecting for uranium deposits there. I was going into the fifth grade.

I loved the drive, staying in motels and crossing the Rockies. I imagined myself a character in a Western. In Salt Lake City, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a Victorian house.

Then the man we’d left in Sarasota tracked us down. We took a bus to Seattle in the middle of the night. We lived in a boardinghouse in West Seattle for a year.

Read the rest here.


4 Responses to “Novelist Tobias Wolff’s school of hard knocks”

  1. Diana Senechal Says:

    Thank you for this! My ninth-grade students here in Hungary have just begun reading Old School. I brought them copies from the U.S. (for them to keep–I had received an honorarium for a few literary events in Dallas this fall and figured that this would be a good use of some of the money). We’ve had just one session so far–but one of the students asked me afterward, “Is this book really for me to keep?” When I told him it was, he said he was happy because he expected to reread it in the future. “I think this is my favorite book,” he said.

    What makes this even better is that my co-teacher for the class (who is also their homeroom teacher) fully supports this project and has made room for it. She teaches them four times a week, I three. She offered to do all the regular textbook work with them while we are reading Old School, so that we can focus on the novel. This is a great gift; usually, when teaching a literary work, I can devote only one class session per week to it (or possibly two), but here we will be able to give it room and time. In addition, they have already read some Frost, we will read a Hemingway story or two, and I will tell them enough about Ayn Rand that they understand the change in the narrator’s response to her writing and attitudes.

  2. Diana Senechal Says:

    P.S. I will be discussing the project on my blog, in a dedicated series of posts. The first post in the series should appear either today or tomorrow.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Cool, Diana! Send me the link! I’ll share this with Toby.

  4. Diana Senechal Says:

    Thank you, Cynthia! I would be honored. Here’s the first post in the series: