Tobias Wolff was born in 1945 and experienced a transient childhood that ended in a town named Concrete, Washington. As a teenager he won a scholarship to The Hill School, a distinguished boarding school in Pennsylvania. He dropped out before graduating, joined the army for several years, and eventually earned a B.A. in English from Oxford and an M.A. from Stanford. He is now teaching English and Creative Writing at Stanford University. In addition to his latest novel, Old School, he is the author of one short novel, The Barracks Thief, and three story collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World and The Night in Question. He has also authored two memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, and has edited three other short story collections.
Old School concerns a nameless narrator who is a finalist at a nameless New England all-boys boarding school in 1960. Through the machinations of a poet-turned-headmaster, the school invites three eminent writers a year to lecture to the students, judge a school literary contest, and hold a private audience with the student winner. Over the course of the book we meet Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, who anticipate the coming of that most enticing of all writers, Ernest Hemingway. Wolff creates a world where the requisite discipline of boarding school unleashes a propensity to enact fantasy, rather than contain it. As a result, we witness jostling for literary and social acceptance among the student-writers that unsettles the artifice of calm these schools seem to strive to perfect.
CGC: The first question I’d like to ask you is, how did this book begin?
TW: It’s hard to recover the impulse that leads you to write a novel, or even a story. There’s no question at all, though, that over the years my recollections have remained quite fresh of trying to find my way in the world of an Eastern boarding school. I had no idea what to expect when I was dropped in there. There was this problem of trying to figure out where I was and then how to navigate and even prosper in this world, because I was not used to – how can I put it – the pressures of class. I grew up among working class people and was aware of class as an idea, but how it actually operated in people’s lives was something I knew nothing about. My schoolmates weren’t really snobbish, so it was even more difficult because the question of class was not overt, it was something one only sensed and thus required a lot of vigilance to parse out. Also, we did things to transcend or at least sublimate these anxieties, and one of them, there’s no question about it, was writing, literature.
In this book I zero in on writing, and there’s probably an element of exaggeration in my description of the kind of importance literature had in school. But there were a lot of us who were really book-smitten. And at the same time the writing life seemed a way out of this whole problem of class. So the book had to do with my wondering about what leads someone to become an artist, in particular a writer. It isn’t a memoir but it’s certainly drawn from those years and the situation I found myself in.
CGC: What was Oxford like compared to The Hill School?
TW: Well, as an American you are far outside any consideration of the English class system. It doesn’t really have anything to do with you. You observe it, and I observed it with great interest, but probably with very incomplete understanding. It is of course a commonplace, the power of class in England. As John le Carré said once, ‘Every Englishman is branded on his tongue at birth.’ I could feel tension sometimes between friends that, as an American, I did not immediately understand. I don’t know how egalitarian a place it is now – I think it was trying to be at the time, and no doubt it’s much more that way. My own college certainly was not a social place, like Christ Church.
CGC: What college did you attend?
TW: Hertford. I was 23 when I started at university, and I’d been in the army for four years. They let me live out so I wouldn’t have to endure the curfew; they shut the doors around ten o’clock.
CGC: How did being in the army influence your writing?
TW: Hmm. I guess it made me extremely skeptical of anything that official people tell me about anything, skeptical of authority – distrustful in that way. I suppose distrust is an important quality in a writer, but a writer also has to retain a certain innocence. You have to see things freshly. Somehow you have to keep skepticism in balance with innocence. You can’t be too well defended as a writer.
CGC: WWI and WWII are both distinct presences in Old School, yet I found the references to WWI particularly haunting. How did you draw upon that war for this book, specifically with regard to Frost and Hemingway?
TW: Frost did not himself go to war. He couldn’t, he was too fragile, psychologically and physically. But his best friend, Edward Thomas, was killed in the war, and that was an abiding wound for him, because he did not have many friends; he was too touchy, ambitious, and manipulative to have friends. But there was something really beautiful in his relationship with Thomas – some uncomplicated generosity perhaps stimulated by Thomas’s sweet, open nature. And so Thomas’s death colours his work, contributes to that sense of mortality in Frost that he tries so hard to deny in discussions of his work; in fact, he outright lies about it. It’s clear that he was haunted by grief and terror of personal collapse. Indeed, his own life was a kind of war – he didn’t publish his first book until his forties, so he was struggling all those years. His wife was depressed, he lost one of his children, another committed suicide later on; he had a really hard life, a kind of a war in itself.
Old School is set in 1960, so these senior masters and writers like Hemingway and Frost are of an age where WWI was still a great event, still very present to them. And in these schools it’s present to the boys, too, because of the roll of honor they see every day in chapel. We lost a lot of men over there, about 115,000. We didn’t even get in until 1917, but that’s twice as many as we lost in Vietnam in ten years. Think about it. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington is just names but they seem to go on forever – 58,000. In a world where we’re talking about six million or ten million or twenty million, 58,000 doesn’t sound like much, but when you actually see the individual names you realise the hole that’s been torn in the lives of families and lovers and friends for every name that’s on the wall. It’s staggering. Imagine a memorial with 115,000 names. Imagine a memorial with all the millions of names of the men who died in Europe even before we arrived. No wonder the consciousness of that war was still fresh, and painful.
CGC: Throughout the book, Frost is a central figure to both the students and the American public. What do you think it was about Frost’s poetry that made him such a giant at that time, and how do you think he is regarded now?
TW: One of the reasons he was so popular was that he was so misunderstood. People thought of him as a sort of benign, poetic version of Grandma Moses – they saw an idealized New England life in ‘Mending Wall’ and ‘West-Running Brook’. But those poems are really dark and complicated. He deserved every bit of success he had, no one ever deserved it more. He’s certainly one of our three or four greatest poets. But if people had read his poems a little more deeply they would probably have been upset by what was there, and though no less great for that, he might have been less popular. But he was a master publicist of his own work. Look at him, he was beautiful, that great head of hair, that faux naïve quality. But he could turn on you like a snake, and he was extremely manipulative. At one point the critic Bernard DeVoto broke with him and said, ‘You’re a great poet, Robert, but a bad man.’ But I like him – he’s very human, and he comes out of a very, very hard life. I understand him; I know him. And I love his poetry. He may be seen today as an icon of another era, and more easily dismissed for that reason, and perhaps the perception of him as too formal works against him, though his idea of form was much more expansive than people generally understand.
CGC: Your novel seems like a natural allegory of the parable of the prodigal son, and it emerges towards the end; did you consider the parable as you wrote the book?
TW: That story is for me the central story not only of the New Testament but of human life – getting lost and messing up, and finding your way home. There’s no axiomatic or paraphrasable way of expressing what that parable expresses for me, of not being able to be so deeply lost that you can’t be taken back home, taken back in at the end. It is for me the most hopeful and necessary of stories.
Caitlin Callaghan is completing a MSt in Medieval English at Somerville College, Oxford, where she focuses on Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature.