National Endowment for the Arts
. .INSTITUTE of . .,
exactly what literature can
give, which is a sense of
«*" ~^W- ^
what simple information
can tell us; a sense of the
workings of what we used
to call tlie soul."
Tobias Wolff's Old School is the story of an ambitious, idealistic,
and insecure teenager who makes a serious mistake and
eventually inherits the consequences. Wolffs unnamed narrator
seems so very real that it is hard at times to remember that the
book is fiction. The gripping plot has the unpredictability of real
life — by turns funny, alarming, satiric, and saci — as well as the
moral weight of lived experience. Old School is the first Big Read selection
to have been published in the twenty-first century. With writers like Tobias
Wolff at work it's easy to be optimistic about the future of American
The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts
designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular
culture. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, a 2004 NEA
report, identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American
adults. The Big Read aims to address this issue directly by providing citizens
with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within
A great book combines enlightenment with enchantment It awakens our
imagination and enlarges our humanity. It can even offer harrowing insights
that somehow console and comfort us. Whether you're a regular reader
already or a nonreader making up for lost time, thank you for joining
The Big Read.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
"Our school was proud of its
hierarchy of character and deeds.
It believed that this system was
superior to the one at work outside,
and that it would wean us from
habits of undue pride and deference.
It was a good dream and we tried to
live it out, even while knowing that
we were actors in a play, and that
outside the theater was a world we
would have to reckon with when the
curtain closed and the doors were
— from Old School
wment for rhe Arcs
Introduction to the Novel
It is November 1960, and the
unnamed narrator of Tobias Wolffs
Old School (2003) is in his final
year at an elite Eastern prep school.
Proud of his independence but
trying to fit in and advance himself,
he conceals the fact that his ancestry
is pardy Jewish. Eventually, he — and
we — discover that almost everyone
on campus has some closely guarded
Every year, the school invites three
famous writers to visit and give
a public talk. In anticipation of
these visits, senior students submit
their own poems or stories to a
competition, and the author of the
winning submission is granted a
private interview with the writer.
One of the novel's most intriguing
elements is the presentation of these
writers — Robert Frost, Ayn Rand,
and Ernest Hemingway — and its
shrewd, penetrating assessment of
their works and personalities.
The lives of the narrator and his
friends revolve around these visits,
and the competitions produce
pressures and strains in their
relationships, raising issues of
honesty and self-deception. In his
zeal to win an audience with his
idol, Hemingway, the narrator
will plagiarize someone else's
work, an action with profound
consequences — and not for him
alone. In the end, we find out what
he has made of his life many years
later, and what has happened in
the lives of some classmates and
teachers. A surprising final chapter
enriches our understanding of the
novel's deepest meanings.
Another of Old Schools many
pleasures is the way it conveys the
significance of literature to our lives,
raising fundamental questions of
who we are and how we live. As one
of the English teachers says, "one
could not live in a world without
stories Without stories one
would hardly know what world
one was in."
The unsparing but sympathetic
insight of Tobias Wolffs acclaimed
short stories, the emotional honesty
and directness of his classic memoir
This Boy's Life (1989), and the
precise, elegant craftsmanship that
characterizes both his fiction and
nonfiction — all these qualities come
together to make Old School one of
Wolffs most satisfying books.
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 3
Major Chai%cters in the Novel
An outsider in the cloistered East
Coast world of the prep school he
attends, Old School's unnamed
narrator wants desperately to belong.
His literary ambitions will bring
him the distinction he craves, but in
a very different way from what he
Bill is the narrator's roommate.
Along with their passion for writing,
the two boys share the unspoken
secret of their Jewish heritage. Bill
has another secret, one that haunts
him more and more throughout the
Another classmate and friend of
the narrator's, he has a privileged,
upper-class background. Proud,
stubborn, and frequendy
contemptuous of everything and
everyone, he nonetheless has a
fundamental core of decency and
generosity of spirit.
One of the English teachers, Mr.
Ramsey is disliked by many of his
students. However, by the end of
the novel the narrator sees him as
compassionate and wise.
Susan is the author of the story
that the narrator plagiarizes. When
he finally meets her, he finds her
to be "an extraordinary person,"
and she shows him a very different
perspective on some of the things
most important to him.
A "regal but benign" figure to the
narrator, the Dean seems remote
and assured. But his personal crisis
of integrity underscores some of the
novel's deepest themes.
4 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts
hree of the most famous
American writers of the twentieth
century appear, directly or
indirectly, as characters in
Though born in San Francisco,
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is forever
associated with New England, the setting
for most of his life and work. Quiedy
dazzling in their technical perfection,
his enormously popular poems, such as
"Mending Wall" and "Stopping by Woods
on a Snowy Evening," subtly explore the
depths of nature and humanity.
Russian-born Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
was the controversial author of a number
of philosophical works and two bestselling
novels, The Fountainhead (1 943) and Atlas
Shrugged '(1957). Her writings expound
her philosophy of Objectivism, which
emphasizes rationality and self-interest. It
also rejects religion, altruism, and all forms
>f social collectivism.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was
arguably the most influential American
novelist and short-story writer of the
twentieth century. Renowned for their
unique style, such masterpieces as A Farewell
to Arms (1929) and The Old Man and the
Sea (1952) brilliandy evoke the physical
world and the experience of the senses and
* stress themes of courage, stoicism, and the
need to be true to oneself.
Fational Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 5
Tobias Wolff (b. 1945)
Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff
was born on June 19, 1945. in
Birmingham. .Alabama. His father,
Arthur, was an aeronautical engineer
but also a pathological liar and
supreme con artist, as detailed
in the 19~9 memoir The Duke
of Deception, by Tobias's older
brother. Geoffrey. As a result of
one of these many deceptions.
Tobias, who was raised and remains
a Catholic, did not discover until
adulthood that his father
was Jewish. His mother.
Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a
waitress and secretary, was a
woman of spirit, resilience,
and great intelligence, who
met the many reverses in
her life with humor and
Wolffs parents separated when
he was very young. He was raised
by his mother in Florida, Utah,
and Washington state. Eager to
escape rural Washington and life
with his mother's second husband
(experiences vividlv recounted in
his memoir This Boys Life), he won
a scholarship to the Hill School, a
prestigious academy in Pottstown,
Pennsylvania. He loved the school
but struggled because of his poor
Ultimatelv. he was
expelled because of failing
grades in math.
In 1964, Wolff joined the
U.S. Army. He spent a
vear learning; Vietnamese,
Wolff, age I I , with his
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TOBIAS WOLFF
Robert Frost wins
Pulitzer Prize for
poetry and Ayn
Rand publishes The
Tobias Wolff is bom
on June 19. 1945. in
World War II ends.
6 THE BIG READ
Viet Minh (the
France in 1 945: French
military forces resist
the revolt in 1946.
beginning an eight-
John F. Kennedy
elected U.S. President
in 1960: assassinated
on November 22.
dies. 1961. Robert
wins the Nobel Prize in
Frost dies. 1963.
The French are
defeated at Dien Bien
Phu in 1954; Vietnam
is partitioned into North
and South vlel
and then served in Vietnam
as a paratrooper. Out of these
experiences came his second
memoir, In Pharaoh's Army.
Memories of the Lost War (1994).
After his discharge in 1968, he
enrolled in Hertford College of
Oxford University, where he earned
a degree in English in 1972. In
1975, he earned a master's degree in
education from Stanford University,
where he was also awarded a
Wallace Stegner Fellowship in
Wolff taught at S\Tacuse University
in New York from 1980 to 199".
The novelist Richard Ford and
the short-story writer Raymond
Carver were among his friends and
colleagues. Since 1 997, Wolff has
taught Endish and creative writing
Tobias Wolff and family
at Stanford University, where he
holds the Ward W. and Priscilla B.
Woods professorship in the School
of Humanities and Sciences. Among
his honors are the PEN/Faulkner
Award for Fiction, the Rea Award
for the Short Story, and three
O. Henry Awards.
Tobias Wolff married Catherine
Spohn. a social worker, in 1975.
They have two sons and a daughter.
Wolff lives with his family in
The last U.S. combat
troops withdraw from
Wolff earns a masters
degree, marries, and
publishes his first
book, all in 1975.
Saigon falls to the
Fort Bragg, NC 1 966
Wolff teaches at
he publishes a novella.
two collections of
stones, and his
memoir This Boy's
Ground is broken
for the Vetnam
Veterans Memorial in
Washington. DC. 1982.
Ayn Rand dies. 1982.
Wolff begins teaching
at Stanford: publishes
his Vietnam memoir
and his third volume of
The film version of This
Boy's Life, staning
Robert De Niro.
and Ellen Barkin, Is
released in 1993.
The U.S. restores
diplomatic ties with
April 5. 2005.
marks the thirtieth
anniversary of the end
of the Vietnam War.
Wolff publishes Old
School (2003) and Our
Story Begins: New
and Selected Stones
THE BIG READ 7
The narrator of Old School is found
to have won the interview with
Ernest Hemingway by submitting
someone else's short story as his
own work. This act of plagiarism is
met with dismay and anger by the
school's administration and sets in
motion a chain of events that has a
significant effect on the lives of
more than one character. To
understand the full importance
of this situation in the novel, one
must have a clear awareness of what
plagiarism is and why it is such a
Anyone can recognize the flagrant
dishonesty involved in passing
off as one's own work something
in fact written by someone else.
Most of us realize that a piece of
writing — whether imaginative or
intellectual — is a form of property,
and that its owner/creator is entided
to whatever credit and profits his
or her efforts and talents might
Yet it is all too easy, when copying
snippets of someone else's ideas and
even someone else's very words, to
succumb — as the narrator of Old
School does — to the notion that we
have somehow made them our own,
that mere appropriation is a form
of authorship. Modern technology
8 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts
|L 1 1
■v. • • <, . >
has made this even easier.
Instantaneous access to the infinite
amount of material available on the
Internet creates the impression that
ideas and words are all just there for
the taking, especially when all one
needs to do is highlight, copy, and
But theft is still theft and fraud
is still fraud, no matter the scale.
Anyone who uses another's thoughts
without proper attribution to the
source has stolen that person's
intellectual property. Even when
proper attribution has been given,
using the actual wording of the
source material without identifying
it as direct quotation is perpetrating
Teachers are also upset when their
students appropriate the work of
others because such an act makes
a disturbing statement about the
offender's values. If those who
would never dream of stealing
another's belongings have no
compunction about taking
someone else's written work,
they are saying — whether they
realize it or not — that they have
less respect for ideas and how they
are expressed than for material
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ 9
An Interview with Tobias Wolff
On January 5, 2008, Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National
Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Tobias Wolff at his office
at Stanford University. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Dana Gioia: Would you
characterize Old School as
an autobiographical novel
in any sense?
Tobias Wolffi The
events of the novel are
themselves, to some extent,
autobiographical, in that as
a boy of that age I was in
such a school. The school
that I went to was like this
one, a very literary place.
Edmund Wilson had gone
there, and I heard Robert
Frost there. There was a
great sense of excitement,
always, around the visits
of these writers, around
the literary magazine, about trying
to get stories published or even to
get on the editorial board. In some
schools, of course, it would be the
football team, and football was no
small thing at this school either.
So my somewhat vague ambition
of being a writer really became
The actual events of my time there
would not have lent themselves to
a memoir. I was certainly aware in
bringing this forward in this voice,
in this situation, that a lot of readers
familiar with either or both of my
memoirs would make assumptions
about this being, in fact, a memoir
disguised as a novel. And I really
didn't mind that.
DG: As a fiction writer you've
been most associated with the short
story. What for you, imaginatively
or creatively, are the differences
| THE BIG READ ■ National Endowment for the Arts
between writing a short story and
writing a novel?
TW: When you write a short story
you at least have some confidence
you're going to be able to finish it!
From the time I first put words to
page on this book and the time Old
School actually was published, it was
five-and-a-half years. Aesthetically
I can't say that I find the experience
that much different — the kind of
pressure you put on yourself to get
the right voice, to write the sentence
perfecdy, to rewrite, to rewrite, to
rewrite — all that is similar. Really,
in each case it's mainly going to the
desk every day. I often am quite
mystified about what I'm going do
when I sit down. And the work
teaches me how to write it as I go.
My first drafts would really make
you wonder, if you saw them,
why I ever chose this line of work.
Revision is crucial to my work.
DG: One of the strokes of genius
in Old School is that at the very end,
just when you think the story's over,
it continues with a twist in another
voice. Did you have this coda in
mind when you began the book?
TW: No, but it was important, I
think, because although the narrator
talks about writing, we never really
see him writing anything, and we
don't get any of his stories. He's
always talking about telling other
people's stories and telling us what
this friend wrote and what that
friend wrote, but where's his story?
Finally he tells a story. He is, after
all, a writer.
DG: Do you have any thoughts on
the human purposes of fiction?
TW: Fiction gives us a place to
stand outside ourselves and see our
lives somehow being carried on, to
see the form that our lives take in
some apprehensible way. Most of
the time, experience washes over
us moment by moment, in a way
that makes it difficult to discern the
form in lives — the consequences
that choices have that will only
appear years later, in many cases.
Fiction shows us those things in
a kind of apprehensible form and
something we can comprehend,
and see, and actually feel. We kind
of see our lives almost acted out in
front of us in miniature. And that's
both exciting and also often very
chastening, I think.
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ j [
Wolff and His Other Works
Perhaps because of the prominence
of Tobias Wolff's memoirs and
short stories, when Old School
appeared in 2003, many assumed
that it was his first extended work
of fiction. In fact, it was his third.
Wolff's first novel, and first book,
was a Vietnam story, published in
1975, called Ugly Rumours. As the
spelling would suggest, it appeared
in England (and only in England).
While he has not made a concerted
effort to erase all traces of its
existence, Wolff does not include it
in listings of his published works.
His second book-length work of
fiction was the novella, The Barracks
Thief (1984), which won the highly
regarded PEN/Faulkner Award. It
deals with the intense and ultimately
explosive relationships among
servicemen in the shadow of war,
specifically three soldiers guarding an
ammunition dump at Fort Bragg,
North Carolina, as they wait to be
sent to Vietnam.
The work for which Wolff is best
known is his first memoir, This
Boy's Life (1989). Glowing reviews
in the New York Times, Los Angeles
Times Book Review, San Francisco
Chronicle, and elsewhere praised the
| 2 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts
beauty and clarity of its style, along
with its unforgettable description
of character and incident. While
less well known, In Pharaoh's
Army (1994), Wolff's account
of his experiences in Vietnam, is,
like the earlier work, esteemed for
its memorable scenes and for the
author's determination to describe
his personality and actions with
For many readers, the core of
Wolff's achievement is his short
stories, which have been collected so
far in four volumes — In the Garden
of the North American Martyrs
(1981), Back in the World (1985),
The Night in Question (1996), and
Our Story Begins: New and Selected
Stories (2008). In story after story,
Wolff presents his characters and
their relationships — with spouses,
children, siblings, and strangers —
with a scrutiny that is always
unflinching and uncompromising,
but never uncompassionate. "The
Rich Brother" presents a pair of
adult brothers united in animosity,
but also by basic qualities that
create a much stronger bond. "In
the Garden of the North American
Martyrs," which examines a self-
effacing woman whose hopes have
been falsely raised through the
insensitivity of others, makes a
surprising bid for justice.
Beautifully written without
gaudiness or self-indulgence,
deeply moving without a trace of
sentimentality, Tobias Wolff's work
seems poised to hold a permanent
place in American literature.
"The fact that a writer
needed solitude didn't
mean he was cut off or
selfish. A writer was like
a monk in his cell praying
for the world... "
— from Old School
Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro
star in the 1 993 film This Boy's Life.
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ | 3
The dedication of Old School
reveals something of how
Wolff might feel about his
own education. If you wrote
a book, would you dedicate it
the same way?
What does the epigraph of Old
School, a passage from a Mark
Strand poem, mean? How
does it relate to the novel's
Why do you think Wolif
left the narrator and even the
In Chapter One, the narrator
maintains that his school
disregarded issues of wealth
and social background and
judged its students entirely by
their actions. Does this turn
out to be true? How does his
school compare to your own?
Early in the novel, the narrator
says that his aspirations as
a writer "were mystical. I
wanted to receive the laying
on of hands that had written
living stories and poems, hands
that had touched the hands of
other writers. I wanted to be
anointed." What does he mean
'From this height it was possible
to see into the dream that
produced the school, not mere
English-envy but the yearning
for a chivalric world apart
from the din of scandal and
cheap dispute, the hustles and
schemes of modernity itself. As
\ recognized this dream I also
sensed its futility, but so what?
I loved my school no less for
being gallantly unequal to our
appetites — more, if anything."
— from Old School
6. Which of his classmates does
the narrator feel closest to,
7. How do the narrator's
changing attitudes toward his
grandfather demonstrate his
process of maturing?
8. Discuss the portrayals of
Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and
Ernest Hemingway. How does
each influence the narrator?
9. Why might Chapter Six
be tided "The Forked
Tongue"? What are the larger
implications of its very last
| 4 THE BIG READ " National Endowment for the Arts
10. Why does Mr. Ramsey show
such disdain for the use of the
word "honor"? Do you agree
with his attitude?
1 1 . Over the course of the novel,
the narrator writes two letters
to girls. The circumstances
differ, but he has the same
reaction after sending each
letter. What does this pattern
of behavior reveal about his
12. Why is the narrator shocked
by Susan Friedman's attitude
toward her own story, and
toward writing in general?
How valid is his unspoken
response to her comments?
13. Why does the narrator feel
such love and loyalty for
his school, despite his final
14. The last sentence of the book
is from the New Testament
parable of the prodigal son
(Luke 15:11-32). How might
these be "surely the most
beautiful words ever written
If you'd like to read other novels
about the campus experience, you
Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited ( 1 944)
John Knowles's A Separate Peace ( 1 959)
Richard Yates's A Good School (1978)
Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep (2005)
Also worth looking into are Robert
Anderson's play Tea and Sympathy ( 1 953)
and John McPhee's brief biography
The Headmaster: Frank L Boyden of
If you'd like to read books
admired by Tobias Wolff, you
Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan
Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time ( 1 925)
William Maxwell's So Long, See You
Raymond Carver's What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love ( 1 98 1 )
National Endowment for the Arts • THE BIG READ | 5
Works by Tobias Wolff
In the Garden of the North American
Martyrs (1981, stories)
The Barracks Thief (1984, novella)
Back in the World (1985, stories)
This Boys Life (1989, memoir)
In Pharaoh s Army: Memories of the
Lost War (1994, memoir)
The Night in Question (1996, stories)
Old School (2003, novel)
Our Story Begins: New and Selected
About Tobias Wolff
Peterson, Anne Palmer. "Talking
with Tobias Wolff." Continuum:
The Magazine of the University of
Utah, Summer 1998.
www. alumni. Utah, edul continuum/
summer98l finally, html
Prose, Francine. "The Brothers
Wolff." New York Times Magazine,
February 5, 1989.
Woodward, Joe. "The Gun on the
Table." Poets & Writers, March-
Tobias Wolff, age 1 7, guesses ages and
weights while working in the carnival section
of the 1 962 Seattle World's Fair.
'One of the things that draws
writers to writing is that they
can get things right that they
got wrong in real life by writing
in an interview with Dan Stone
| 6 THE BIG READ • National Endowment for the Arts
A great nation
deserves great art.
•W . -INSTITUTE of , .,
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to
supporting excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the
arts to all Americans, and providing leadership in arts education. Established
by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the
Endowment is the nation's largest annual hinder of the arts, bringing great art
to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of
federal support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The
Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect
people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and
in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture,
and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to
meaningful arts opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding
across boundaries. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the
United States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the
W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Schrieberg, David. "Interview: Tobias Wolff." Stanford Today. September/October 1998.
Wolff, Tobias. Interview with Dana Gioia for The Big Read. 2008.
. Interview with Dan Stone for The Big Read. 2008
. Old School. New York; Vintage Books, 2003.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Writers: Michael Palma for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the Arts
Image Editor: Dan Brady for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Inside Front Coven Photo by Jennifer Hale. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by
John Sherffius. Page 2: Book cover courtesy of Random House, image courtesy of The Hill School. Page 4: Courtesy of The Hill
School. Page 5: Photo of Robert Frost by Hulton Archive/Getty Images, photo of Ayn Rand by Arnold Newman/Getty Images, photo
of Ernest Hemingway by John Bryson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images. Page 6: Photos courtesy of Tobias Wolff, image of Tobias
Wolff as a young man courtesy of Paul Mandelbaum. Page 7: Courtesy of Tobias Wolff. Pages 8-9: Courtesy of The Hill School.
Page 10: Photo by Elena Seibert, courtesy of Random House. Pages 12-13: Book cover of This Boy's Life courtesy of Grove Press, book
cover of The Barracks Thiefcounesy of HarperCollins Publishers, other book covers courtesy of Random House. Page 13: © Corbis
Sygma. Page 15: Courtesy of The Hill School. Page 16: Courtesy of Tobias Wolff.
This publication is published by:
National Endowment for the Arts • 1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. • Washington, DC 20506-0001
(202) 682-5400 • www.nea.gov
FOR THE ARTS
'Make no mistake, he
said: a true piece of
writing is a dangerous
thing. It can change
from Old School
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
■«• . .INSTITUTE nl . ,.
A great nation deserves great art.