Tobias Wolff’s Old School

Old School

When it comes to books, there are simply some books that you have to reread for a second time. Tobias Wolff’s Old School is definitely one of them.

Tobias Wolff's Old School

Tobias Wolff’s Old School

The first time I read it was sometime during middle school – I was new to the world of writing and the book’s contents truly enamored me to it. The protagonist is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960 who more than anything wants to be a writer. As the book takes shape, a tradition at his school which grants the winner of the literary contest the chance to meet the visiting writer brings the narrator to try his best to search within himself to write something noteworthy of attention. Meeting a writer and being welcomed by one through their acceptance was an aspiration that held dearly not only to the protagonist but to the other boys in his school who competed to be “anointed” (7).

-Spoiler Alert!-

The first writer to be invited by the school is Robert Frost.

Although the narrator doesn’t win, I found the section concerning Frost’s decision making of the winning piece he chose to be interesting. George Kellogg is the winner and his poem, “First Frost” is misinterpreted by Frost to be a “take-off” of sorts which he embraces rather easily: “Young Kellogg has had some fun at this old man’s expense, and I guess this old man can stand some fun, if it isn’t too expensive…Frost sounded like a man who’d been stung by a taunt, showing he could take it and come back with some chaff of his own.” (40).

George never meant it that way and although the rest of his classmates see this, Frost sees it another way.

What did you think of the poem, he asked me…Did you think I was…having fun at his expense?

Well, I guess you could read it that way.

You could?

It’s possible…But you don’t have to read it as parody, I said. You can also read it as tribute. You know, the farm, the folksy tone, the snow. It’s like you’re paying your respects to him – tipping your hat, so to speak.

Exactly! …That’s exactly how I mean it, as an homage. He looked at me with such gratitude… (40-41)

One of the duties of the visiting writer (besides choosing a winning piece and meeting the young writer) is to read in front of the school. As a means of introduction, the headmaster brings everyone’s attention. However, aside from doing that, he expresses a sentiment that foreshadows the protagonist’s downfall and quite possibly, any beginner writer: “Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

The second writer to make her appearance in the book is Ayn Rand.

This is the narrator’s second opportunity to make a go at it after his poem “Red Snow” failed to capture the attention of Robert Frost. Anticipating a routine boredom  at his Grandparent’s for Christmas break, the narrator purchases a copy of The Fountainhead and becomes so enthralled by the book that he rereads it for a second time: “I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a damned-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running…The Fountainhead made me alert to the smallest surrender of will.” (68-70).

As his vacation comes to a close, the narrator ends up returning to school early. Hoping to get a head start on his story, he ends up writing nothing but instead reads Rand’s book for a 3rd and 4th time. He is delirious and his obsession starts affecting his body until it collapses during class, catching influenza and lucky to have not died. He misses the deadline to submit to Rand.

During Rand’s visit, the narrator manages to sneak his way to listen to Rand. Throughout her talk, Rand is depicted as a radical and fiercely defends her attitude by bringing up her Russian upbringing. She defends her work and the characters who have been critiqued as “unreal because they live out their ideals” and “do not exist” as a result (82). When confronted to talk about her peers in writing, she finds no one better than herself and the novels that have brought her to her position. Eventually, her voice and “her disgust [which] had power” (91) forces the narrator to wake up and snap out of his obsessiveness. The reversal from idolizing to reality is really felt and I believe that Tobias Wolff did a great job in building such a sentiment within a reader. But just like love, it’s hard to rebound without some defects and the narrator transfers his tendency for obsession to Ernest Hemingway, the next visiting writer.

The third writer said to make their appearance at the school is Ernest Hemingway.

It is at this point in the story where the narrator begins to copy out Hemingway’s stories: “transcribing masterworks in order to learn what it actually felt like to write something great” (98). Mimicking as a form of flattery and a learning device is discussed here.

Throughout this story, the narrator struggles with his identity yet as we come to find out later on in the final sections of the novel, he’s not the only one. The narrator’s identity is closely linked to his writing and as he feels: “My stories were designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act. I couldn’t read any of them without thrusting the pages away in mortification. I couldn’t write like that again, but didn’t know how else to write – how to go about making something that was true.” (110)

One must, above all, endure

As Hemingway’s visit gained more and more attention, the scene at school is described as “feverish” and one where “knowing that the greatest of living writers would soon be among [them] made [them] a little crazy with self-importance” (107).

Only one of the many could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway – Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer. What a terrible thought! (107)

Distracted and to some extent, procrastinating, the narrator comes across a back issue of a review five years old. He starts reading it and he likes it.

“Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

Remember this? ^^^

As the narrator finishes reading the story, he sees the truth: “From the very first sentence I was looking myself right in the face” (125). The key word to this all…TRUTH. He sees the truth. And then the question becomes:

How do you begin to write truly? (126)

Plagiarism sadly isn’t the answer but the narrator is so caught up on how much of the story reflects his own true story that he mistakes his transcription to feel how it felt to write the story as his own by changing only a few words to make it his own.

And sure enough, Hemingway chooses the narrator’s story. As the reader you’ve recognized the plagiarist, the very character you’ve been rooting to win and following along, steered away from his good intentions to be recognized as someone great. Now you’re waiting for the consequences to unfold. But it takes time. Hemingway even gives advice:

Don’t talk about your writing.

Get up at first light and work like hell

Hold on to your friends.

Did I say keep your friends? Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends. (136)

Teachers praise the narrator, his friend’s acknowledge him as well but then everything crashes, he gets caught and is kicked out for good.

What follows is what almost serves as an epilogue of sorts, tying two stories about the truth, one hidden among the other. The second story is that of Dean Makepeace, someone said to have been Ernest Hemingway’s friend. The key word is said.

Like the narrator, Dean Makepeace (Arch) was eager to be among the greats. He had a “hidden yearning to be part of the great world. To be important, even by association.” (181) But as the reader finds out, Dean Makepeace was never a friend of Hemingway. He didn’t know him nor has he ever seen him.

What links him with the narrator?

This boy had laid false claim to a story, whereas he himself had laid false claim to much more-to a king of importance, to a life not his own. (187)

Dean Makepeace is haunted by the truth only to be reminded to consider the folly of obsession with purity.

“…its roots sunk deep in pride, flowering in condemnation and violence against others and oneself. For years Arch had traced this vision of the evil done through intolerance of the flawed and ambiguous, but he had not taken the lesson to heart. He had given up the good in his life because a fault ran through it.” (193)

By the end, Dean Makepeace finds the will to overlook the fault and returns to what he loves and considers a joy, his post as a teacher.


No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: This when I became a writer. It all gets cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. (157)