National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Old School

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

There is a need in us for exactly what literature can give, which is a sense of who we are… a sense of the workings of what we used to call the soul.


Tobias Wolff (Photo by Jennifer Hale)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though—here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.

But we wouldn't have admitted that class played any part in our liking for Kennedy. Ours was not a snobbish school, or so it believed, and we made this as true as we could.

Reed: That's Jackson Hille reading from Old School by Tobias Wolff.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Old School is set at an elite prep school in the Northeast—a place of wealth, tradition, and calculated nonchalance.

Writer Jonathan Lethem.

Jonathan Lethem: Well, it's set at a boarding school with a lot of the kind of pretensions of a European, Old World atmosphere, at the end of the 1950s, just as the United States is coming out of its kind of sleepy, uptight decade and into a much freer time.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep was inspired by her experience teaching at a private school for boys.

Curtis Sittenfeld: This so perfectly and believably evokes the boys' school environment. It just, the kind of, you know, the physicality of it and the noise of it and people kind of teasing each other and getting into mischief.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff resembles the narrator of Old School in many ways. Wolff also grew up in the Pacific Northwest and he later came east to attend the Hill School, a boy's boarding school in Pennsylvania. It should be noted, however, that the events in Old School are imaginary. It is a work of fiction rather than memoir.

David Dougherty is the current Headmaster at the Hill School.

David Dougherty: In some ways it's an archetypal boys' boarding school of the '60s, and in some ways it's a product of Tobias' imagination and to some degree, obviously, it's a reflection of the Hill of those years. He's captured the culture, the life of the school, extremely well. It is a rarefied air these places breathe.

Gioia: Old School tells the story of a teenage boy struggling to discover his true, honest self. In many ways, he is an outsider to this privileged environment. The nameless narrator craves friendship and acceptance as he seeks to find his place among his classmates.

Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: The protagonist is a scholarship student, which he has basically tried to conceal from his classmates.

Gioia: David Dougherty.

Doughterty: He's clearly an outsider in that he is not from the East Coast. His father is Jewish. He is self-conscious about that.

Gioia: When the narrator discovers he's Jewish, he conceals his family background from his classmates, in fear of jeopardizing his hard-earned position in the delicate social hierarchy of the school.

Musician Zach Rogue.

Zach Rogue: He's one of the kids who doesn't come from somewhere of privilege, and the other kids are kind of the elite who don't even need the school. So already, even if he wasn't Jewish, he's lower class because, you know, a lot of these kids are obviously real wealthy prep school kids, and he's the oddball.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: He's kind of cultivated this cool persona, which it sounds like he's succeeded in doing over time. Now that he's a senior, he's essentially pulled it off.

Rogue: He's created this image of himself of being this kind of literary figure, this kind of smart, literary figure...

Gioia: Zach Rogue.

Rogue: ...But it's interesting that even though you have this kind of elitism, these privileged kids, it seems like, still, no matter where you come from, and the thing that unites everyone, is they all still have this love and respect for literature.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

Like all schools, ours prized its jocks, and they gave good value, especially the wrestlers, who merrily wiped the mat with grim, grunting boys, up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The school liked its wrestlers and football players but also its cutthroat debaters and brilliant scholars, its singers and chess champs, its cheerleaders and actors and musicians and wits, and, not least of all, its scribblers.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: One of the things I loved about it was that it was a very literary place, and I had been a reader and dabbled in writing before and had some idea of being a writer before I got there. But within months of arriving there, that was it, that was what I wanted to do. And, you know, I've never looked back really.

Gioia: Many of the boys in Old School – not least of all, the narrator – are literary fanatics.

Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: Like his classmates, he's obsessed with writers and with writing, and, you know, he helps edit the school literary magazine. And then there are these contests where visiting writers come, and one boy can win a private audience with a writer, and so he aspires to do that.

Gioia: Writer, Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore: Well, the visits of the writers is a kind of reward and the end moment of a competition that these boys are embarked on...

Moore: Whoever writes the poem or story that is selected by the visiting writer gets to have a sort of private meeting, so they're all competing for that.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

I'm not exaggerating the importance to us of these trophy meetings. We cared. And I cared as much as anyone, because I not only read writers, I read about writers. I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn't low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations 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.

 

Frost's visit was announced in early October.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: I loved Frost without truly understanding Frost at that age. 'Cause I'd always had this kind of greeting-card sense of Frost, kind of a Grandma Moses of poetry, if you will. And then to suddenly have this very dark Frost opened up and kind of this wonderful frisson of revelation in his poetry. And he was, not just by me but by the country at large, admired as the poet.

Gioia: Although the narrator doesn't win the audience with Robert Frost, he and his classmates obsessively observe the stately poet during his visit, studying his expressions and gestures in the dining hall, and hanging on each clever and mysterious remark during his address in the school chapel.

Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: The lesson that Frost imparts is the lesson the book and the characters aren't ready for yet, which is the absolute limits of contact between one soul and another. Frost is finally self reliant to the point of solipsism. Despite the sentimental image that sometimes surrounds him, there's a tremendous chastening coldness to that persona.

Gioia: Writer T.C. Boyle.

TC Boyle: There's a certain level of seriousness among teenagers, it escaped me unfortunately when I was a teenager. But the earnestness of the students, I think he captures that beautifully; how intensely the narrator and his friends on the literary magazine want to become writers and how enamoured they are with writers.

Gioia: Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: These boys who are clustered around this literary magazine and who are all trying on the role of writer, they're all writing stories, they're all trying to impress each other and most of all the visiting writers. It's this set of rehearsals for possible selves.

Gioia: Lorrie Moore.

Moore: They're casting about. They're trying on voices. They're trying on experiences. They're trying on identities, masks.

Gioia: TC Boyle.

Boyle: And yet he stands apart from this because he really doesn't feel that he belongs in this WASP company. That gives it a wonderful tension and makes the character fully human.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: He writes these stories for the literary magazine, that he hopes people will think are autobiographical, that have a character, who's from Seattle, as he is, but is the child of very wealthy parents.

Gioia: One night, the narrator drafts a poem that describes his strained relationship with his father and their broken home. As he reads over the poem, he explains: “I could see myself there, and didn't want to. Even more, I didn't want anyone else to.” Afraid of appearing vulnerable, the narrator can't bring himself to submit the poem for the Frost contest. Instead he submits a melodramatic narrative about an elk hunter.

Gioia: Zach Rogue.

Rogue: A lot of this book is a search for truth. And the thing he's not willing to accept is that if you're not willing to reveal yourself as weak, or to show your true self, then you can't write. Because it has to come from a place of honesty within yourself.

Gioia: Lorrie Moore.

Moore: He really wants to be a writer himself, as do, you know, his friends in this literary crowd that he's hanging out with in the school.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

Why did so many of us want to be writers? It seemed unreasonable. But there were reasons.

The atmosphere of our school crackled with sexual static. We had the occasional dance with Miss Cobb's Academy and a few other girls' schools, but these brief affairs only cranked up the charge; and though from day to day we saw the master's wives, Roberta Ramsey alone had the goods to enter our dreams. The absence of an actual girl to compete for meant that every other prize became feminized. For honors in sport, scholarship, music, and writing we cracked our heads together like mountain rams, [...]

This aspect of my ambition was obscure to me at the time. But there was another that I did recognize, though vaguely, and almost in spite of myself: the problem of class.

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 cur­ tain closed and the doors were flung open.

Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world, that it had already been reserved for them.

Wolff: That whole experience of being at this school was a shock to me, a pleasant one in most ways.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: In some ways, not so pleasant because it was a completely different world than the one that I came from, which was a pretty largely working-class world. I really had not much idea of the class system in America or how powerful class was as a force in American life, and you certainly saw it at this school.

Gioia: Although the boys in Old School do their best to ignore the problem of class, it pervades their prep school culture—a presence that the narrator feels deeply. He also is conscious of his classmates' potential for anti-Semitism, which inspires his concealment of his Jewish origins. In one incident, the narrator becomes acutely aware of the invisible social structure of the school and of his precarious place within it.

Jonathan Lethem and T.C. Boyle.

Lethem: The narrator has accidentally absorbed this old Nazi song, essentially, into his whistling repertoire.

Boyle: A song he'd heard at camp, but he has no idea what the song is. It's the “Horst Wessel” song, the Hitler youth marching song. And he's whistling it in a stairwell.

Lethem: And has the uncommon bad luck to be whistling this song right as he's crossing paths with the old elderly Jewish janitor.

Boyle: And the janitor, whose family had been lost in the concentration camps, overhears this and breaks down. As a consequence the narrator is taken before the master and given a dressing down.

Lethem: And since the narrator has covered up his own Jewishness, he has no ability to ask for understanding on this point.

Boyle: He could have ameliorated this by saying, “I didn't know, and by the way I'm Jewish.” Later it comes up that his roommate is Jewish and also trying to hide behind this mask of WASP respectability in a WASP bastion.

Lethem: The pressure of concealing Jewish identity is stronger in the narrator than the yearning to be forgiven.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're kickin' it Old School with Tobias Wolff.

Gioia: T.C. Boyle.

Boyle: The structure is unique because it revolves around the visits of three writers to campus. The first being Robert Frost; the second, Ayn Rand; and the third, Ernest Hemingway.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: I had nothing less than a sense of worship around each of those writers at one time or another at that phase in my life. They were, for me, the great trinity.

Gioia: Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: Each of those writers becomes an image not just of themselves but of possible ways of negotiating the world. Each with tremendous potency and each containing with 'em kind of fatal seeds of error.

Gioia: When he was a teenager, Wolff went through his own intellectual infatuation with the works of Ayn Rand.

Wolff: I discovered her when I was about 15, 16. And I was completely swept off my feet by her. I read everything. And she I did understand. I understood her as well then as I do now. There's nothing there hidden. She gave very simple solutions to some very complicated questions. It was very attractive to a young person.

Gioia: The narrator of Old School reads and rereads Rand's novels in anticipation of her visit. His obsession with her books and ideas becomes so acute, it colors the way he views himself and the world around him.

Lorrie Moore.

Moore: His whole sense of power and what it is to be a man has been temporarily altered by this encounter with Rand's work. And it's very, very funny. And he makes fun of his protagonist a little bit, at the same time, he accompanies him through this mistaken infatuation.

Gioia: When Rand finally visits the campus, the narrator's admiration for her is shaken when he witnesses her domineering and even vicious behavior.

Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: He really guides you all the way into that obsession, which makes the cruelty that he demonstrates in Rand's persona later on so enormously devastating. If he hadn't given her every bit of rope, she never would have hung herself so totally.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: And then, Hemingway is gonna be the third person who comes. And both the protagonist and a lot of his friends are all particularly obsessed with Hemingway and particularly excited that he's gonna come.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: Hemingway, the most famous writer in the world when I was a boy, and not only that, the pattern of manhood. I mean, he wasn't just the way he wrote, it was the way he was in the world that gave us something to aspire to. A lot of that turned out to be pretty bad modeling. But I remember even before I got there, seeing a picture, I believe it was in the back of Life magazine, of Hemingway leaving Madison Square Garden after a prize fight, with Marlena Dietrich on his arm. And I remember thinking, you know, there're worse things to be than a writer, you know.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

Anyway, I myself was in debt to Hemingway—up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.

Gioia: David Dougherty.

Dougherty: This school in particular is a well-structured, well-disciplined place. Within that is this creative energy that, manifests itself in this contest. And I don't think it's an accident that the novelist whom he's most eager to meet is somebody who is as disciplined, as refined and elliptical as Ernest Hemingway is.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: The main character wants to write something great that will win him an audience with Hemingway. And the protagonist thinks at all times that he can hear typewriters going, and he is really struggling with what to write because he wants it be perfect. To sort of practice writing something great, he starts essentially retyping Hemingway's stories.

Lethem: It points to an older model of apprenticeship in the arts.

Gioia: Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: When painters in the Renaissance learned to paint, they all painted imitatively first. To become a classical musician you always worked with other composers' works and reworked themes. This fact, the universal fact of copying as a way to become an original artist, makes people very uneasy in an age of accusations of plagiarism and where the idea of originality is exalted above all others, this truth resides in a very uneasy place.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: I think there's this strange but sincere thing that happens, where he almost feels a sense of ownership or authorship in them, but of course the only problem is that Hemingway typed them first.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

I'd read an article about a writer's colony in Marshall, Illinois, where the aspirants spent their mornings transcribing masterworks in order to learn what it actually felt like to write something great. James Jones had been associated with this group. If the practice helped him write From Here to Eternity, why couldn't it help me? I used my typewriter because Hemingway famously did—posed above it in a photo over my desk—but I slowed myself to hunt-and-peck speed so I could feel the sentences take form, sense the shift in focus or tone when I struck the carriage return for a new paragraph; a thoughtful pause as I read over the page I'd just finished, then the final period smacking home and all the joy of completion, the joy of Hemingway himself, as I rolled out the last sheet of “The Unde­feated,” laid it upon the others, and squared the stack.

None of this seemed ridiculous to me. A friend's parents back home had learned complicated dances by following footprints on diagrams they rolled out on the floor. I'd seen them do the mambo very impressively at a Christmas party, and they sure as hell weren't using their scrolls. They weren't even watching their feet. They were just doing what came naturally, from instincts they had trained with certain devotions, and the result was invention, freedom—mambo!

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: When I read this book, I feel sort of like it's been written for me. But I think that the sign of a great book is that a lot of people have the feeling, "this book was written for me." I mean, a huge thing that the book is about, is wanting things that slightly elude you, that you feel like will help complete you and set your life on a particular path and everyone has felt that.

Gioia: T.C. Boyle

Boyle: Everybody has been in a high school, if not a prep school, and we've all had to adjust our personalities and invent and reinvent ourselves day by day in order to fit into such a society.

Gioia: Jonathan Lethem.

Lethem: One of the things that's so terrific about this book is that it's so much about self invention, and it connects that problem, which first just seems to be this boy's personal issue, both to American identity and to the life of an artist. Because in both cases the possibility of self-invention from a blank slate is both terrifying and enormously promising. The American condition is one of claiming an identity out of a vacuum and always being afraid that someone might call your bluff on it.

Gioia: Tobias Wolff.

Wolff: How do people create an identity? What are the mechanics of identity? What goes into it? One of the elements in that process that I think gets not talked about very much, is the part that imagination plays in bringing us to an idea of who we are. We inherit certain ideas of who we are, but beyond this the question of how we imagine ourselves when we're young. And I would say finally you could only be who you can imagine being.

Gioia: Soon, the narrator's fierce literary ambitions will take a darker turn, the consequences of which, will determine the course of his life.

Jackson Hille reads from Old School...

The life that produces writing can't be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind's business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention they are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.

No true account can be given of how or why you became a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: This is 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.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from Old School were by Jackson Hille. “Hound Dog,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” from the album The Essential Elvis Presley, used with permission of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. Excerpts from the album Time Out, by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, used with permission of Derry Music. Music by Link Wray from the album Law of the Jungle: The 64 Swan Demos, used with permission of Forevermore Music. Other instrumental selections from the soundtrack to Atonement, composed by Dario Marianelli, used with permission of Universal Music Group.

Production assistants: Adam Kampe and Pepper Smith. Administrative assistants: Liz Mehaffey and Erika Koss.

Special thanks to Nicholas LaPointe, Nola Leone, Scott van Dort, Julie LaPointe, Ami Spishock, and to our contributors: T.C. Boyle, David Dougherty, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Zach Rogue, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Tobias Wolff.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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