September 24, 2001

Tobias Wolff Brings Literature to Cornell

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Goldwin Smith’s Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium was filled to the brim on Friday evening as fans gathered to hear Tobias Wolff read selections from some of his fictional masterpieces.

“Good literature is at the core of who we are,” said Prof. Lamar Herrin, English, when he introduced Wolff, the latest guest of the 2001 James McConkey Readings in American Fiction series.

“As a writer of short stories, Tobias Wolff has no peer in this country,” Lamar added. “His destination is unerringly apt. His poetry is authoritative, effortless and precise.”

As a testament to his distinction, all of the couple hundred chairs in the room were taken and space around the podium was packed with people, around whom Wolff had to carefully sidestep as he made his way to the center.

He began the reading with an excerpt from his latest fiction novel in progress, which is set in an all-boy’s school in the 1960s.

His second and final piece was the famous short story, “Bullet in the Brain” (from “The Night in Question”) which is about a jaded book critic named Anders who is shot in the head with a bullet.

In his dying moments, Anders struggles with his memory to find something authentic from his childhood that he can call his own.

At the end of the reading, thunderous applause resounded from the audience and several fans crowded around the podium for autographs.

“Wolff is a great performer,” said Philip E. Lewis, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “He reads with a remarkable sense of the dramatic power of language.”

James McConkey, the Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus, characterized Wolff’s work as comical and engaging along with a serious and sometimes disturbing undertone.

“Ever word counted. He is a marvelous writer,” McConkey said.

Wolff, the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, is the author of short story collections such as “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” “The Barracks Thief” and “The Night in Question”.

He has also written two memoirs: “This Boy’s Life” was made into the 1993 movie starring Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio. “In Pharaoh’s Army,” Wolff’s memoir of the Vietnam War, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1945, Wolff said after the reading that he has always worked hardest at writing because “something in me drives me to do it.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts