Saunders is honored to call Wolff a friend. “Toby is that very rare person: a true master of his art form (the finest living American short story writer) and a consummate teacher of writers,” he writes. “What animates both activities is a level of generosity of spirit I've rarely seen—a love for life that manifests in boundless artistic curiosity, and a selfless and seemingly unlimited concern for his students. I consider it one of the chief blessings of my life to have been able to study with him, when I was desperately looking for an artistic and personal role model.”
These sentiments are echoed by McInerney, who credits Wolff—and Carver—for teaching him a “hell of a lot about writing.” During a 2013 interview, McInerney recalled that, for all of Wolff’s and Carver’s success at Syracuse, they could not have been more different: “Ray treated his work like a living thing, and was not bound to it. He’d nurse it along. … Toby was more methodical, and viewed writing like a watch, which could be taken apart and reconstructed. He was also very objective with his teaching.”
Perrotta still marvels at the fact that he had Wolff as a teacher. That he was the antithesis of the “tormented, hard-drinking, narcissistic writer who [left] a trail of emotional chaos in his wake," Perrotta says, was revelatory.
“Not only is Toby an artist of the highest caliber, but he also taught by quiet example that it is possible to be a serious writer and a decent, well-adjusted human being with an unerring moral compass, a generous spirit, and a great sense of humor,” says Perrotta, who, as a student, was fortunate to hear Wolff read an excerpt from This Boy’s Life as a work-in-progress. “Toby embodied the idea that the same principles held for the writer and the human being—that honesty, empathy, and love were the highest values in both arenas—and that there was no inherent contradiction between greatness as a writer and goodness as a person.”
Wolff’s star has continued to rise at Stanford, where he serves as The Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor of English. Recent publications include the collection Our Story Begins (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008) and the novel Old School (Knopf, 2003). His work also appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other major literary magazines.
Eighteen years on, Wolff reflects fondly on his time at Syracuse. “I remain grateful for my time there—for the friendships I enjoyed across the University, and the pleasure of leading workshops with some of the most gifted writers in the country—now a Who's Who of contemporary American literature,” he says.
Wolff is not the only recipient of this year’s National Medal of Arts with ties to Syracuse. Others include multimedia artist Ann Hamilton, whose exhibition table was co-presented last year by the Urban Video Project and Light Work; musician Meredith Monk, who headlined last fall’s Pulse Performing Arts Series; and theater director Ping Chong, who served as the 2010 Jeanette K. Watson Visiting Collaborator in the Humanities Center and whose oral history piece Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo was produced by Syracuse Stage in 2012.
Jhumpa Lahiri, who is receiving the National Humanities Medal at Thursday’s ceremony, is the author of The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003), last year’s CNY Reads One Book selection. In 2006, she and Saunders shared the stage in a Rosamond Gifford Lecture. Like Wolff, Lahiri is an NEA Big Read author.