David Foster Wallace
Back to Main Page
David Wallace (February 21, 1962 - September 12, 2008) was an American writer who contributed his unparalleled talent to contemporary fiction and writing.
Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York to James Donald Wallace and Sally Foster Wallace. Wallace has a younger sister and a passion for tennis, which resonates throughout his writing, from Infinite Jest to "Derivative Sport."
He attended Amherst College, and majored in English and philosophy, with a focus on modal logic and mathematics. His philosophy senior thesis on modal logic, titled Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality His other senior thesis, in English, would later become his first novel. Wallace graduated with summa cum laude honors for both theses in 1985, and in 1987 received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona.
As a Teacher
Wallace taught at Amherst, Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. In 2002, Wallace joined the Pomona College English Department and became the Roy Edward Disney Endowed Professor of Creative Writing. He taught at Pomona College for six years before he passed away in the fall of 2008. One of Wallace’s students, Kelly Natoli, who also took the David Foster Wallace class with us, remembers Wallace telling her class on the first day: “‘It’s going to take me, like two weeks to learn everyone’s name, but by the time I learn your name I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are.’” Her quote is one out of the many that speak to the care and attention that Wallace gave to his students, as their teacher.
As a Writer
Although Wallace once said in his interview with Larry McCaffery that “I don’t seem to be able to call myself a writer,” most of us know him as David Foster Wallace, the writer. Moreover, we know Wallace to be a writer who gives tirelessly to his reader, and as his readers, we learn endlessly from him. Through his writing, Wallace exposes his extraordinary sense of awareness, which he passes on to his reader in every piece of his writing, from fiction to non-fiction. As a writer, Wallace helps his reader understand, make sense of, and find solace in the reality in which she lives. He opens up pathways for his reader to see the world and its people in a different light. In his essays, Wallace is not afraid to challenge is reader and ask her the tough questions—oftentimes questions without answers. He then carefully walks his reader through these difficulties, as if together, the writer and reader might find a way to tackle them. In his journalistic articles, Wallace inserts autobiographical content, constantly reminding his reader that he, the writer, is there in the writing and inextricably a part of the writing. His tone is always sincere; his voice, always human. Through his writing, Wallace communicates with his reader. Reading Wallace’s writing is never a one-way street, where the reader simply gets the story; it’s more like a human conversation, a give-and-take process. Wallace does not make reading easy for his reader, but in the end, if the reader puts in her share of the work, she gets something out of it and learns something invaluable. As a writer, Wallace is constantly teaching his reader. Through his writing, Wallace will never stop teaching.
The root of Wallace's writing career
The following is an excerpt from an article in The New Yorker wherein author D. T. Max reveals the root of Wallace’s writing career (resource: ):
- At Amherst, he was soon drawn to math and philosophy. He relished the “special sort of buzz” that they provided, as he later told McCaffery: “These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions.” Wallace joined the debate and glee clubs, and smoked a lot of pot with friends. One day, though, toward the end of his sophomore year, Costello walked into their dorm room to find Wallace sitting alone, slumped over, his gray Samsonite suitcase between his legs, a Chicago Bears cap on his head. “I have to go home,” he told Costello. “Something’s wrong with me.”
- His family was surprised by his return. “We didn’t press him,” his mother says. “We figured if he wanted to talk about it he’d talk about it.” For a short time, he drove a school bus. He also found a psychiatrist and began taking antidepressants. During this time, he traced his breakdown to his not really wanting to be a philosopher. “I had kind of a midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur well for my longevity,” he later told McCaffery.
- He began to write fiction. Until then, Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information. (Even in later years, he admired the novels of Tom Clancy for their ability to pack in facts.) But he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could, and also provide some of the same comfort. During this time, he wrote several short stories, one of which was published. “The Planet Trillaphon” appeared in the Amherst Review in 1984. The autobiographical story captures the intense pain of the depression he suffered:
- I’m not incredibly glib, but I’ll tell what I think the Bad Thing is like. . . . Imagine that every single atom in every single cell in your body is sick . . . intolerably sick. And every proton and neutron in every atom . . . swollen and throbbing, off-color, sick, with just no chance of throwing up to relieve the feeling. Every electron is sick, here, twirling offbalance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy. Quarks and neutrinos out of their minds and bouncing sick all over the place.
- When he returned to school, Wallace took his first creative-writing class, and began aggressively reading contemporary fiction. He was drawn to the postmodernists, whose affection for puzzles and mirrors-within-mirrors sensibility reflected his own enthusiasm for math and philosophy. Costello remembers, “Junior year, David and I were sitting around talking about magical realists—I think it was ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’—and someone said, ‘Pynchon’s much cooler.’ We said ‘Who?’ He threw a copy of ‘Lot 49’ at us. For Dave, that was like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.” Wallace also loved Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” which came out when he was a senior.
Here D.T. Max writes the Wallace found relief in writing during the winter where he decided to take a year off. DFW alludes to this in other interviews, but the full details of this breakdown and when he started his anti-depressant use was never publicly discuss until the publication of this article.
His father, James Wallace, having finished his graduate course work in philosophy at Cornell University, accepted a teaching job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1962. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1963. His mother, Sally Foster Wallace, attended graduate school in English Composition at the University of Illinois and became a professor of English at Parkland College -- a community college in Champaign -- where she won a national Professor of the Year award in 1996. His younger sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson, Arizona, has practiced law since 2005. Wallace married painter Karen L. Green on December 27, 2004. He had a close relationship with their two dogs, Bella and Warner.
Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, as confirmed by the October 27, 2008 autopsy report.
In an interview with The New York Times, Wallace's father reported that Wallace had suffered from depression for more than 20 years and that antidepressant medication had allowed him to be productive. When he experienced severe side effects from the medication, Wallace attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, Nardil. On his doctor's advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007, and the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to Nardil, he found it had lost its effectiveness. In the months before his death, his depression became severe.
Numerous gatherings were held to honor Wallace after his death, including memorial services at Pomona College, Amherst College, and on October 23, 2008, at NYU. Wallace's colleague Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Professor of English and Media Studies, presented a moving eulogy to the faculty of Pomona College.
"This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose." -D.T. Max
The following is an excerpt from an article in The New Yorker wherein author D. T. Max discusses Wallace’s leave of absence (resource: )
- During the spring of 2008, a new combination of antidepressants seemed to stabilize him. When GQ asked him to write an essay on Obama and rhetoric, he felt almost well enough to do it. The magazine reserved a hotel room for him in Denver. But he cancelled. That June, the annual booksellers’ convention was in Los Angeles, and Wallace drove there to have dinner with Pietsch, Nadell, and a few others. Pietsch was amazed at how thin Wallace was. Nadell, at Wallace’s request, explained to magazine editors that he had a stomach malady. “It had to be severe enough to explain why he couldn’t travel,” she remembers.
- About ten days after the dinner, Wallace checked in to a motel about ten miles from his home and took an overdose of pills. When he woke up, he called Green, who had been searching for him all night. When she met him at the hospital, he told her that he was glad to be alive. He was sorry that he’d made her look for him. He switched doctors and agreed to try electroconvulsive therapy again. He was terrified at the prospect—in Urbana, it had temporarily taken away his short-term memory—but he underwent twelve sessions. They did not help.
- Caring for Wallace was exhausting. For one nine-day period, Green never left their house. In August, her son suffered an athletic injury, and she wanted to be with him. Wallace’s parents came to look after David. “It’s like they’re throwing darts at a dartboard,” he complained to them about his doctors. They went with him to an appointment with his psychiatrist; when the doctor suggested a new drug combination, Wallace rolled his eyes.
- Eventually, Wallace asked to go back on Nardil. But Nardil can take weeks to stabilize a patient, and Green says that he was too agitated to give it time to work. Still, in early September, Nadell spoke with him and thought that he sounded a bit better.
- Green believes that she knows when Wallace decided to try again to kill himself. She says of September 6th, “That Saturday was a really good day. Monday and Tuesday were not so good. He started lying to me that Wednesday.” He waited two days for an opportunity. In the early evening on Friday, September 12th, Green went to prepare for an opening at her gallery, Beautiful Crap, in the center of Claremont, about ten minutes from their home. She felt comforted by the fact that he’d seen the chiropractor on Monday. “You don’t go to the chiropractor if you’re going to commit suicide,” she says.
- After she left, Wallace went into the garage and turned on the lights. He wrote her a two-page note. Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself. When one character dies in “Infinite Jest,” he is “catapulted home over . . . glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”
- Green returned home at nine-thirty, and found her husband. In the garage, bathed in light from his many lamps, sat a pile of nearly two hundred pages. He had made some changes in the months since he considered sending them to Little, Brown. The story of “David Wallace” was now first. In his final hours, he had tidied up the manuscript so that his wife could find it. Below it, around it, inside his two computers, on old floppy disks in his drawers were hundreds of other pages—drafts, character sketches, notes to himself, fragments that had evaded his attempt to integrate them into the novel. This was his effort to show the world what it was to be “a fucking human being.” He had not completed it to his satisfaction. This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the ending he chose.
The New Yorker article by D.T. Max: A comprehensive mini biography
For a detailed mini biograghy of DFW, see the article by D.T. Max in The New Yorker titled "The Unfinished - David Foster Wallace’s struggle to surpass “Infinite Jest.”"
Writing and other media
Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, garnered national attention and critical praise. Caryn James of The New York Times called it a successful "manic, human, flawed extravaganza", "emerging straight from the excessive tradition of Stanley Elkin's Franchiser, Thomas Pynchon's V, and John Irving's World According to Garp." Wallace moved to Boston, Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard University, only later to abandon those same studies. In 1991 he began teaching literature as an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston.
In 1992, at the behest of colleague and supporter Steven Moore, Wallace applied for and won a position in the English department at Illinois State University. He had begun work on his second novel, Infinite Jest, in 1991, and submitted a draft to his editor in December 1993. After the publication of excerpts throughout 1995, the book was published in 1996.
Wallace published short fiction in Might, GQ, Playboy, The Paris Review, Harper's Magazine, Conjunctions, Esquire, Open City, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The New Yorker, and Science.
Wallace received the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 1997. In 1997, Wallace was awarded the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction by editors of The Paris Review for one of the stories in Brief Interviews -- "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men #6" -- which had appeared in the magazine.
In 2002, he moved to Claremont, California, to become the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. He taught one or two undergraduate courses per semester, and focused on his writing.
Bonnie Nardell was Wallace's literary agent during his entire career.
In March 2009, Little, Brown and Company announced that it would publish the manuscript of an unfinished novel, entitled The Pale King, that Wallace was working on at the time of his death.
Wallace's Awards: One of many testaments to his ingenuity
- John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Genius Grant, 1997–2002
- Lannan Foundation, Marfa TX Residency Fellow, July–August 2000
- Named to Usage Panel, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4th Edition et seq., 1999
- Inclusion of "The Depressed Person" in Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
- Illinois State University, Outstanding University Researcher, 1998 and 1999