David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace headshot 2006.jpg
Wallace at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, January 2006
Born(1962-02-21)February 21, 1962
Ithaca, New York, United States
DiedSeptember 12, 2008(2008-09-12) (aged 46)
Claremont, California, United States
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, essayist, college professor
NationalityUnited States
PeriodLate 20th – early 21st century
GenresLiterary fiction, non-fiction
Literary movementPostmodern literature, hysterical realism, metamodernism
Notable work(s)Infinite Jest, The Pale King, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
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David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace headshot 2006.jpg
Wallace at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, January 2006
Born(1962-02-21)February 21, 1962
Ithaca, New York, United States
DiedSeptember 12, 2008(2008-09-12) (aged 46)
Claremont, California, United States
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, essayist, college professor
NationalityUnited States
PeriodLate 20th – early 21st century
GenresLiterary fiction, non-fiction
Literary movementPostmodern literature, hysterical realism, metamodernism
Notable work(s)Infinite Jest, The Pale King, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008) was an award-winning American novelist, short story writer, essayist, professor of English at Illinois State University, and professor of creative writing at Pomona College. Wallace is widely known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest,[1][2] which was cited as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 by Time magazine.[3]

Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years".[1] With his suicide, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Pale King, which was subsequently published in 2011, and in 2012 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which was not awarded that year.[4] A biography of Wallace by D. T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, was published in September 2012.[5]


Early life[edit]

Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Sally Jean (née Foster) and James Donald Wallace.[6] In his early childhood, Wallace lived in Champaign, Illinois.[7] In fourth grade, he moved to Urbana and attended Yankee Ridge school and Urbana High School. As an adolescent, Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player.

He attended his father's alma mater, Amherst College, and majored in English and philosophy, with a focus on modal logic and mathematics. His philosophy senior thesis on modal logic, Richard Taylor's 'Fatalism' and the Semantics of Physical Modality (described in James Ryerson's 2008 New York Times essay "Consider the Philosopher"[8]), was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize.[9] His other senior thesis, written for his English major, would later become his first novel.[10] Wallace graduated summa cum laude for both theses in 1985, and in 1987 received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona.


Wallace's father, James D. Wallace, began teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1962 after finishing his graduate course work in philosophy at Cornell University. James D. Wallace received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1963 and is now Emeritus Professor at Urbana-Champaign. Wallace's 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. Wallace's younger sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson, Arizona, has practiced law since 2005.

In the early 1990s, Wallace had a relationship with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr. Wallace married painter Karen L. Green on December 27, 2004.[11][12] Dogs played an important role in Wallace's life:[13] He was very close to his two dogs, Bella and Werner;[12] had spoken of opening a dog shelter;[13] and, according to Jonathan Franzen, "had a predilection for dogs who'd been abused, and [were] unlikely to find other owners who were going to be patient enough for them".[12]


Wallace committed suicide by hanging himself on September 12, 2008.[14] 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.[11] When he experienced severe side effects from the medication, Wallace attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine.[12] On his doctor's advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007,[11] and the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to phenelzine, he found it had lost its effectiveness.[12] In the months before his death, his depression became severe.[11] The same year Wallace had checked into a nearby motel and taken all the pills he could obtain, ending up in a local hospital. His wife kept a watchful eye on Wallace the following days, but on September 12, after his wife left their home, Wallace went into their garage, wrote a two-page note, and neatly arranged the manuscript for The Pale King before hanging himself on the patio.[15]

Numerous gatherings were held to honor Wallace after his death, including memorial services at Pomona College, Amherst College, University of Arizona, and on October 23, 2008, at New York University—the last with speakers including his sister, Amy Wallace Havens; his agent, Bonnie Nadell; Gerry Howard, the editor of his first two books; Colin Harrison, editor at Harper's Magazine; Michael Pietsch, the editor of Infinite Jest and Wallace's later work; Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker; as well as authors Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Mark Costello, Donald Antrim, and Jonathan Franzen.[16][17][18]



David Foster Wallace giving a reading for Booksmith at San Francisco's All Saints Church in 2006

Wallace's first novel, 1987's 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., John Irving's World According to Garp".[19] Wallace moved to Boston, Massachusetts, for graduate school in philosophy at Harvard University, but soon abandoned it. 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 obtained 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, Mid-American Review, Conjunctions, Esquire, Open City, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The New Yorker, and Science.

In 1997, Wallace received a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, awarded 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.

In May 2005, Wallace delivered the commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech was published as a book in 2009 under the title This Is Water.[20] In May 2013, portions of the speech were used in a popular online video also titled "This is Water".[21]

Bonnie Nadell was Wallace's literary agent through his entire career.[22] Michael Pietsch was his editor on Infinite Jest.[23]

In March 2009, Little, Brown and Company announced that it would publish the manuscript of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, that Wallace was working on at the time of his death. The Pale King was pieced together by editor Michael Pietsch from pages and notes the author left behind.[24][25] Several excerpts from it were published in the New Yorker and other magazines. The Pale King was published on April 15, 2011, and received generally positive reviews.[26]

In March 2010, it was announced that Wallace's personal papers and archives—drafts of books, stories, essays, poems, letters, and research, including the handwritten notes for Infinite Jest—had been purchased by the University of Texas at Austin and will reside at the University's Harry Ransom Center.[27]

Themes and styles[edit]

Wallace's fiction is often concerned with irony. His essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction",[28] originally published in the small-circulation Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, proposes that television has an ironic influence on fiction writing, and urges literary authors to eschew TV's shallow rebelliousness: "I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems." Wallace used many forms of irony, but focused on individuals' continued longing for earnest, unselfconscious experience and communication in a media-saturated society.[29] Literary critic Adam Kirsch said that Wallace's "self-conscious earnestness" and "hostility to irony defined a literary generation".[30]

Wallace's novels often combine various writing modes or voices, and incorporate jargon and vocabulary (sometimes invented) from a wide variety of fields. His writing featured self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and a notable use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes—often nearly as expansive as the text proper. He used endnotes extensively in Infinite Jest and footnotes in "Octet" as well as in the great majority of his nonfiction after 1996. On the Charlie Rose show in 1997, Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, "but then no one would read it".[31]

According to Wallace, "fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being", and he expressed a desire to write "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction" that could help readers "become less alone inside".[32] In his Kenyon College commencement address, he describes the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warns against solipsism,[33] invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism:[34]

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.... The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Non-fiction work[edit]

Wallace covered Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign[35] and the September 11 attacks for Rolling Stone; cruise ships[36] (in what became the title essay of his first nonfiction book), state fairs, and tornadoes for Harper's Magazine; the US Open tournament for TENNIS Magazine; the director David Lynch and the pornography industry for Premiere magazine; the tennis player Michael Joyce for Esquire; the special-effects film industry for Waterstone's magazine; conservative talk radio host John Ziegler for The Atlantic Monthly;[37] and a Maine lobster festival for Gourmet magazine. He also reviewed books in several genres for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic, which commemorated the magazine's 150th anniversary, Wallace was among the authors, artists, politicians and others who wrote short pieces on "the future of the American idea".

Other media[edit]

Twelve of the interviews from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men were adapted into a stage play in 2000, the first theatrical adaptation of Wallace's work. The play, Hideous Men, adapted and directed by Dylan McCullough, premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2000.

A filmed adaptation of Brief Interviews, directed by John Krasinski, was released in 2009 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.[38] The film stars Julianne Nicholson and an ensemble cast including Christopher Meloni, Rashida Jones, Timothy Hutton, Josh Charles, Will Forte and Corey Stoll.[39]

Brief Interviews was also adapted by director Marc Caellas as a play called Brief Interviews With Hideous Writers, which premiered at Fundación Tomás Eloy Martinez in Buenos Aires on November 4, 2011.[40]

The short story "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was adapted by composer Eric Moe[41] into a 50-minute operatic piece, to be performed with accompanying video projections.[42] The piece was described as having "subversively inscribed classical music into pop culture".[43]

The Simpsons episode "A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again" (first aired April 29, 2012) is loosely based on Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". The Simpson family takes a cruise, and Wallace appears in the background of a scene, wearing a tuxedo T-shirt while eating in the ship's dining room; Wallace recounts having worn such a T-shirt "at formal suppers".

Infinite Jest was performed once as a stage play by Germany’s experimental theater Hebbel am Ufer. The play was staged in various locations throughout Berlin, and the action took place over a 24-hour period.[44]

"Good Old Neon", from Oblivion: Stories, was adapted and performed live by Ian Forester at the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival, produced by Los Angeles independent theater company Needtheater.[45]

List of works[edit]

Short story collections

Awards and honors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Writer David Foster Wallace found dead". The Los Angeles Times, Claire Noland and Joel Rubin. September 14, 2008. 
  2. ^ "Writer David Foster Wallace Dies". The Wall Street Journal, AP. September 14, 2008. Archived from the original on September 22, 2008. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  3. ^ Grossman, Lev; Lacayo, Richard (October 16, 2005). "TIME's Critics pick the 100 Best Novels, 1923 to present". TIME 
  4. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Pulitzer_Prize
  5. ^ "Searching Through the Ashes of an Exploded Life". The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, August 22, 2012. August 22, 2012. 
  6. ^ http://www.scribd.com/doc/160807355/David-Foster-Wallace-Fate-Time-And-Language-a-BookFi-org
  7. ^ Contrary to some reports in reliable sources, David Foster Wallace never lived in Philo, Illinois, nor even "set foot" there. (Boswell and Burn (eds.), 94)
  8. ^ Ryerson, James (December 14, 2008). "Consider the Philosopher". The New York Times,. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  9. ^ "Our Alumni , Amherst College". Cms.amherst.edu. November 17, 2007. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  10. ^ "In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace '85 , Amherst College". Amherst.edu. September 14, 2008. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d "David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46". The New York Times, Bruce Weber, September 14, 2008. September 15, 2008. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Lipsky, Dave (October 30, 2008, Issue 1064). "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on May 3, 2009. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  13. ^ a b "The Unfinished". The New Yorker, D.T. Max, March 9, 2009. 
  14. ^ Carlson, Scott (September 14, 2008). "David Foster Wallace, Postmodern Novelist and Writing Teacher, Is Dead at 46". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved May 30, 2010. 
  15. ^ D.T. Max Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, A Life of David Foster Wallace, p 301. ISBN 978 1 84708 494 1.
  16. ^ "Jonathan Franzen Remembers David Foster Wallace". The Observer, Adam Begley, October 27, 2008. 
  17. ^ "Celebrating the Life and Work of David Foster Wallace". Five Dials. Hamish Hamilton. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  18. ^ Konigsberg, Eric (October 24, 2008). "Remembering Writer of ‘Infinite Jest’". New York Times. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  19. ^ Caryn James, "Wittgenstein Is Dead and Living in Ohio – The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace", The New York Times, March 1, 1987.
  20. ^ Bissell, Tom (April 26, 2009). "Great and Terrible Truths". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2010. 
  21. ^ McGuinness, William (May 8, 2013). "David Foster Wallace's Brilliant 'This Is Water' Commencement Address Is Now a Great Short Film". The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 9, 2013. 
  22. ^ Neyfakh, Leon (September 17, 2008). "Remembering David Foster Wallace: 'David Would Never Stop Caring' Says Lifelong Agent". The New York Observer. 
  23. ^ Neyfakh, Leon (September 19, 2008). "Infinite Jest Editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown on David Foster Wallace". The New York Observer,. 
  24. ^ Michiko Kakutani (March 31, 2011). "Maximized Revenue, Minimized Existence". New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  25. ^ Associated Press (March 1, 2009). "Unfinished novel by Wallace coming next year". USA Today. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  26. ^ Willa Paskin (April 5, 2011). "David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King Gets Thoughtful, Glowing Reviews". New York Magazine. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  27. ^ Cohen, Patricia (March 9, 2010). "David Foster Wallace Papers Are Bought". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  28. ^ Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction". Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (2): 151–194. 
  29. ^ "A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest". Rci.rutgers.edu. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  30. ^ Kirsch, Adam. "The Importance of Being Earnest – David Foster Wallace was the voice of his generation, for better and for worse". The New Republic. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 
  31. ^ "Charlie Rose – Jennifer Harbury & Robert Torricelli / David Foster Wallace". Google. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  32. ^ by D. T. Max (January 7, 2009). "David Foster Wallace's struggle to surpass Infinite Jest". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  33. ^ Krajeski, Jenna. This is Water, The New Yorker, September 22, 2008.
  34. ^ "David Foster Wallace on Life and Work". The Wall Street Journal. September 19, 2008. 
  35. ^ Wallace, David Foster (April 13, 2000). "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and The Shrub". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on May 19, 2009. Retrieved April 2, 2012.  "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and The Shrub" was parodied in the Salon.com article "David Foster Wallace: Ain't McCain Grand".
  36. ^ Wallace, David Foster (January 1996). "Shipping Out" (PDF). Harper's Magazine. 
  37. ^ Wallace, David Foster (April, 2005) "Host" The Atlantic Monthly
  38. ^ Lee, Chris (January 19, 2009). "John Krasinski, 'Brief Interviews With Hideous Men'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  39. ^ "John Krasinski conducts Brief Interviews With Hideous Men". TotalFILM.com. September 19, 2006. 
  40. ^ "Entrevistas repulsivas en la Fundación Tomás Eloy Martínez", 01/11/11.
  41. ^ "DFW + Me = An ‘Arranged’ Marriage of Music and Fiction". Eric Moe. Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  42. ^ "Tri-Stan". Eric Moe. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  43. ^ Midgette, Anne (April 2, 2005). "A Menu of Familiar Signposts and a One-Woman Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  44. ^ Aaron Wiener, "Infinite Jest! Live! On Stage! One Entire Day Only!", Slate, June 18, 2012.
  45. ^ "Hollywood Fringe Festival 2011: 'Deity Clutch,' 'Dumb Waiter,' 'Glint'", LAist.
  46. ^ Pomona College, Faculty Directory, Archived September 2008, last updated October 13, 2005.


External links[edit]

For a comprehensive collection of links to Wallace's work, consult David Foster Wallace bibliography.