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David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace
Wallace in January 2006
Born (1962-02-21)February 21, 1962
Ithaca, New York, United States
Died September 12, 2008(2008-09-12) (aged 46)
Claremont, California, United States
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist, college professor
Period 1987–2008
Genre Literary fiction, non-fiction
Literary movement Postmodern literature, Post-postmodernism, hysterical realism
Notable works Infinite Jest (1996), A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), The Pale King (unfinished, 2011)

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

Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years".[2] Wallace's last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A biography of Wallace was published in September 2012, and an extensive critical literature on his work has developed in the past decade.


Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Sally Jean (née Foster) and James Donald Wallace. In his early childhood, Wallace lived in Champaign, Illinois.[3] 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.

James D. Wallace, David's father, was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now Emeritus Professor. David'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 attended his father's alma mater, Amherst College, and majored in English and philosophy. He participated in several extracurricular activities, including glee club; Wallace's sister recalls that "David had a lovely singing voice."[4] Within philosophy Wallace pursued focuses in modal logic and mathematics. His philosophy senior thesis on modal logic[5] was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize[6] and published posthumously as Fate, Time, and Language. His other honors thesis, written for his English major, would become his first novel, The Broom of the System.[7] Wallace graduated summa cum laude for both theses in 1985. By the end of his undergraduate education, Wallace was committed to fiction; he told David Lipsky, "Writing [Broom], I felt like I was using 97 percent of me, whereas philosophy was using 50 percent". He pursued a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Arizona, completing it in 1987, by which time Broom had been published. Wallace moved to Boston for graduate school in philosophy at Harvard University, but soon abandoned it.

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.[8][9] Dogs played an important role in Wallace's life:[10] he was very close to his two dogs, Bella and Werner,[9] had spoken of opening a dog shelter,[10] 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".[9] Wallace's younger sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson, Arizona, has practiced law since 2005.

Wallace committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at age 46. Wallace's father reported in an interview that his son had suffered from depression for more than 20 years and that antidepressant medication had allowed him to be productive.[8] When he experienced severe side effects from the medication, he attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine.[9] On his doctor's advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007,[8] and the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to phenelzine, he found that it had lost its effectiveness.[9] His wife kept a watchful eye on him in the following days, but on September 12, Wallace went into the garage, wrote a two-page note, and arranged part of the manuscript for The Pale King before hanging himself from a patio rafter.[11]

Numerous gatherings were held to honor Wallace after his death, including memorial services at Mark Costello, Donald Antrim, and Jonathan Franzen.[12][13][14]



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".[15]

In 1991 he began teaching literature as an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston. The next year, 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.

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 writing.

Wallace delivered the commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech was published as a book called This Is Water in 2009.[16] In May 2013, portions of the speech were used in a popular online video also titled "This is Water".[17]

Bonnie Nadell was Wallace's literary agent through his entire career.[18] Michael Pietsch was his editor on Infinite Jest.[19]

In March 2009, Little, Brown and Company announced that it would publish the manuscript of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, that Wallace had been working on before his death. The Pale King was pieced together by Pietsch from pages and notes the author left behind.[20][21] Several excerpts were published in The New Yorker and other magazines. The Pale King was published on April 15, 2011, and received generally positive reviews.[22]

Throughout his career, Wallace published short fiction in periodicals such as The New Yorker, GQ, Harper's Magazine, Playboy, The Paris Review, Mid-American Review, Conjunctions, Esquire, Open City, and Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

Themes and styles

Wallace's fiction is often concerned with moving beyond the irony and metafiction associated with postmodernism. For example, his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction",[23] originally published in the small-circulation Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993, proposes that television has an ironic influence on fiction, 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.[24]

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".[25]

D.T. Max describes Wallace's work as an "unusual mixture of the cerebral and the hot-blooded",[26] often spanning a multitude of locations and protagonists within a single novel. It often commented on the fragmentation of thought[27] and the relationship between happiness and boredom.[28] 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".[29] In his Kenyon College commencement address, he describes the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warns against solipsism,[30] invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism:[31]

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.

Wallace's work has been cited as an influence and inspiration by many writers, including [36] Rivka Galchen, Matthew Gallaway, David Gordon, Darin Strauss, Charles Yu, and Deb Olin Unferth.[37]

Non-fiction work

Wallace covered Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign[38] and the September 11 attacks for Rolling Stone; cruise ships[39] (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;[40] 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".


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. They reside at the University's Harry Ransom Center.[41]

The first annual David Foster Wallace Conference was hosted by the Illinois State University Department of English in May 2014; the second conference is for two days in May, 2015.


Film and television

A filmed adaptation of Brief Interviews, directed by John Krasinski with an ensemble cast, was released in 2009 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.[42] It was met with poor reviews.

The Simpsons episode "A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again" (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".

The End of the Tour is an upcoming film based on David Lipsky's conversations with Wallace in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, with Jason Segel playing Wallace.

Stage and music

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.

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.[43]

The short story "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men was adapted by composer Eric Moe[44] into a 50-minute operatic piece, to be performed with accompanying video projections.[45] The piece was described as having "subversively inscribed classical music into pop culture".[46]

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.[47]

"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.[48]

List of works

Awards and honors

  • Pulitzer Prize nomination for "The Pale King", 2012 (no Fiction Prize was awarded that year)
  • Inclusion of "Good Old Neon" in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2002
  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1997–2002
  • Lannan Foundation 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[49]
  • Aga Khan Prize for Fiction for the story "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men #6", 1997
  • Time magazine's Best Books of the Year (Fiction), 1996
  • Salon Book Award (Fiction), 1996
  • Lannan Literary Award (Fiction), 1996
  • Inclusion of "Here and There" in Prize Stories 1989: The O. Henry Awards
  • Whiting Writers' Award, 1987


  1. ^  
  2. ^ "Writer David Foster Wallace found dead". The Los Angeles Times, Claire Noland and Joel Rubin. September 14, 2008. 
  3. ^ 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)
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Ryerson, James (December 14, 2008). "Consider the Philosopher". The New York Times,. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Our Alumni, Amherst College". November 17, 2007. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  7. ^ "In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace '85 , Amherst College". September 14, 2008. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c "David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46". The New York Times, Bruce Weber, September 14, 2008. September 15, 2008. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Lipsky, Dave (October 30, 2008). "The Lost Years & Last Days of David Foster Wallace". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on May 3, 2009. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b "The Unfinished". The New Yorker, D.T. Max, March 9, 2009. 
  11. ^ D.T. Max Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, A Life of David Foster Wallace, p 301. ISBN 978 1 84708 494 1.
  12. ^ "Jonathan Franzen Remembers David Foster Wallace". The Observer, Adam Begley, October 27, 2008. 
  13. ^ . Five Dials. Hamish Hamilton. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  14. ^ Konigsberg, Eric (October 24, 2008). "Remembering Writer of ‘Infinite Jest’". New York Times. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  15. ^ , March 1, 1987.The New York TimesCaryn James, "Wittgenstein Is Dead and Living in Ohio – The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace",
  16. ^ Bissell, Tom (April 26, 2009). "Great and Terrible Truths". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2010. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ Neyfakh, Leon (September 17, 2008). "Remembering David Foster Wallace: 'David Would Never Stop Caring' Says Lifelong Agent". Bay Ledger News Zone. 
  19. ^ Neyfakh, Leon (September 19, 2008). "Infinite Jest Editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown on David Foster Wallace". The New York Observer,. 
  20. ^ Michiko Kakutani (March 31, 2011). "Maximized Revenue, Minimized Existence". New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  21. ^ "Unfinished novel by Wallace coming next year". USA Today. Associated Press. March 1, 2009. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  22. ^ Willa Paskin (April 5, 2011). Gets Thoughtful, Glowing Reviews"The Pale King"David Foster Wallace’s . New York Magazine. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  23. ^ Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction". Review of Contemporary Fiction 13 (2): 151–194. 
  24. ^ "A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest". Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Charlie Rose – Jennifer Harbury & Robert Torricelli / David Foster Wallace". YouTube. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  26. ^ "A Meaningful Life by D.T. Max / Features / Untitled Books". Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  27. ^ "Travis W". Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  28. ^ "David Foster Wallace and the problem of being bored.". Slate Magazine. April 12, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  29. ^ by D. T. Max (January 7, 2009). "David Foster Wallace's struggle to surpass Infinite Jest". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  30. ^ Krajeski, Jenna. This is Water, The New Yorker, September 22, 2008.
  31. ^ "David Foster Wallace on Life and Work". The Wall Street Journal. September 19, 2008. 
  32. ^
  33. ^ "The Identity Crisis of Zadie Smith". New Republic. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  34. ^ "David Foster Wallace: An elegy by Jonathan Franzen". Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  35. ^ "Elizabeth Wurtzel on Depression and David Foster Wallace -- New York Magazine". Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  36. ^ John Banville. "Celebrated writers who died in the noughties - Books - The Guardian". the Guardian. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  37. ^ "David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, Roundtable Discussion". The Daily Beast. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  38. ^ 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 article "David Foster Wallace: Ain't McCain Grand".
  39. ^ Wallace, David Foster (January 1996). "Shipping Out" (PDF). Harper's Magazine. 
  40. ^ Wallace, David Foster (April, 2005) "Host" The Atlantic Monthly
  41. ^ Cohen, Patricia (March 9, 2010). "David Foster Wallace Papers Are Bought". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  42. ^ Lee, Chris (January 19, 2009). "'"John Krasinski, 'Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 2, 2012. 
  43. ^ Entrevistas repulsivas en la Fundación Tomás Eloy Martínez", 01/11/11.""". Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  44. ^ "DFW + Me = An ‘Arranged’ Marriage of Music and Fiction". Eric Moe. Retrieved October 19, 2011. 
  45. ^ "Tri-Stan". Eric Moe. Retrieved February 26, 2011. 
  46. ^ Midgette, Anne (April 2, 2005). "A Menu of Familiar Signposts and a One-Woman Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010. 
  47. ^ , June 18, 2012."Slate"Aaron Wiener, "Infinite Jest! Live! On Stage! One Entire Day Only!", . Slate Magazine. June 18, 2012. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  48. ^ Hollywood Fringe Festival 2011: 'Deity Clutch,' 'Dumb Waiter,' 'Glint'", LAist.""". LAist. Retrieved September 21, 2014. 
  49. ^ Pomona College, Faculty Directory, Archived September 2008, last updated October 13, 2005.


  • Boswell, Marshall and Burn, Stephen, eds. A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 (American Literature Readings in the Twenty-First Century). ISBN 9781137078346

External links

  • David Foster Wallace Archive, The University of Texas at Austin
  • "An Appraisal: Writer Mapped the Mythic and the Mundane", by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, September 14, 2008.
  • "David Foster Wallace, 1962–2008", by David Gates, Newsweek, September 14, 2008.
  • "The Unfinished" by D. T. Max, The New Yorker, March 9, 2009.
  • "Everything & More: The Work of David Foster Wallace" by Malcolm Knox, The Monthly, November, 2008.
  • "David Foster Wallace and the Velveteen Rabbit", Identity Theory, August 2011.
  • "King of the Ghosts", n+1, October, 2011.
  • Kenyon College 2005 commencement address - audio & text
  • Kenyon College 2005 commencement address - text
  • THE HOWLING FANTODS! – David Foster Wallace: News, Info, Links
  • WikiInfinite Jest
  • David Foster Wallace AUDIO PROJECT
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