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
Alma mater Amherst College (B.A.)
University of Arizona (M.F.A.)
Harvard University (dropped out)
Period 1987–2008
Genre Literary fiction, non-fiction
Literary movement Postmodern literature, Post-postmodernism, hysterical realism, New Sincerity
Notable works

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

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.

Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin has called Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years."[2]



Wallace giving a reading for Booksmith at All Saints Church, San Francisco, in 2006

Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System (1987), 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".[3]

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, This Is Water, in 2009.[4] In May 2013, portions of the speech were used in a popular online video, also titled "This Is Water".[5]

Bonnie Nadell was Wallace's literary agent during his entire career.[6] Michael Pietsch was his editor on Infinite Jest.[7]

In March 2009, Little, Brown and Company announced that it would publish the manuscript of an unfinished novel, The Pale King, which Wallace had been working on before his death. The Pale King was pieced together by Pietsch from pages and notes Wallace left behind.[8][9] 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.[10]

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",[11] 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.[12]

Wallace's novels often combine various writing modes or voices and incorporate jargon and vocabulary (sometimes invented) from a wide range of fields. His writing features self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and extensive use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes. He used endnotes extensively in Infinite Jest and footnotes in "Octet" and in most 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".[13]

D.T. Max describes Wallace's work as an "unusual mixture of the cerebral and the hot-blooded",[14] often spanning a multitude of locations and protagonists within a single novel. It often commented on the fragmentation of thought,[15] the relationship between happiness and boredom, and the tension between the beauty and hideousness of human physicality.[16] 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."[17] In his Kenyon College commencement address, he describes the human condition of daily crises and chronic disillusionment and warns against solipsism,[18] invoking compassion, mindfulness, and existentialism:[19]

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 Dave Eggers,[20] Zadie Smith,[21] Jonathan Franzen,[22] Elizabeth Wurtzel,[23] George Saunders,[24] Rivka Galchen, Matthew Gallaway, David Gordon, Darin Strauss, Charles Yu, and Deb Olin Unferth.[25]


Wallace covered Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign[27] and the September 11 attacks for Rolling Stone;[28] cruise ships[29] (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;[30] 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".

These and other essays appear in three collections, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and the posthumous Both Flesh and Not, the last of which contains some of Wallace's earliest work, including his first published essay, "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young".[31]

Personal life

Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Sally Jean (née Foster) and James Donald Wallace. In early childhood, he lived in Champaign, Illinois.[32] When he was in the fourth grade, his family moved to Urbana, where he attended Yankee Ridge school and Urbana High School. As an adolescent, Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player, an experience he reflected upon in the essay "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (first published in Harper's Magazine under the title "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes").

His father was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now an 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 the glee club; Wallace's sister recalls that "David had a lovely singing voice."[33] In philosophy Wallace pursued interests in modal logic and mathematics. His senior thesis in philosophy, on modal logic,[34] was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize[35] and published posthumously as Fate, Time, and Language. His other honors thesis, written for his English major, eventually became his first novel, The Broom of the System.[36] Wallace graduated summa cum laude 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 degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona, completing it in 1987, by which time Broom had been published. Wallace moved to Boston to attend graduate school in philosophy at Harvard University but left the program soon after.

In the early 1990s, Wallace became obsessed with the memoirist Mary Karr. Despite her statements that she was not interested, Wallace got her name tattooed on his body[37] and even contemplated killing her husband, according to biographer D.T. Max.[38] The two later had a tumultuous relationship during which, Karr reported, Wallace once threw a coffee table at her[39] and attempted to push her out of a car.[40]

Wallace met Karen L. Green, a painter, in 2002[41] and they married on December 27, 2004.[42][43]

Wallace struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, depression, suicide attempts, institutionalization, and at times inappropriate sexual behavior. He was reported to have slept with some of his female students while teaching at university and sometimes exhibited stalking-like obsessive behavior when enamored of a woman.[44]

Dogs played an important role in Wallace's life:[45] Wallace was very close to his two dogs, Bella and Werner,[43] had spoken of opening a dog shelter,[45] 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."[43]

Born to atheist parents, Wallace attempted to join the Catholic Church twice but "flunk[ed] the period of inquiry," and later attended a Mennonite church.[46][47][48]


Wallace died by 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.[42] When Wallace experienced severe side effects from the medication, he attempted to wean himself from his primary antidepressant, phenelzine.[43] On his doctor's advice, Wallace stopped taking the medication in June 2007,[42] then the depression returned. Wallace received other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy. When he returned to phenelzine, he found that it had lost its effectiveness.[43] 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.[49]

Numerous gatherings were held to honor Wallace after his death, including memorial services at Pomona College, Amherst College, the University of Arizona, Illinois State University, 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, an 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; and the writers Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Mark Costello (Wallace was the godfather of Costello's daughter, Delia), Donald Antrim, and Jonathan Franzen.[50][51][52]


Wallace's legacy was described by author and notable Wallace interviewer David Lipsky: "We think a thousand things at a time, and David found a way to get all that across in a way that's incredibly true and incredibly entertaining at the same time. He found that junction.… He was the one voice I absolutely trusted to make sense of the outside world for me. Anyone that picks up his work for the next 50 years will have their antenna polished and sharpened, and they'll be receiving many more channels than they were aware of."[53]

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.[54]

The first annual David Foster Wallace Conference was hosted by the Illinois State University Department of English in May 2014; the second conference was held in May 2015.[55]

Since 2011, Loyola University New Orleans has offered English seminar courses on Wallace. Similar courses are also taught at Harvard University.


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.[56] It received 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 a film based on David Lipsky's conversations with Wallace in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, with Jason Segel playing Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky. The film won an Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival,[57] and Segel was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead.

"Partridge", a Season 5 episode of NBC's Parks and Recreation, repeatedly references Infinite Jest, of which the show's co-creator, Michael Schur, is a noted fan. Schur also directed the music video for The Decemberists' "Calamity Song", which depicts the Eschaton game from Infinite Jest.[58]

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, Brief Interviews with Hideous Writers, which premiered at Fundación Tomás Eloy Martinez in Buenos Aires on November 4, 2011.[59]

The short story "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men was adapted by composer Eric Moe[60] into a 50-minute operatic piece, to be performed with accompanying video projections.[61] The piece was described as having "subversively inscribed classical music into pop culture".[62]

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.[63]

"Good Old Neon", from Oblivion: Stories, was adapted and performed by Ian Forester at the 2011 Hollywood Fringe Festival, produced by the Los Angeles independent theater company Needtheater.[64]


Short story collections


Awards and honors


  1. Grossman, Lev; Richard Lacayo (October 16, 2005). "All-TIME 100 Novels". Time. Retrieved August 5, 2015.
  2. Noland, Claire; Joel Rubin (September 14, 2008). "Writer David Foster Wallace found dead". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 5, 2015.
  3. 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.
  4. Bissell, Tom (April 26, 2009). "Great and Terrible Truths". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2010.
  5. 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.
  6. Neyfakh, Leon (September 17, 2008). "Remembering David Foster Wallace: 'David Would Never Stop Caring' Says Lifelong Agent". Bay Ledger News Zone.
  7. Neyfakh, Leon (September 19, 2008). "Infinite Jest Editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown on David Foster Wallace". The New York Observer,.
  8. Michiko Kakutani (March 31, 2011). "Maximized Revenue, Minimized Existence". New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
  9. "Unfinished novel by Wallace coming next year". USA Today. Associated Press. March 1, 2009. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
  10. Willa Paskin (April 5, 2011). "David Foster Wallace's The Pale King Gets Thoughtful, Glowing Reviews". New York Magazine. Retrieved April 2, 2012.
  11. Wallace, David Foster. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction". Review of Contemporary Fiction. 13 (2): 151–194.
  12. "A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest". Rci.rutgers.edu. Retrieved February 26, 2011.
  13. "Charlie Rose – Jennifer Harbury & Robert Torricelli / David Foster Wallace". YouTube. Retrieved February 26, 2011.
  14. D. T. Max (December 2012). "A Meaningful Life". Untitled Books. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  15. Travis W. Stern, Dr Robert L. McLaughlin (Spring 2000). ""I Am in Here": Fragmentation and the Individual in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest". Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  16. "David Foster Wallace and the problem of being bored.". Slate Magazine. April 12, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  17. D. T. Max (January 7, 2009). "David Foster Wallace's struggle to surpass Infinite Jest". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 26, 2011.
  18. Krajeski, Jenna. This is Water, The New Yorker, September 22, 2008.
  19. "David Foster Wallace on Life and Work". The Wall Street Journal. September 19, 2008.
  20. "Jest Fest", LA Weekly, November 14, 2006.
  21. "The Identity Crisis of Zadie Smith". New Republic. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
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  23. "Elizabeth Wurtzel on Depression and David Foster Wallace". New York Magazine. September 21, 2008. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
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  28. Wallace, David Foster (October 25, 2001). "9/11: The View From the Midwest". Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner (880).
  29. Wallace, David Foster (January 1996). "Shipping Out" (PDF). Harper's Magazine.
  30. Wallace, David Foster (April 2005) "Host" The Atlantic Monthly
  31. Max, D. T. (2012-11-14). "D.F.W.'s Nonfiction: Better with Age". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2016-02-21.
  32. Contrary to some reports in reliable sources, Wallace never lived in Philo, Illinois, nor even "set foot" there. (Boswell and Burn, eds., p. 94.)
  33. Wallace-Havens, Amy (August 23, 2009). "Amy Wallace-Havens on Her Brother". To the Best of Our Knowledge (Interview). Interview with Anne Strainchamps. Woods Hole, Massachusetts: WCAI. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
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  37. Hughes, Evan. "Just Kids". New York Magazine.
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  41. Williams, John. "God, Mary Karr and Ronald Reagan: D.T. Max on David Foster Wallace". New York Times Arts Beat blog.
  42. 1 2 3 Bruce Weber (September 14, 2008). "David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46". The New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
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  44. Max, DT (2012). Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. Viking.
  45. 1 2 D. T. Max (March 9, 2009). "The Unfinished". The New Yorker.
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  47. Patrick Arden. "David Foster Wallace warms up". patrickarden.com.
  48. David Zahl (August 20, 2012). "David Foster Wallace Went to Church Constantly?". Mockingbird.
  49. D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace p 301. ISBN 978 1 84708 494 1.
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  55. "David Foster Wallace Conference Program 2015". Retrieved July 23, 2015.
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  57. "2015 Sarasota Film Festival Awards". Bradenton Herald. 19 April 2015. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  58. The Decemberists - Calamity Song. YouTube. August 16, 2011.
  59. ""Entrevistas repulsivas en la Fundación Tomás Eloy Martínez", 01/11/11.". Clarin.com. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  60. "DFW + Me = An 'Arranged' Marriage of Music and Fiction". Eric Moe. Retrieved October 19, 2011.
  61. "Tri-Stan". Eric Moe. Retrieved February 26, 2011.
  62. Midgette, Anne (April 2, 2005). "A Menu of Familiar Signposts and a One-Woman Opera". New York Times. Retrieved April 2, 2010.
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  64. ""Hollywood Fringe Festival 2011: 'Deity Clutch,' 'Dumb Waiter,' 'Glint'", LAist.". LAist. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  65. Pomona College, Faculty Directory, Archived September 2008, last updated October 13, 2005.


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