14 minute read

Today is the last day of what has been alternately a difficult and an exhilarating semester. Honestly, it’s the first semester in I can’t remember how long that I’ve been sorry to see end, the first semester in several years in which I’ve actually felt good about my teaching way more often than I’ve felt badly about it. But it’s also been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. And a good deal of both the up and the down of it all has been attributable to the class I taught this semester on the work of my late colleague, David Foster Wallace.

Getting to spend this extended period of time with his work, and with a group of amazingly bright, enthusiastic students committed to piecing through that work, has been a genuine privilege — but, sadly, one predicated on his death, as I know I could never have done this if Dave were still around. One of my students asked in class several weeks back what he’d have thought of the class, and I had to respond honestly: he’d have hated it, hated knowing that people in his own building were spending that much time discussing his work, hated the self-consciousness that knowledge would have produced in him. And it would have been hard to blame him for that, as I’ve seen over and over, in many different settings, the ease with which a fascination with his writing turns into a cultish obsession with him.

This is a phenomenon we’ve struggled with in the class this semester, attempting to guard against the tendency toward a kind of hagiographic mode of reading, a reinscription of authorial intent in its most pernicious form, at once idolizing his genius and searching for signs of his self-destruction. That hasn’t been easy.

My institution has a tradition of presenting, at a meeting of the full faculty, a memorial tribute celebrating the life of a member who has recently died. I’ve heard a couple of these delivered each year since I’ve been here, nearly all for emeriti who passed away after long happy careers and retirements. Earlier this spring, I was asked to write and deliver the college’s tribute for Dave, which may well have been the most difficult thing I’ve been asked to do here. I debated for a while whether to post the memorial — though several colleagues suggested to me that I should, I didn’t feel comfortable doing so, at least not right away. But it occurred to me a few weeks ago that the memorial might be a fitting way to mark the conclusion of this semester I spent with his work, and, to some extent, to say thank you for the opportunity.

On the evening of September 12, 2008, the English department lost a member of its family, and American literature lost one of its guiding stars. And many of us lost a friend, a colleague, and a source of personal inspiration, when we lost David Wallace.

Too much has already been published about the hows and whys of David’s death; he died, unfortunately, as he lived, the subject of an intense personal scrutiny that left precious little room for privacy. The public record, however, has often failed to reflect the David we knew, the David who came to meetings, who taught our students, who cared passionately about the English language and the things people did with it. As Andrew Carlson ’08 noted in Lapham’s Quarterly, “There was David Foster Wallace, and there was Dave.” The former cast a very long shadow, but it’s the latter that all of us miss.

David was born February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York, where his father, James Wallace, was completing a PhD in philosophy. When he was three, the family moved to rural Illinois, where his father took a position at UIUC. His mother, Sally Wallace, first attended graduate school in English Composition at Illinois and then joined the faculty of Parkland College, where she taught writing and, in 1996, was named the CASE National Professor of the Year. The influences of his family were visible throughout David’s life and work, in the rigor of his thought, the beauty of his writing, and the generosity of his teaching.

Aside from these facts, most of what we know of David’s childhood is that which he revealed in his essays and his interviews, all of which is tinged with an inescapable self-effacement; in “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” for instance, an essay in which he contemplates his teenage career as a “near-great junior tennis player” and its relationship to the “jones for mathematics” he developed in college, David suggests that he must have “kept the amorphous mush of curves and swells” of upstate New York “as a contrasting backlight somewhere down in the lizardy part of my brain, because the Philo children I fought and played with, kids who knew and had known nothing else, saw nothing stark or new-worldish in the township’s planar layout…” Except that, as his readers know, David always saw things that the rest of us missed; it was his sharp vision of the lines and angles of the landscape, coupled with his mathematical imagination, that transformed the flat spaces — of the midwest; of the tennis court; of the printed page — into brilliant fields of play.

David developed his “jones for mathematics” at Amherst College, which had been his father’s alma mater as well; a friend of his from Amherst has suggested that he “may or may not have been the smartest person on campus, but what made him special was how widely and relentlessly he applied his intelligence, which was not separable from his sense of humor.” He was by all accounts an astonishing student, achieving upon his graduation in 1985 a now famous double summa cum laude. As if that weren’t enough, his 400-page senior thesis in English became his brilliant first novel, The Broom of the System, which was published in 1987, and his senior thesis in Philosophy, entitled “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize. Of this thesis, James Ryerson has argued that its real accomplishment “was not technical or argumentative but more like a moral victory. His demonic attention to detail in language and logic, and his seemingly limitless cognitive abilities, had set aright a world momentarily upended by a conceptual sleight of hand.” These honors were only the first in what we know to have been a much-laureled career: among his many awards are included a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1989, the Lannan Foundation Award for Literature in 1996, and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 1997. Perhaps most thrillingly for him, however, he was in 1999 named to the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

There could not have been a position for which he was more perfectly suited. He was exacting in his usage, and in what he could bear to hear from others — one reason among several that I can imagine no greater challenge than having been David Foster Wallace’s editor. Helping him cut hundreds of pages from the manuscript version of Infinite Jest must have been an extraordinarily difficult task, both because of the beauty of the prose itself and because of the persuasiveness of its author; as he once noted in response to one of Michael Pietsch’s suggested cuts, “I can give you 5000 words of theoretico-structural arguments for this, but let’s spare one another, shall we?” Similarly, a magazine editor might find himself included in the writing produced for an assignment, as when Harper’s sent him out to produce an essay about the Illinois State Fair: “Why exactly a swanky East-Coast magazine is interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at these magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90% of the United States lies between the Coasts and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.” And yet this was the brilliance of much of David’s writing, and the non-fiction in particular: asked to address some question, David would first explore the question’s assumptions and presuppositions, transforming what could have been no more than skilled observation and a wicked turn of phrase into a complex and deeply moral engagement with contemporary life. Sent to write something amusing about his experiences on board a luxury cruise ship, David returned an essay that thinks deeply (and self-critically) about the American need for pampering. Sent by Gourmet magazine to report on the Maine Lobster Festival, David did that, but also asked whether it is “all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context?” The effects of such questioning, and questioning of the questions, is what the critics who understood David primarily as an ironist miss when they focus on the smarty-pantsness of his writing: he never allowed himself to use irony as a means of letting himself off the hook, a mode of demonstrating his distance from the issue at hand, or maintaining a pose of disaffection. Rather, his writing — from 1987’s The Broom of the System to his 1996 tour de force, Infinite Jest, through three collections of short stories, two collections of non-fiction, and even a book about Georg Cantor and the foundations of transfinite math — this writing was always brave enough to face the emotional and ethical complexity of actual human life without flinching.

There is a tendency, after a death such as this one — too young, too sad, too public — for critics to return to the author’s work as obituarists, mining the work for evidence of the tragedy to come. I have argued to the students enrolled in my course on David’s work this semester, and I genuinely believe, that it’s a mistake to read that way, and not solely because of the category error in assuming that fiction must on some level be autobiography, or because of what the New Critics understood as the “intentional fallacy,” the trap of assuming that the task of criticism is to figure out what the author meant, or thought, or believed. I believe that it’s a mistake to read David’s work, even where that work is filled with representations of despair, as leading inexorably to the loss we have now experienced precisely because I believe that writing was no small part of what kept David alive. Faced with depression, David fought his way back and tried to convey what it was he’d been through, tried to help readers “become less alone inside.” All art was, for him, a gift, based in a mutual empathy derived precisely from the necessary attempt to communicate: as he once said in an interview, “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with characters’ pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.” David’s extraordinary capacity for identification with others was built, both philosophically and practically, out of the need to get outside himself; as Andrew Carlson put it, “while Wallace understood well the solipsism of depression . . . he himself evinced none of it, in spite of his affliction. He was, in every opportunity, utterly generous and caring — as an artist, as a thinker, as a teacher, as a friend.”

It was in no small part that generosity that made David such an extraordinary teacher. After finishing his MFA at the University of Arizona, David spent a year as a visiting faculty member at Amherst, and then spent two years teaching as an adjunct at Emerson College; in 1993, David joined the faculty of Illinois State University; and in 2002, he became the first Roy Edward Disney ’51 Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. It was here that he met and married his beloved wife, artist Karen Green, and here that he returned to the liberal arts environment that had both nurtured and challenged him, passing forward the gifts that he’d been given to another generation of students. These students, from across his career, tell strikingly similar stories about the effects he had on them, both as writers and as people. Sometimes those effects were produced in surprising ways: a student from his days at Amherst noted, “I used to confuse further and farther, and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I’d confused them yet again, and in the margins, he’d written, simply, ‘I hate you.’ I’ve never confused them since.” Only a teacher who’d already made evident the concern he felt for his students, who’d built a solid relationship of trust with them, could produce real understanding with such a shocking gesture. Stories like this one abound here at Pomona; ask his students and you’ll hear about the comments on their writing that rivaled the original text in length, the multi-colored marginalia (produced by four different pens, one used for each separate reading), and so forth. More importantly than this, you’ll hear about a teacher who not only had the respect for them that led him to refuse them the easy way out, to forbid any laziness in their writing, to force them to wrestle with their sentences with the same ferocity that he did, but who also genuinely cared about his students, not just as writers but as people, people whose struggles he knew to be every bit as real as his own. As Kelly Natoli ’09 recounts of the first day of a class with David, “He said, ‘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.’ ”

No one who knew him could possibly forget who he was. The English department was blessed for six years with David’s presence, and with his active participation in puzzling out the department’s direction at several key moments of crisis. He helped us to rethink our major, and most particularly the centrality of writing within it; he supported us as we tried to imagine building the department’s future after so many key departures. We mourn, in having lost him, losing the opportunity to work with many more students whose writing he has utterly transformed, as well as losing his insights into the place of literature, both within the liberal arts and within the broader culture. As he told an interviewer many years ago, “If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still are human beings, now. Or can be . . . fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t good art.” David, in both his writing and his teaching, never lost sight of this imperative, struggling to restore a sense of the human to a world in which it had often seemed to have ceased to matter.

At the end of these tributes is a bit of ritual formality, in which the presenter requests of the president of the college that the tribute be “spread upon the minutes of the meeting,” and that a copy be sent to the family of the deceased. And here’s the thing: I managed to make it all the way through the tribute without too much difficulty, but nearly dissolved into tears during that last bit of boilerplate. Something about the performative nature of that statement presented a kind of finality that nothing else I’d said or written about Dave since September had.

Even so, it took nearly all semester to realize that I was still hoping that he would come back. I finally figured it out when I found myself dragging my heels, stalling more and more the closer I came to the end of Infinite Jest — just wanting so badly for everything to turn out differently this time.

It didn’t. But somehow the end was easier than I thought it would be, more comfortable, more fitting. The novel’s end guides its reader back around to the beginning, while at the same time hinting that whatever answers we’re seeking won’t be found in the text, but in the world beyond. Because of that end — and because of the extraordinary gift of this semester, in which I both got to return to the work and to imagine, in my students, the work that will be done by the next generation — I’m finally ready to say goodbye.

Leave a comment

Discuss on Mastodon