The Chronicle Review

The Afterlife of David Foster Wallace

Suzy Allman, The New York Times

The work of David Foster Wallace has exerted a powerful personal draw on younger scholars and on nonacademic readers.
January 06, 2011

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46, he put an abrupt and shocking end to what was already one of the most distinctive writing lives in contemporary America. Fans who knew his work tended to be passionate about it. If you weren't drawn to his epic, ironic, lonely-in-the-crowd, cri-de-coeur of a novel Infinite Jest, you might have known him from "Consider the Lobster," or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," or another of the wry, footnoted essays that turned up from time to time in magazines like Harper's.

Readers outside academe caught on to Wallace before scholars did. When he died, academic interest in him had only begun to show real signs of life, with scholars starting to look closely at the ways in which Wallace responded to and reshaped for a new generation the postmodernism practiced by writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Two years later, spurred in part by his death but even more by a rising generation of young scholars, the impending publication of a posthumous novel, and the opening of a major archive of the writer's papers, David Foster Wallace studies is on its way to becoming a robust scholarly enterprise.

At the beginning of the decade, academic work on Wallace was relatively sparse. The liveliest conversations about Wallace were taking place online, mostly among nonacademics, at sites like the Howling Fantods and on the Wallace-l listserv, where fans of the writer shared commentary about and close readings of his work.

It's fitting, given Wallace's obsession with the role that mass media play in contemporary life, that the Internet would serve as the incubator for much of the robust discussion of his work. In the summer 2010 issue of the online Irish Journal of American Studies, Adam Kelly, then a doctoral candidate at University College Dublin, published "David Foster Wallace: The Death of the Author and the Birth of a Discipline," which he described as "an initial map of the territory of what might be termed 'Wallace Studies,' the network of interest in David Foster Wallace's oeuvre that ranges through but also well beyond the traditional academic channels."

Serious criticism on the writer began "in a more democratic vein" than the study of Pynchon and other precursors, Kelly wrote. He pointed out that in Wallace's case, the kind of close reading of the author's texts, "traditionally the preserve of academic engagement, has in great part been carried out by skillful and committed nonprofessional readers, who publish their findings in the public domain of the Web."

In 2003 two monographs appeared that helped lay a solid foundation for scholarly assessments of Wallace's work: Marshall Boswell's Understanding David Foster Wallace (University of South Carolina Press) and Stephen Burn's David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide (Continuum). Boswell is now a professor of English at Rhodes College, in Tennessee, and Burn is an associate professor of English at Northern Michigan University. The two scholars are presently coediting a collection of scholarly articles about the writer. (Disclosure: Boswell is a friend of this reporter's.)

Since his 2003 book appeared, Burn has edited a collection of interviews with Wallace, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi, and he is editing a volume of Wallace's letters in collaboration with the writer's estate. In an e-mail, he explained what drew him to the writer in the first place.

He began reading Wallace in the 1990s while studying James Joyce and William Gaddis. "So much criticism at that point was about the end of the novel, or postmodernism as a movement that did no more than die pathetically in modernism's metaphysical ruins," Burn said. "When it was published, Infinite Jest provided unmissable evidence of the life signs of the contemporary novel."

In Wallace, the young scholar saw a writer who, Joyce-like, "could connect the large with the small," paying "meticulous attention" to individual words and sentences while building a complex narrative structure. Likewise he combined "cutting-edge literary techniques" with "an encyclopedic knowledge of diverse intellectual fields," Burn said.

Like many other readers, Burn was also intrigued by how Wallace tackled "the central issues of his time," including how mass media shape modern culture and how difficult it is for people to connect with one another.

Boswell's experience suggests the powerful personal draw that Wallace's work has for some younger scholars as well as for many nonacademic readers. After reading Infinite Jest, he recalled in an e-mail, "I was absolutely convinced that he was not only the most important writer of my generation but also maybe the first writer of a brand-new sensibility that looked beyond postmodernism. The realization was extraordinarily exciting for me. As a young scholar just starting out in his academic career, I wanted to proclaim this achievement."

A novelist as well as a scholar, Boswell also found Wallace's work inspiring on the creative front. "That is the other, and equally important, component to the rise of Wallace studies that should be addressed—namely, his immense and wide-ranging influence on the direction of contemporary American fiction," he said. "Without Wallace, there is no Dave Eggers, no McSweeney's or Believer, no n+1. Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Zadie Smith: All are indebted to Wallace and the shift in sensibility he inaugurated back in the late 1980s and early 90s."

Boswell said that, as early as Wallace's debut novel, The Broom of the System,  it was apparent that the writer had a new, ambitious, ethically charged agenda. "The first novel announced very clearly that Wallace wanted to revive the tradition of postmodern maximalism, generally associated with writers like John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, but also that he was going to do it in a way that made sense to members of his own generation, who grew up in the desolate aftermath of the 1960s and no longer needed to be shown the hollow hypocrisy of the bourgeois social order or whatever," he said.

Boswell and Burn's planned collection will, they hope, give some unity to what Burn described as still a rather fragmentary field. Much of the Wallace scholarship published "has tended to be atomistic—offering an isolated snapshot of one part of a Wallace work—or obsessively circling material that has already received a lot of attention (say, the role of irony in his writing)," he said. "It's the goal of our book to try to capture the decentralizing energies of Wallace criticism, and put together a single volume that addresses all of Wallace's fiction and gathers together a plurality of critical perspectives."

Assuming they find a publisher for the project, Boswell and Burn's contribution will join a wave of Wallace-related books hitting the market. Last year, David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, published Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace (Broadway Books), based on time he spent on the road with Wallace after the publication of Infinite Jest. The New Yorker writer D.T. Max has a biography in the works. There will doubtless be many other nonacademic works following. Most exciting for Wallace fans: This spring will see the publication of The Pale King, the last novel Wallace worked on before his death. Publication is set for April 15. (American tax law figures in the book.)

On the scholarly front, in 2007 Greg Carlisle, a Morehead State University theater instructor, published Elegant Complexity (SSMG Press), an in-depth critical study of Infinite Jest. This past December, Columbia University Press published the undergraduate thesis Wallace wrote as a philosophy major at Amherst College: Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a critique of the philosopher Richard Taylor's work on fatalism. Meanwhile, Sideshow Media Group, run by an independent Wallace scholar named Matt Bucher, just published Consider David Foster Wallace, a collection of critical essays born out of the first academic conference on Wallace, held at the University of Liverpool in 2009. (Another Wallace conference took place that year at the City University of New York.)

The organizer of the Liverpool conference, David Hering, edited the collection. A 32-year-old doctoral student in English at the university, Hering stands as a good example of the kind of passionately engaged younger scholar working on Wallace.

Not long after the writer's death, Hering felt the need to sound out some of his ideas about him with other scholars. "Wallace is not as read in the U.K. as he is in the U.S.," he says. Announcing the conference, he recalls, "I had no idea whether I'd be shouting into the dark." As it happened, "I was turning papers away at the end."

Hering discovered that he was one of a number of scholars interested in expanding the critical conversation about Wallace beyond irony and Infinite Jest. So Consider David Foster Wallace displays a range of thematic interests: an essay on Wallace and Laurence Sterne, an analysis by Hering of geometry and Infinite Jest. In an essay on The Broom of the System, Clare Hayes-Brady, a doctoral candidate at Trinity College Dublin, makes the case that the less-studied novel deserves more attention because it "explores the philosophy of language that so intrigued its author" throughout his life. Hayes-Brady examines what she sees as the specific influences of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul Ricoeur, and Richard Rorty on Wallace's attitudes toward language.  

 Another collection, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, is scheduled for publication by the University of Iowa Press and is likely to appear in 2012. It will combine a broad range of critical essays with thoughts on Wallace by other creative writers, including his friend Don DeLillo and his sometime rival Jonathan Franzen. Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, and Lee Konstantinou, a postdoctoral fellow in Stanford University's Program in Writing and Rhetoric, are the volume's co-editors.

Cohen and Konstantinou, too, are especially interested in work that goes beyond an emphasis on postmodernism and Infinite Jest. "One of the things about scholarship on Wallace is it's so much about a couple of works, especially Infinite Jest, but a lot of people come to Wallace first through the essays," Cohen says.

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace will include, among other contributions, an eco-critical take on Wallace by Heather Houser, a postdoctoral fellow at Williams College. "A lot of people have noted his concern with human detachment from life," Cohen says; Houser will look more closely at "the specific way he represents bodies in place and in space and in reaction to the environment." There will also be a "network analysis" by Ed Finn, a graduate student in Stanford's English department, that maps Wallace's work on and LibraryThing; and an essay by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of English at Pomona College who was a friend and colleague of Wallace's. Fitzpatrick writes about Infinite Summer, an online reading project organized by the writer Matthew Baldwin in the summer of 2009 to bring together people who had always wanted to tackle Infinite Jest.

Those paying attention will notice that younger scholars, including graduate students and postdocs, loom unusually large in all this activity: organizing conferences, contributing papers, coediting collections. That trend has made itself evident at the David Foster Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, too.

As the archive's curator, Molly Schwartzburg is on the front lines of scholarly interest in Wallace. She oversees an abundance of newly available material to tempt scholars: manuscript drafts, correspondence with editors, annotated books from Wallace's library. After The Pale King is published this spring, the center will receive materials related to that novel as well.

Since the Wallace archive opened in September 2010, Schwartzburg and her colleagues have been flooded with queries from researchers. "There's extremely high interest in the collection, especially from younger scholars," she says. "Wallace was born 10 years later than any other writer whose archive we house. That really is notable, and it's reflected in the demographic of researchers we're hearing from." Many are graduate students, the curator says. "Younger scholars early in their career are doing a lot of work on Wallace."

Schwartzburg says she thinks that's natural. She also thinks it may help make archival work more central to the work of a new generation of scholars.

"If students are doing archival research early in their career, they're more likely to do archival research throughout their career," she says. "He's been so influential on younger readers that we're really going to see the next generation of scholars come in to use our collections, starting with Wallace."

With the archives just open and a new novel soon to appear, Wallace studies will almost certainly have a higher profile in the near future. Cohen says that we're witnessing "Wallace becoming the next DeLillo—the next canonized American writer." His coeditor, Lee Konstantinou, expects to see "dozens of dissertations" in several fields that have at least a chapter on Wallace in the next five years. "As those people start getting jobs, his work is going to start making inroads" on syllabi, he says.

One danger they and other Wallace scholars must sidestep is the temptation to let the writer's suicide overshadow everything else. "I think we're still in kind of a moment of mourning, at least in academic scholarship on Wallace," Konstantinou says. Readers and critics "were expecting to see a career's worth of writing coming out of him. He was at the top of his game. You could imagine him writing until his 80s."

Wallace's writing can be bitingly funny, but it also dwells on loneliness, isolation, and despair. Considering the circumstances of his death, many scholars may find it hard to resist the temptation to read him autobiographically. "It's an unspoken fear of mine that everything will be read through his suicide," Cohen says.

On the positive side, if there is one, Wallace's suicide concentrated attention on his work. "Presuicide, I had the impression that Wallace studies was moving sideways rather than advancing," Burn, of Northern Michigan University, said in his e-mail. "A lot of essays didn't reference earlier work, and they covered familiar ground that had already been written about earlier."

The past two years have seen a marked shift. "Wallace's status has rapidly evolved from marginal writer, noted for long, experimental work, to indispensable reference point for people writing about almost anything—from college football to WikiLeaks," Burn observed. (Bloomberg Businessweek began a recent article about the commercialization of college football with a reference to Infinite Jest.)

That's a mixed blessing for scholars, especially as they begin to focus more attention on parts of Wallace's work, like the journalism and the fiction other than Infinite Jest, that haven't yet gotten their critical due. "I think that most Wallace scholars want him to receive more attention," Burn said. "But there's a real danger, when references to Wallace seem to be everywhere, that his name will begin to float free of his substantive literary context and become an index for larger cultural fantasies about the tortured artist. His name glows in the dark." 

Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter for The Chronicle.