David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962–September 12, 2008) was an American author of novels, essays, and short-stories — and a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He was best known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which Time included in its All-Time 100 Greatest Novels (1923-2006).

In 2008 Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called Wallace "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years."



Wallace was born in 1962 in Ithaca, New York to James Donald Wallace and Sally Foster Wallace.

The family lived in a small village south of Urbana, Illinois named Philo. In fourth grade, Wallace moved to Urbana and attended Yankee Ridge 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 was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize, while his English senior thesis would later become his first novel. He graduated with summa cum laude honors for both theses in 1985. He next pursued a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona, which he earned in 1987.


His father, James Wallace, having finished his graduate course work in Philosophy at Cornell University, accepted a teaching job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the fall of 1962. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1963.

His 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.

His younger sister, Amy Wallace Havens of Tucson, has practiced law in Arizona since 2005.

Wallace married painter Karen L. Green in 2004.


Wallace died September 12, 2008—an apparent suicide.

In an interview with The New York Times, Wallace's father reported that Wallace had been suffering from depression for more than twenty years and antidepressant medication had allowed him to be productive; however, in 2007 Wallace experienced severe side effects from his medication. He stopped taking the medication in June 2007 on his doctor's advice, whereupon the depression returned. Wallace had tried other treatments including electroconvulsive therapy but to no avail. In the months prior to his death, his depression became severe.

Writing and other media


Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, garnered significant national attention and critical praise. Wallace moved to Boston, Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard University. He later abandoned them.

In 1992, at the behest of colleague and supporter Steven Moore, Wallace applied for and won 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, Conjunctions, Esquire, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The New Yorker, and Science.

Wallace received the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 1997. In 1997, Wallace was awarded the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction 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 Endowed 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.

Wallace's literary agent his entire career was Bonnie Nadell. His editor on Infinite Jest was Michael Pietsch.

Themes and styles

Wallace's fiction is often concerned with irony. His essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", 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 avoid irony. Wallace used many forms of irony, focusing on individuals' continued longing for earnest, unselfconscious experience and communication in a media-saturated society.

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 the great majority of his nonfiction after 1996. On the Charlie Rose talk 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.

Nonfiction work

Wallace covered Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, and 9/11 for Rolling Stone; cruise ships and state fairs for Harper's Magazine; the U.S. Open tournament for Tennis Magazine; the director David Lynch and the pornography industry for Premiere magazine; the special-effects film industry for Waterstone's magazine; conservative talk radio host John Ziegler for The Atlantic Monthly; and a 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, an invited series of authors, artists, politicians and others were asked to prepare 300 words or so on "the future of the American idea". Wallace asked whether some things were still worth dying for, and presented a "thought experiment" in which "we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea." He goes on to say that we might have to accept that every now and then "a democratic republic cannot 100% protect itself [from terrorism] without subverting the very principles that made it worth protecting." By comparison, he continues, we accept the 40,000 highway deaths each year as the price we pay for the convenience of the motor car. Finally, he asks, in the context of Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, and warrantless wiretapping, "Have we become so selfish and scared that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety?"

Other media

In late 2006, John Krasinski began directing his own script of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men., starring Julianne Nicholson and a long list of well-known character actors such as Christopher Meloni, Rashida Jones, Timothy Hutton, Josh Charles and Will Forte. The movie does not have a scheduled release date.


  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Fellowship, 1997-2002
  • Lannan Foundation, Marfa TX 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

Partial bibliography


Short story and essay collections



  • Fiction International 19:2 (Aids Art, Photomontages from Germany and England) (1991), contributing author, ISBN 1879691000
  • Grand Street 42 (1992), contributor. ISBN 0393308588
  • Grand Street 46 (1993), contributor. ISBN 0393309932
  • The Review of Contemporary Fiction: The Future of Fiction, A Forum Edited by David Foster Wallace (1996), Editor. ISBN 156478097X
  • Open City Number Five : Change or Die (1997), contributing author. ISBN 1890447161
  • The Best American Essays 2007 (2007), Guest Editor (Hardcover ed.: ISBN 0618709266)
  • The Mechanics' Institute Review, Issue 4 (September 2007), contributing author. ISBN 978-0-9547933-4-0


  • Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with David Foster Wallace." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (Summer 1993), 127-150. ISBN 1-56478-123-2 (text at the Center for Book Culture via
  • Laura Miller, "The Salon Interview: David Foster Wallace." Salon 9 (1996).
  • "The Usage Wars." Radio interview with David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner. The Connection (March 30, 2001).
  • Caleb Crain, "Approaching Infinity: David Foster Wallace talks about writing novels, riding the Green Line, and his new book on higher math." Boston Globe. October 26, 2003.
  • Michael Goldfarb, "David Foster Wallace." radio interview for The Connection (June 25, 2004). (full audio interview)
  • Charlie Rose, "David Foster Wallace." Interview by Charlie Rose 03/27/1997
  • Zachary Chouteau, "Infinite Zest: Words with the Singular David Foster Wallace." Complete interview done for Bookselling This Week, a publication of the American Bookseller's Association.
  • Dave Eggers, "David Foster Wallace." The Believer. November 2003.

See The Know(e): dfw for a complete bibliography.


Further reading

  • Benzon, Kiki. "Darkness Legible, Unquiet Lines: Mood Disorders in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace." Creativity, Madness and Civilization. Ed. Richard Pine. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007: 187-198.
  • Boswell, Marshall. Understanding David Foster Wallace. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN 1-57003-517-2
  • Burn, Stephen. "Generational Succession and a Source for the Title of David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System." Notes on Contemporary Literature 33.2 (2003), 9-11.
  • Burn, Stephen. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide. New York, London: Continuum, 2003 (= Continuum Contemporaries) ISBN 0-8264-1477-X
  • Carlisle, Greg. "Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Austin, L.A.: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9761465-3-7
  • Cioffi, Frank Louis. "An Anguish Becomes Thing: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Narrative 8.2 (2000), 161-181.
  • Delfino, Andrew Steven. "Becoming the New Man in Post-Postmodernist Fiction: Portrayals of Masculinities in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club." MA Thesis, Georgia State University.
  • Dowling, William, and Bell, Robert. A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest. Xlibris, 2004. ISBN 1-4134-8446-8 ()
  • Goerlandt, Iannis and Luc Herman. "David Foster Wallace." Post-war Literatures in English: A Lexicon of Contemporary Authors 56 (2004), 1-16; A1-2, B1-2.
  • Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Put the book down and slowly walk away': Irony and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006), 309-328.
  • Goerlandt, Iannis. "'Still steaming as its many arms extended': Pain in David Foster Wallace's Incarnations of Burned Children." Sprachkunst 37.2 (2006), 297-308.
  • Harris, Michael. "A Sometimes Funny Book Supposedly about Infinity: A Review of Everything and More." Notices of the AMS 51.6 (2004), 632-638. (full pdf-text)
  • Holland, Mary K. "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006), 218-242.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.3 (2007): 265-292.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace." Comparative Literature Studies 38.3 (2001): 215-231.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System." Ed. Alan Hedblad. Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. Detroit: Gale Research Press, 2001. 41-50.
  • Jacobs, Timothy. "David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." The Explicator 58.3 (2000): 172-175.
  • LeClair, Tom. "The Prodigious Fiction of Richard Powers, William T. Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 38.1 (1996), 12-37.
  • Mason, Wyatt. "Don't like it? You don't have to play." London Review of Books 26.22 (2004).
  • Nichols, Catherine. "Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 43.1 (2001), 3-16.
  • Rother, James. "Reading and Riding the Post-Scientific Wave. The Shorter Fiction of David Foster Wallace." Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (1993), 216-234. ISBN 1-56478-123-2
  • Tysdal, Dan. "Inarticulation and the Figure of Enjoyment: Raymond Carver's Minimalism Meets David Foster Wallace's 'A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.'" Wascana Review of Contemporary Poetry and Short Fiction 38.1 (2003), 66-83.

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