Remembering David Foster Wallace

The world has lost a spectacular writer. Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off. — John Seery, colleague and friend in HuffPost remembrance

David Foster Wallace, one of my heroes and inspirations, hanged himself Friday night here in Claremont. Considered among the greatest writers of his generation, and certainly a jewel on the Pomona faculty, I’ve been reading and following his work for years. His loss is crushing.

Virtually every time I read Wallace I feel inspired to want to be smarter. He inspires me with his range — from the meaning of number zero to esoteric literary theory to talk radio to tennis to politics. He inspires me with his style — surely not everyone’s taste, but even his critics admire his courage to re-define his genre and challenge convention. He inspires me with his relentless humor — even if his ideas were baseless (they’re not) he would still be recognized as a world class humorist. He inspires me with his raw thought process — how he arranged his verbs and nouns to produce an argument that was accessible and rational and entertaining all at once.David_foster_wallace_3

Wallace’s suicide raises for me the question about the correlation between enlightenment and depression. How much truth is there to the phrase "ignorance is bliss"? How unbearable is genius?

It was not a question I discussed with his other readers. When marveling at Wallace’s output, we always talked about its brio but we never seriously pondered whether the author was a happy man.

Discovering that somebody vigorously read (or tried to read!) Wallace became for me another one of those litmus tests when deciding whether to spend time with a person. To me it didn’t matter so much that people liked him or agreed with him, but rather that they were disposed to be tickled by his intellect.

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There is sure to be a deluge of remembrances and obituaries about Wallace’s life in the coming days. I thought I could contribute my part to this collection by relaying a quick story about meeting Wallace here in Claremont.

Since 2002 Wallace had taught a class a semester at Pomona College. His reputation as a teacher matched his reputation in the literary world. Students loved him. Far from adopting the pose of "famous professor who doesn’t have time for his students," Wallace was known to offer excruciatingly detailed and personal critiques of students’ work. (He also didn’t need the money of an endowed professorship — see his MacArthur genius grant, for example.)

When I arrived in Claremont in fall 2007, one of my goals was to take his class. As a student at Claremont McKenna, part of the consortium of colleges here which permit cross registration, it was going to be possible but difficult since for popular classes preference is given to seniors at the home college.

I looked up Wallace’s course this past spring at Pomona and saw he was teaching "The Literary Essay," which was about the art of the imaginative non-fiction essay, a skill for which Wallace can comfortably claim expertise, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to register for it.

I showed up to his class anyway. At the least I just wanted to see him in person. I was terrified.

After going down the list of twelve and taking note of each student’s name, major, and hometown, Wallace looked around to see if he missed anybody. Me. He asked who I was. I said I was a student who hoped to enroll in his class. He said it was full and there was a waiting list. I said I understood. He said I was welcome to leave. I asked if he wanted me to leave. He said it was going to be a boring day of reviewing the syllabus and he wouldn’t want me to suffer through it if I were not going to actually be in the class. David Foster Wallace reviewing a syllabus on writing? People would pay money to be witness to that. I said I’d prefer to stay since I had walked all the way over, and he agreed.

His syllabus was wonderful — and yes, it had footnotes. He seemed to be chewing tobacco and spitting it into a mug as he talked about why this was going to be a class where we as writers improve our ability to engage a reader who has zero interest in our opinions or emotions. He wore big black shoes, the laces seemed undone, and had a bandanna on his head.

To round out the syllabus, Wallace asked some kids to volunteer to turn in essays on certain days for group workshopping. No one volunteered. I looked around, incredulous. David Foster Wallace just asked for volunteers, and no one is volunteering?!?! He announced there would be a bathroom break and when class re-convened, somebody had better be ready to sign up.

Outside, in the bathroom, I smiled awkwardly to him and told him I was a huge fan of his work. I felt like just another fanboy. Even though this famous writer has heard much higher praise, he still smiled genuinely and thanked me for the kind words.

Using the email address he listed on the syllabus, I emailed Wallace after class to ask if I could meet with him one on one. To my astonishment he replied a few hours later and said I could come to his office hours and we’d chat. In his reply he also "beseeched" me not to share his email address with anyone. (He was notoriously difficult to access; he did not maintain a Pomona email address; phone calls to the English Dept were directed to his agent; he did very few interviews / media appearances for his books.)

A week later I went to his office hours. I showed up 20 minutes early and paced around the building, going over what I would ask him. I walked in right at 6pm, and saw him in the hallway. He gently remembered who I was, pointed to his office, and said he’d be in in a minute. I stood around in his large office alone, admiring the books lining the shelves and soaking up the reality of the situation.

We ended up talking for about 25 minutes before another student showed up. I asked him about editing the Best American Essays of 2007. I asked him how he crafts such vivid descriptions in his writing (his response was that good writers slave over their work and the brilliant description doesn’t happen on the first try). I asked about the value of an education. He was gracious, kind, and interested.

This all happened just a few months ago. I must admit I harbored some fantasy of meeting him again, taking a full class, getting some tips, learning more about the man behind the prose. That possibility, no matter how remote, is now gone. All I have is the memory of sitting in his office.

More important, the world has lost one of its most distinctive and illuminating voices. A sad night.

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