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English Honors seminar course on David Foster Wallace gives undergraduates a look into Wallace’s archive

Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Before spring of last year, I had only heard David Foster Wallace referenced by acquaintances and a TV show character with an affinity for oversized novels. When I was applying for my undergraduate internship at the Ransom Center, I noticed that the Center had acquired Wallace’s archive and opened it for research. I knew that a course on Wallace was being offered by the University as an English Honors seminar during the fall semester, and the opportunity to combine my academic studies with my new internship seemed like a perfect way to enhance my first experience with Wallace’s work. What I believed to be a simple coincidence turned out to be an unforgettable journey down the rabbit hole that is the mind of David Foster Wallace.

My first experience with Wallace was his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I immediately fell in love with his wit and intimate voice. I would need aforementioned love to lay the foundation for my relationship with Infinite Jest, which has been admittedly rocky, yet rewarding. My professor, Heather Houser, has done an excellent job planning our exposure to Wallace, introducing us to his style in shorter, more light-hearted bursts before throwing us headfirst into the waters of Infinite Jest. She also planned two class trips to the Ransom Center to view items pulled from Wallace’s archive so that we could read marginalia written in miniscule handwriting, correspondence with editors and fans, and annotations in books that he used for research. When I asked her why she thought it was so important to bring our class to see Wallace’s archive firsthand, she replied, “Wallace’s letters, manuscripts, and notes show him to be a painstaking writer and reader. Writing was a laborious, often distressing process for Wallace. Students see this in the sheaves of drafts and series of letters between Wallace and his editors and friends.”

There is something about looking at an author’s handwriting, and leafing through his personal library that grounds you. This was a person, with a life and loved ones: an actual person wrote these books I’m reading, you think, and that realization can be sudden and startling. I am not quite sure why it is easy to forget about the human element of literature, but my time with the Wallace archive helped me remember that I am studying a brilliant person’s imagination incarnate.

I agree with this statement from my classmate Aaron Levine: “We as a class are privileged… most people who read Infinite Jest do not get to read it in segments and then have hour-and-a-half conversations with a room full of inquisitive minds.” It has been an even greater privilege to be taught by a professor who understands the value of pushing the limits of undergraduate study, and to have access to the unique resources that the Ransom Center has to offer. The experiences I have had as an undergraduate scholar at the Ransom Center have enriched my adventures as an intern, as well as my future academic endeavors. In fact, I am planning to research the Ransom Center’s collections for my upcoming undergraduate English Honors thesis.

Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

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