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In the galleries: David Foster Wallace's affinity for grammar and usage

David Foster Wallace, who was regarded by many as the best writer of his generation, was a talented essayist who was commissioned by several publications, from Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone and Gourmet, to write on topics as disparate as a luxury cruise, tennis, the Illinois State Fair, and the first presidential campaign of John McCain.

Wallace, whose affinity for and comprehension of the rules of grammar and usage were widely known, published an essay entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” in Harper’s in April 2001. An early draft of his essay can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. The draft is a veritable rainbow, covered in red, black, blue, and green ink. Wallace notes his argument at the bottom of the page: “Language & grammar are the distinctive human attainment. They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: ‘In the beginning was the Word). Facility with language… may be one of our responsibilities (like care of the earth, decency to our fellows).”

David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar is also seen in his library, which includes a number of books related to language, usage, and writing. One of his books about the history of the English language is underlined extensively throughout by Wallace. On one page, Wallace highlights with an exclamation point the following text: “[The average person] is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.”

It seems that none of Wallace’s books were safe from his inquiring pen. Wallace deeply admired novelist Don DeLillo. His library includes more than a dozen books by DeLillo, whose influence on Wallace can be seen in Wallace’s extensive handwritten notes about the novels and DeLillo’s writing style. On a page of DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names, Wallace writes with his red and green pens: “D doesn’t use commas between independent clauses—only uses ‘and.’ See p. 19. Why? It gives narrative a more oral quality—We never hear this comma.”

Preview archive materials related to Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King”

Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
A digital preview of archive materials relating to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. The preview, a collaboration between the Center and publisher Little, Brown and Company, includes a series of drafts of the “Author’s Foreword,” which eventually became chapter nine of The Pale King. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor, provides context about the pages and elaborates on the publication of the novel.

In 2010, the Ransom Center acquired and made accessible Wallace’s archive. The archive contains manuscript materials for Wallace’s books, stories and essays, research materials, Wallace’s college and graduate school writings, juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters, teaching materials, and books. Materials for The Pale King are included in the archive but will remain with Little, Brown and Company until after the book’s publication.

On Thursday, April 15, the Ransom Center celebrates the release of The Pale King with readings from the novel by Kevin Brockmeier, Doug Dorst, Amelia Gray, and Jake Silverstein. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Under Pressure Screen Printing creates custom t-shirts for members with images from the Ransom Center windows.  Photo by Pete Smith.
Under Pressure Screen Printing creates custom t-shirts for members with images from the Ransom Center windows. Photo by Pete Smith.
Members explore the 'Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century' exhibition at Wednesday’s New Member Open House. Photo by Pete Smith.
Members explore the 'Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century' exhibition at Wednesday’s New Member Open House. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff shared copies of David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest' during its '60 Books in 60 Minutes.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff shared copies of David Foster Wallace's 'Infinite Jest' during its '60 Books in 60 Minutes.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Some of the students and general public who responded to '60 Books in 60 Minutes.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Some of the students and general public who responded to '60 Books in 60 Minutes.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Meagan Samuelsen, a volunteer with costumes and personal effects, looks at John Fowles’s writing desk, complete with its contents. The desk will remain on display for at least the next two years in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. Photo by Pete Smith.
Meagan Samuelsen, a volunteer with costumes and personal effects, looks at John Fowles’s writing desk, complete with its contents. The desk will remain on display for at least the next two years in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. Photo by Pete Smith.

Watch video from "Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace" event

From left, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, L. B. Deyo, and Wayne Alan Brenner read an excerpt from Wallace's first novel, 'The Broom of the System.'
From left, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, L. B. Deyo, and Wayne Alan Brenner read an excerpt from Wallace's first novel, 'The Broom of the System.'
The Harry Ransom Center commemorated the opening of the David Foster Wallace archive with readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors on September 14, 2010. Readers Wayne Alan Brenner, Elizabeth Crane, L. B. Deyo, Doug Dorst, Owen Egerton, Chris Gibson, Kurt Hildebrand, Shannon McCormick, and Jake Silverstein shared selections of Wallace’s fiction, essays, and correspondence. Wallace’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center. The program was co-sponsored by American Short Fiction and Salvage Vanguard Theater.

The video of this event is now available online.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

The Texas Book Festival and the Ransom Center co-sponsored the panel 'David Foster Wallace: A Life' at last weekend’s festival, which included  Matt Bucher (moderator), David Lipsky, David Means, and  Antonya Nelson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Texas Book Festival and the Ransom Center co-sponsored the panel 'David Foster Wallace: A Life' at last weekend’s festival, which included Matt Bucher (moderator), David Lipsky, David Means, and Antonya Nelson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Gallery model of preliminary layout for the spring 2011 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Gallery model of preliminary layout for the spring 2011 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley and Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the 'New York Times Book Review,' spoke informally with Ransom Center staff, university faculty, and students on Thursday, October 21. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley and Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the 'New York Times Book Review,' spoke informally with Ransom Center staff, university faculty, and students on Thursday, October 21. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
University graduate student and film collection volunteer Sandra Yates splices together outtakes of footage from film and theater producer Lewis Allen’s collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
University graduate student and film collection volunteer Sandra Yates splices together outtakes of footage from film and theater producer Lewis Allen’s collection. Photo by Pete Smith.

View slideshow of images from "Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace"

Video of the program “Consider the Archive: An Evening of David Foster Wallace” will be posted on the Ransom Center’s website once it is transcribed and captioned to comply with ADA guidelines.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

David Foster Wallace’s library: Dog ears, coffee rings, duct tape, and heavy markings

Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Jacqueline Muñoz, librarian at the Ransom Center, cataloged more than 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s archive. Here, she writes about her experience working with the collection and her personal response to Wallace’s work.

I didn’t think much of Infinite Jest in the beginning. My impression of David Foster Wallace’s writing was that it was wordy and unfocused with some seriously flawed characters. Gradually I settled into his use of language, which is quite impressive, and finally at the Boston AA section, I was hooked—certainly on the plot, but even more so on the man behind the prose. All at once, it was clear the length of the story and ambiguity of the characters was Wallace’s vehicle for articulating how unforgiving it is to be human, and how, though various generations may seem vastly different on the surface, they struggle internally with the same issues. I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him better. So, I was thrilled to find out the Ransom Center would be acquiring his archive, especially given the description about the extensive annotations to his books.

Even then, I was not prepared for what we received. Of the more than 300 titles in his collection, there are maybe 10 or 15 that are not annotated—not simply with underlined passages but ample and personally revealing margin notes. The library basically falls into two categories: novels/stories he taught in his literature classes and books for use in research and self-analysis. Finishing Infinite Jest, I came away with a lot of questions about the origin of some of the characters, as well as theories about the story itself. I think the items in his library, which feel very much like journal entries the way he marked them up, provide some answers.

Looking at his collection, one can see that Wallace was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man: a philosopher, mathophile, physics buff, grammarian, pop-fiction reader, lit professor, creative writer, and spiritual seeker. He didn’t merely own these books; he digested them. Cover to cover there are handwritten notes and vocabulary words; he dog-eared pages, annotated the most pertinent passages, and even used the tomes as coffee mug coasters and phone conversation doodle pads. Through his books, one gains a sense of him on a personal, human level—his struggles, unpretentiousness, sense of humor, diligent research skills, and devotion to masterful writing. It’s almost as if he’s still teaching and sharing.

Additional David Foster Wallace materials at the Ransom Center

The David Foster Wallace papers have been cataloged and are now available for study in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Since last March when the Center announced its acquisition of the papers, a few small collections have arrived that complement the archive acquired from Wallace’s Estate.

Just weeks after we announced the acquisition, the Ransom Center was contacted by Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor of American Heritage Dictionary (AHD). Wallace was a member of the AHD usage panel, a group of individuals AHD consulted about issues related to usage and grammar. Each year, AHD sends a survey or “usage ballot” of questions to its board members—asking, for example, the acceptable use of specific words—and the responses influence how AHD defines appropriate usage in its dictionaries. Wallace, whose facility with language was exceptional, was enthusiastic about serving on the AHD usage panel, and his survey responses demonstrate how seriously he took his role. Though most of the questions were designed so that they could be answered with a mere check mark, the six usage ballots that Wallace completed are covered with his comments and questions. AHD sent the Ransom Center copies of David Foster Wallace’s usage ballots, and a few sample pages can be seen in the slideshow above.

Within days of hearing from AHD about their Wallace materials, the Ransom Center received a call from Jay Jennings, the former editor of Tennis Magazine, who in 1996 commissioned Wallace to write an article about the U.S. Open (published as “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). The editor had a file of corrected proofs and correspondence related to the article that he wanted to contribute to the archive. These papers provide a wonderful example of how involved Wallace was in the editorial process. Wallace had warned the editor that he would be a difficult editee, but the papers demonstrate the contrary. Though Wallace’s comments on the proof pages are often assertive, they are equally good-natured, dotted throughout with smiley faces, and oftentimes showing his humor. A sample page can be seen in the above slideshow.

Both of these collections were donated to the Ransom Center by individuals who admired Wallace’s work and felt compelled to make a contribution to his archive. This generosity of spirit is characteristic of the enthusiastic and very personal responses the Ransom Center has received from a number of devoted readers of Wallace’s works over the past several months, readers who wanted to give something back to the community in honor of a writer they admired deeply.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.