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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.

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.

"The archives are a window into his mind"

First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
Bonnie Nadell, longtime literary agent of David Foster Wallace, shares her thoughts on what scholars can learn from Wallace’s archive about his creative process:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

We want readers to see how he thought because how he thought was unique and beautiful and precise. So anyone looking through his drafts and even his books will see the levels of thinking that went into every sentence and every page. The corrections on Infinite Jest for the paperback edition even after a master copyediting job, David’s love of language in his dictionary and in his notebooks, and how he deconstructed other writer’s stories and sentences so he could teach his students how to write better and how to read better. The archives are a window into his mind, and I really think scholars and readers will appreciate seeing that for the first time.

Infinite Possibilities: A first glimpse into David Foster Wallace’s library

David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Approximately 200 books from David Foster Wallace’s library arrived at the Ransom Center with his papers. When the staff unpacked the collection to check its condition, we could see immediately that the library was not simply a supplement to the archive but an essential part of it. Wallace annotated many of the books heavily: he underlined passages, made extensive comments in the margins, and utilized the front and back inside covers for notes, vocabulary lists, brainstorms, and more. As a reader of Infinite Jest, one book in particular caught my eye: a battered paperback copy of Pam Cook’s edited volume The Cinema Book (New York: Pantheon, 1985). This reference work is heavily used: it lacks both its front and back cover, its spine is held on with two pieces of tape, and the exposed inside cover is inscribed “D. Wallace ’92,” four years before the publication of Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is a book about many things, and the mesmerizing power of movies is one of its most dominant themes. One of the book’s central figures is the late James O. Incandenza, an auteur whose filmography has left an indelible mark upon all of the novel’s characters in one way or another. Early in the novel, the reader learns of the extent of his importance in endnote 24. Endnote 24 comprises Incandenza’s entire filmography, which fills eight pages in tiny print. The reader discovers here that it is essential to actually read Wallace’s footnotes (spoiler alert), because only in this endnote do we learn that Infinite Jest is the title of an Incandenza film.

Traces of The Cinema Book may be found throughout Wallace’s novel, beginning with the basic format of the filmography itself: notably, Wallace penned a bracket around the “Special Note” at the front of The Cinema Book, in which Cook outlines the format her citations will take, and Wallace’s citations of Incandenza’s films resemble these closely. Wallace may also have gathered much film knowledge from this volume. The Incandenza filmography is a virtuosic pastiche of film history, technology, and vocabulary. We are told that Incandenza made every kind of film: “industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic noncommercial, nondramatic (‘anti-confluential’) noncommercial, nondramatic commercial, and dramatic commercial works” (985). Wallace annotated passages throughout The Cinema Book, with the exception of two theoretical chapters. He noted concrete information such as the names of actors, directors, production companies, film journals, and significant events in film history. His annotations show his interest in a wide range of terms and themes covered in the volume, with particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the “the gangster/crime film,” the only genre lacking any Wallace annotations).

At two points in the volume he explicitly mentions Infinite Jest. In the section on “National cinema and film movements,” he underlines much of the section on Roberto Rossellini’s place in the neo-realist Italian tradition, writing in the bottom margin “Rossellini + ‘ad-hoc’ structure—Infinite Jest” (39). More dramatically, he writes the letters “IJ” no less than four times in the three-page section on “The Hollywood Star Machine.” He underlines several passages with particular attention to the following, which will not come as a surprise to readers of Infinite Jest:

It has been argued that the erotic play of the “look” around the female star figure in classic Hollywood cinema is an integral part of the narrative drive towards closure and the reinstatement of equilibrium (Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” 1975). This argument uses psychoanalytical concepts to address the question of the fantasy relationship between spectators and film and the role of the star in that relationship (see also Cook, “Stars and politics,” 1982; Friedberg, “Identification and the star,” 1982). [51]

Finally, my favorite set of annotations surround the section on the genre of the musical, written by Andy Medhurst. Medhurst spends a considerable amount of time discussing this genre’s dominant theme: entertainment. Wallace has underlined passages discussing the ways in which this genre taps into viewers’ nostalgia and their desire to experience a “vision of human liberation” in a utopian entertainment experience. Wallace has penned “ENTERTAINMENT” at the top of the page and circled the page number (107). This word is central to the project of Infinite Jest, and it is enlightening to read one of the sources from which its meanings in the novel likely derive.

Unpacking Wallace’s library was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this reader; once this and his other books have been cataloged, I look forward to seeing what insights scholars will derive from the hundreds of books and thousands of annotations beyond the few I have noted here.

How the David Foster Wallace archive found a home at the Ransom Center

Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.

Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.

We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.

Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.

Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.