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

By Emily Neie

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.

The Writer’s Project: Searching for something to say

By Alicia Dietrich

Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon is a Master of Arts student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches tenth grade American Literature as a student teacher at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He recently spent time at the Ransom Center gathering materials to use in his classroom with high school sophomores and writes here about that experience.

Your high school English teacher probably wanted only your final draft. Even process-based writing instructors expect the final version to represent the author’s best work: scrubbed of grammatical errors and clunkers, defined and refined in logic and narrative structure. As much as possible, the product should be perfect.

It’s no wonder that writing is so daunting for most students. The only writing that they see covered in red ink is their own. Most of the canonical books they read have been edited and revised until every warty word has been excised, leaving a deceptively smooth, unblemished sheen. But how often do students see the actual process?

Now, with 34 tenth graders coming under my charge, I’m about to teach American Literature. How can I help my future students to make meaningful connections through reading and writing?

I visited the Harry Ransom Center to study how professional writers write and in an attempt to make literature more relevant to my life. My experience led me to wonder what would happen if my students read the day-by-day slog recorded in Steinbeck’s journal while they read The Grapes of Wrath. Could the corrections, carets, and scribbles in Whitman’s proofs of Leaves of Grass bring my students closer to writing their own poetry? I imagine a student reading “Two Minutes,” a short story by 14-year-old Tim O’Brien, and saying, “Well, I could do better than that.”

Reading through Anne Sexton’s teaching materials from Wayland High School, I was struck by how difficult teaching teenagers can be, even for a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. And yet, thumbing through her students’ poems, I was inspired. It was exhilarating to look at drafts that I wasn’t supposed to see, to gain intimate access to each author’s life and to see the students’ vital search to find their words.

Your high school English teacher also probably wanted your work to appear effortless. But exposing the hard work may be the chief power the Ransom Center holds for students: the archive reveals not just the process, but also the project of writing. Every author’s project begins with finding something worth saying to someone. The Ransom Center is a catalog of each frustrated attempt as accomplished wordsmiths struggled to write precisely what they meant.

This is the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom: that meaningful connection is possible through the reading and writing of words. For our writing to be purposeful, we must find something meaningful to say. We must have a project. What becomes clear after reading the preserved papers is that they were written by human beings for other human beings.

I hope to share with my students what I learned from my week at the Center: that the canon’s authors’ godlike craft comes not solely from the natural ability, but from hard work, and that they, my students, potential authors of great literature, have much to contribute.