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Digging into the David Foster Wallace archive

November 23, 2010 |  6:40 am

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David Foster Wallace fans who can't get to the Ransom Center in Texas have a decent consolation prize: Seth Colter Walls visiting the David Foster Wallace archive and writing about it for Newsweek.

Walls tours the archive as an admitted fan. "While many children are capable of conjuring imaginative tales, the grade-school Wallace has an unusual empathy for the adult double-bind of finding purpose in a job that also brings misery...," Walls writes of a story Wallace wrote as a child. "[T]his, heartbreakingly, is reminiscent of Wallace himself, the MacArthur-winning author of complex but emotionally gripping fictions such as Infinite Jest, who, after a lifetime spent battling depression, committed suicide in 2008."

Newsweek's piece has been posted online in three sections -- about the archive, about the outtakesfrom Wallace's seminal novel, "Infinite Jest," and a visual look at Wallace's writing and marginalia. Wallace was an engaged reader, underlining passages in his books and making careful notes on his revisions. The opening pages of "Infinite Jest" show his careful, tiny handwriting. Walls continues:

Wallace’s archive was bound to be unusual, given that it took shape during an emergency sort-and-salvage operation. After his suicide, Nadell drove out to join Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, who was eager to move out of a haunted house. Together, the two began pawing through the writer’s papers stacked in the garage where he had worked. It did not take them long to uncover something valuable, in the form of the unfinished novel The Pale King (set to be published next spring). Less-obvious gems followed, such as Wallace’s teaching materials, and more than 300 heavily annotated books from his personal library....

Even readers who aren’t devoted fans of Wallace’s fiction have shown an interest in his mind; witness the popularity of Wallace’s essay collections, and the packaging of his commencement address, “This Is Water?,” as a stand-alone book. To the casual fan as well as the devotee, then, this archive offers a chance to take a sort of disembodied, intro-to-literature class from Wallace. For a man who regarded the written word as synonymous with nourishment, this is no small promise of intimacy.

 

Full disclosure: as an employee of Wallace's agent, who is his literary executor, I saw some of these materials before they reached the archive. I'm excited that Walls and everyone else can see them, now, too.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A proof of David Foster Wallace's 1996 Harper's piece about taking a cruise, with Wallace's notes. It was published not as "Expensive Waters" but as "Shipping Out" and appears in the collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Credit: Harry Ransom Center

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