In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace 1962-2008
A Letter from President Oxtoby
The death of Professor David Foster Wallace Friday night was, for the world, the loss of one of literature’s brightest stars. For Pomona College, it was the loss of an equally brilliant teacher — as well as a colleague and friend.
When the search committee for the inaugural Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing first convened to discuss this important new position on our faculty, they began by talking about the type of writer they wished to find, and they agreed — conceptually — that it should be someone like David Foster Wallace. By this, they meant a writer not only of note, but of genuine importance — a writer who had already raised the bar in American letters and whose promise for the future was truly unlimited. When they actually spoke to David himself and he agreed to come to Pomona, they were overjoyed.
By that time, the College knew that David was also considered a fine and thoughtful educator. What they had no right to expect was that he would be as spectacular a teacher as he was a writer. But after his arrival in 2002, he showed himself to be exactly that. Many of his students have come to me over the years, marveling at the transformative experience of working with him in one of his intense creative writing classes. They told me how tough and demanding he could be, and at the same time they wondered at how a man of such creative genius could also be so kind, so caring, so generous of his time, his energy and his wisdom.
He was a man who truly understood what a liberal education at a place like Pomona is all about. In fact, in a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, I think he said it as well as it can be said: “The really important kind of freedom,” he said that day, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.”
It is this Dave Wallace, as he preferred to be called by friends and students — the brilliant teacher who worked so tirelessly to teach his young writers how to think and how to be serious in their engagement with the world — who will be most profoundly missed here at Pomona. In the near future, we will find appropriate ways to memorialize his life and work among us, but for now, our deepest condolences go out to his wife and family as we mourn this tremendous loss within the privacy of our college community.
September 15, 2008