Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 1
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David Foster Wallace
The Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing

The world knew David Foster Wallace as the postmodern literary icon whose Infinite Jest recently landed on Time’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published since the magazine’s inception. Here on campus, though, the creative writing professor was a low-key presence except where it mattered: in the classroom or during his well-attended office hours.

Wallace’s suicide death in September was followed by an international outpouring of tributes to his work and, at Pomona, intensely personal remembrances of a writing professor who balanced humble compassion with an insistence that students do their best work. “He was an amazing teacher—tough but inspiring, infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely patient,” writes Peter Cook ’03. “But the core of David Wallace’s import to me was in his valiant battle against solipsism. Writing, he told us, is communication, and it is no more about the writer than the reader.”

Wallace joined Pomona’s faculty as the first Ro y E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing in the fall of 2002 upon completion of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” He had grown up in academia—his parents were professors—and Wallace went on to attend Amherst, graduating summa cum laude with degrees in English and philosophy. He entered the literary spotlight with 1987’s The Broom of the System, a novel he wrote while still in the M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona.

Along with his famous, 1,079-page Infinite Jest (1996), Wallace’s body of work includes several collections of short stories: Girl With Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), and Oblivion (2004). His non-fiction work included A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003), Consider the Lobster (2005) and articles for such varied publications as The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and Gourmet. The New Yorker, Harper’s and Esquire published his short fiction.

As Robert Potts wrote for the U.K. paper The Guardian: “He was still young, and still brilliant … He set the bar so dizzyingly high with each new piece of writing that I cannot imagine where he might next have taken his art; and it hurts that I will never know.”

Wallace is survived by his wife, Karen Green, his parents and a sister.

Remembrances From His Students
On the first day of class, Dave wore a cut-off Star Wars sweatshirt and a bandana to tie back his greasy hair. His spectacles gleamed. If I had been expecting the wunderkind of Infinite Jest, my idealized visions crumbled as I watched him spit a stream of black tobacco spittle into a Slurpee cup. He looked less like a militant grammarian than a transient who had accidentally wandered into the English Department. Previous students of Dave Wallace had warned me of his tongue-lashings, his obsessive precision with language, his voluminous footnotes. I had arrived with my armor on, ready for a writerly battle with a giant of literature. But this guy, frankly, looked like a goofball.

True, there was something intimidating about Dave. But it was not his obvious genius, his reputation or his awful clothes. He was easy, approachable, often hilarious. It was the work that daunted. His workshops required intensive critical thinking. He demanded allegiance— not to himself, nor to the class, but to the language itself. We served the words. To fail the language, through a half-hearted peer critique or an overlooked comma, was to fail the writers we wished to become.

He never failed us. Every week he returned our stories with tomes of comments, meticulously organized and footnoted, each page a bramble of red pen. A five-page story could receive five pages of notes back, single space, 10 pt. font. At first I thought these letters spoke to an obsession with perfection. Later, I began to see that they only reflected the depth of Dave’s heart. To each story he gave the energy that he gave his own writing. His attention stemmed from the profound respect he held for his students.

Dave gave this same care to students during office hours, after hours, between hours, when he generously talked us through our paragraphs, our anxiety, and our self-doubt, blinking rapidly from behind a pile of usage dictionaries. The line often ran down the hall.

One day I told him, frustrated, that I would stop writing fiction. My stories were not postmodern or hip. I expected a lecture on style. Instead, he told me to relax. Strong writers are not merely good with words, he said; they are deeply aware of themselves. The greats have stopped pretending to write like someone else. “You’re best when you trust yourself,” he said.

What Dave Wallace gave us was not a manual for how to write. What he gave us was a way of working with ourselves in a disciplined, compassionate way. Gillian Gurley ‘06 writes, “He changed not only the way I write, but the way I think.” His teaching developed conscious, confident citizens. He taught, as Rachel Monroe ’06 puts it, that “writing, at its best, is an act of generosity on the part of the author…and maybe, in some small strange way, to the world in general.”

I did not know David Foster Wallace, the postmodern genius. I knew Dave Wallace, a scruffy, funny, slightly paunchy guy who instructed me to give writing “15 solid years before you give it up.” J.B. Wogan ’06 knew Dave as a “fan boy who gushed about interviewing Roger Federer.” Jim Stier ’05 writes that, three years after graduation, he still has Dave’s cell number in his phone. With due respect to his literature, Dave’s greatest legacy is the community he left behind.

In the last few days, old classmates have tracked each other down on Facebook and traded e-mails full of memories. A friend I had not spoken to in several years called to give me the news, her voice tremulous. Students have formed partnerships to collect stories. Many have mentioned a need to reach out to peers who understand that this tragedy goes beyond the loss of a teacher; it is the loss of an idol, a mentor, a friend.

Dave’s death has stunned us. But the grace, the confidence, and the eloquence that he developed in us are emerging in response to his death. Kyle Buckley ’07 writes: “I think it’s incredibly important that those of us who will always have so much love and respect for Dave Wallace as a writer, teacher, and man keep lines of communication as open as we can, and not retreat into a self-involved sense of loss, anger, betrayal. I hope that we are all galvanized to strive, in our own ways, to fill the gaping hole he’s left; because, truly, I think he left sufficient gifts behind for us to do it.”

Dave gave his students the greatest gift: he taught us how to communicate with each other. The New York Times can write glowing elegies to Dave’s prose. What students recall is his open door, his precise and generous advice, his riotously funny classes and his trademark footnotes¹. —Caitlin Dwyer ’06

When I consider what Dave would have wanted us to remember, three things come to mind: how to identify point of view, the difference between “compliment” and “complement,” and proper use of the serial comma. But I never want to forget that Dave wore white socks pulled halfway up his calves, and tennis shoes. I want to keep talking and writing about him, all sides of him, because I’m afraid of forgetting these details, which are more important to me than anything he ever published.
—Amanda Shapiro ’08

He never talked about his work. Not once in the three workshops I took with him. I’ve had numerous professors force their students to read their own work in courses, but he would have been mortified by the idea. There wasn’t a bone in his body that wasn’t humble.
—Zack Schenkkan ’06

He was the first professor to treat me as something other than a student. He said he was learning something from us, too. He was the kind of mentor whose unassuming personality warranted visits, even when the class was finished and there was nothing academic to discuss. I remember there was always a line of students by the bench outside his office in Crookshank. Those conversations were always rich and I will miss them, almost as much as I will miss him. —J.B. Wogan ’06

From the Press
“David Foster Wallace used his prodigious gifts as a writer—his manic, exuberant prose, his ferocious powers of observation, his ability to fuse avant-garde techniques with old-fashioned moral seriousness—to create a series of strobe-lit portraits of a millennial America overdosing on the drugs of entertainment and self-gratification, and to capture, in the words of the musician Robert Plant, the myriad ‘deep and meaningless’ facets of contemporary life.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A few weeks ago, I reread the beginning of Infinite Jest, and stupidly cursed right out loud its author, David Foster Wallace, out of jealousy, because I will never write—or even think—like he does in just the first few pages of what is the best novel written since I’ve been old enough to read.”
—Joel Stein, Time

“Wallace’s project … was empathy. And as a hyper-brilliant mind, the path he took towards it, in his writing, was to use his raw intellectual horsepower to achieve a kind of moral enlightenment. There was, in this way, a merging of form and content: his writing worked because he was able to achieve this kind of brilliant, self-conscious, painfully self-aware, but nonetheless robust and heart-breaking empathy for his characters and subjects.”
—Christopher Hayes, The Nation

To read President David Oxtoby's letter to the community and more personal and media tributes to David Foster Wallace, please visit our Memorial pages.
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