UT gets papers of ‘Infinite Jest’ author
Archive at Ransom Center will offer insight on David Foster Wallace’s creative process.
By Joe Gross
Adding to its collection of archives by literary heavy-hitters such as Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo, the University of Texas’ Ransom Center has acquired the papers of the late David Foster Wallace, author of the massive 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” several collections of short stories and powerful literary journalism.
The acquisition includes manuscript materials for Wallace’s novels, stories and articles; a raft of research materials; Wallace’s college and graduate school writings; some juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters; and about 200 books from his library.
“This is an important figure in the chain of American literature,” said Ransom Center director Thomas F. Staley, “To say it in the most benign way, he is somewhat of a cult figure.”
Born in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1962 and raised in Illinois, Wallace battled depression all of his life and committed suicide in 2008. He is considered by many scholars and a hardcore fan base to be one of the most influential writers of the past 25 years. It is impossible to imagine writers as diverse as David Eggers, Chuck Klosterman and Zadie Smith without the impact of Wallace’s prose; it’s easy to imagine all three of them wanting to get a look at Wallace’s creative process through his archive.
“He definitely is the writer I’ve ripped off the most,” said Klosterman, author of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” on Monday. “Wallace showed me that you could present ideas that were insightful and complex, but the presentation could still be as entertaining as any sort of writing whose sole purpose was to entertain. Considering how dense his work could be, it was almost never confusing.”
Staley says Wallace came to the center’s attention years ago, largely through the endorsement of writer DeLillo, whose papers were acquired by the Ransom in 2004.
“Wallace idolized DeLillo, and DeLillo thought of him as one of the really promising young American writers, so we thought we better look into it,” Staley said.
The center sent Wallace a letter while he was still alive inquiring about his papers, “but he never replied,” said Megan Barnard, the deputy director for administration and acquisitions.
In early 2009, Wallace’s estate approached the Ransom Center, which acquired the material in December. Officials declined to discuss the mechanics of the deal or the purchase price.
Normally, such a large amount of work would require more than a year of archiving and processing, but the Wallace papers will be available to researchers and the public in the fall.
“There’s very little disorder,” archivist Stephen Cooper said. “For the most part, this is how he had his files at his home and in his office.”
Materials for Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King” are included in the archive but will remain with Little, Brown and Co. — Wallace’s publisher since 1993 — until the book’s publication, scheduled for April 2011.
“I saw the ‘Pale King’ manuscript,” Staley said. “It’s richly annotated, very thick with lots of changes so you can get the full trajectory of it.”
Little, Brown is also donating its editorial files relating to the author to the Ransom Center, including correspondence and internal memos relating to “Infinite Jest,” the story collections “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and “Oblivion” and the nonfiction anthologies “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and “Consider the Lobster.”
Scholars and fans will get a special kick out of seeing Wallace’s juvenilia, including poems and a collection of letters that he wrote to his teacher in elementary school.
“Vikings oh they were so strong/ though their warriors won’t live so long” Wallace wrote in “Viking Poem,” composed when he was 6 or 7 years old.
“His poems are pretty great when you look at how old he was,” said British and American Literature curator Molly Schwartzburg. “He had a strong sense of rhyme and rhythm. And he wasn’t a very good speller, which is kind of charming.”
Some of the material is banal, yet amusing, such as a receipt for the Ivan Lendl model tennis racquet Wallace purchased from eBay while he was researching what became “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” a 2006 piece for the New York Times. (Wallace paid $60 for the racquet.)
Wallace also made extensive handwritten notes in the books he owned, from margin notes on his beloved DeLillo to tracking the structure of a Mary Higgins Clark mystery to notes on Stephen King.
A selection of materials will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through April 9.
“Considering how heavily used the Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer collections are, with those two figures being two pretty important writers of the previous generation,” Schwartzburg said, “I think