David Foster Wallace’s parents, Sally and Jim, were the sort of couple who read each other Ulysses in bed while holding hands. Jim read David and his younger sister Amy Moby-Dick as a bedtime story. It wasn’t inevitable that the boy would grow up to write an epic novel, but it wasn’t accidental. Jim was a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois; Sally taught English at a community college, and at home with her children was what her son in his fiction would term a ‘militant grammarian’, constantly monitoring their usage and syntax, turning it into a game. David was a creature of university campuses: Champaign-Urbana as a child; Amherst for college; Tucson for his MFA at the University of Arizona; back to Amherst to teach fiction writing; Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a stint as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, then teaching fiction at Emerson College in Boston; Syracuse, where he went to be close to the poet Mary Karr; Bloomington-Normal for his first secure position at Illinois State; and finally Pomona College, in Claremont, California, where he killed himself in 2008 at the age of 46. He emerged as a writer from a university-based avant-garde tradition, but was adopted at an early stage by the New York mainstream; he was sought after by editors of glossy magazines and touted in the media as a ‘voice of his generation’ from his early thirties onwards, photographed with his long hair and bandana and two big dogs. This combination of academic prestige and big city popularity is fairly rare, and it’s one reason Wallace’s canonisation in the US has proceeded so rapidly. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the line is Christina Stead’s but Wallace used it twice in his fiction and once in an essay, in reverse; Stead seems to have been misremembering or paraphrasing a line of Virginia Woolf’s about Henry James) grew out of D.T. Max’s post-mortem profile of Wallace for the New Yorker, and is very much the version of his life as seen from Times Square.
LRB 11 October 2012 | PDF Download