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Who is David Foster Wallace?

David Foster Wallace was a visionary American writer, known for his profound and intricate narratives. His magnum opus, "Infinite Jest," redefined contemporary literature with its complex themes and unique style. Wallace's work continues to challenge and inspire readers, inviting them to explore the depths of human experience. How has his legacy influenced modern storytelling? Join us as we explore his impact.
Britt Archer
Britt Archer

Novelist David Foster Wallace’s life seemed to be a scene from a great American tale — full of unique experiences, unsurpassed opportunity and a tragic ending. It seemed that from a young age, he was on the path to become an author. Born in 1962 to an English teacher and a philosopher, David Foster Wallace spent most of his childhood writing stories and playing tennis.

David Foster Wallace studied at Amherst College, where his father was an alumnus, concentrating in the fields of English, philosophy and mathematics. His senior English thesis provided the basis for his first novel, The Broom of the System, a surreal journey through what some would consider mundane activities. For this and his philosophy thesis, he became an award winner, taking home the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize.

David Foster Wallace covered Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run for Rolling Stone.
David Foster Wallace covered Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run for Rolling Stone.

Wallace then studied at the University of Arizona, where he achieved a master’s degree in creative writing in 1987. It was about this time that he began to send his stories to publishers. Many were accepted, and in 1989 a collection was issued entitled The Girl With Curious Hair.

In 1996, his 1,079 page novel, Infinite Jest, was released. It had taken him three years to write, and it garnered him the most commercial success of his career. Fans and critics alike hailed it for his poignant style and subtle use of imagery, and in 1997, David Foster Wallace was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship.

Infinite Jest, which centers on two main characters — a gifted tennis player and a recovering drug addict and thief — is almost autobiographical. There are long descriptions of panic attacks, the decadence of modern American culture and gritty depictions of what it is like to live in today's world. David Foster Wallace spared nothing in his observations, whether they were of himself or the world around him. He also dabbled in non-fiction, covering both John McCain's first presidential campaign in 2000 and the 9/11 tragedy for Rolling Stone. In the series of articles, he never shied away from his use of irony, grit and realism, often falling to one side or the other of a precarious political boundary, but always managing to draw in his readers.

In an interview with the New York Times, David Foster Wallace’s father announced that his son had battled depression for more than two decades. Most who knew him agreed that the medication Nardil, which he had taken for a few years, had allowed him to be both happy and productive. However, in 2007, at the recommendation of his doctor, he ceased taking it to pursue other treatment options, including electro-convulsive therapy.

The treatment left him in a state of anxiety. He contacted the human resources department at Pomona College, where he taught creative writing, and took a medical leave of absence for one semester, during which he spent time with his wife and family. His family noticed his condition worsening, and on 12 September 2008, David Foster Wallace took his own life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was David Foster Wallace and why is he significant in literature?

David Foster Wallace was an influential American writer, best known for his novel "Infinite Jest," which is considered one of the great American novels of the late 20th century. His work is renowned for its intricate structure, deep exploration of philosophical themes, and a unique blend of highbrow intellectualism with colloquial speech. Wallace's writing often grapples with themes of depression, addiction, and the complexities of modern life. His impact on contemporary literature is profound, with many authors citing him as a major influence.

What are some of David Foster Wallace's most notable works?

David Foster Wallace's most notable works include the sprawling novel "Infinite Jest," which received widespread critical acclaim for its innovation and depth. His other significant works are "The Pale King," an unfinished novel published posthumously, and "Consider the Lobster," a collection of essays that showcase his versatility and insight as a non-fiction writer. His first novel, "The Broom of the System," also garnered attention for its originality and wit.

How did David Foster Wallace's background influence his writing?

David Foster Wallace's background in philosophy and English literature, having completed an advanced degree in philosophy and taught English at several universities, deeply influenced his writing. His philosophical knowledge is evident in his work's exploration of existential questions and the human condition. Additionally, his own struggles with depression and addiction provided a raw, authentic perspective on these issues, which became a recurring theme in his writing.

What is the legacy of David Foster Wallace in the field of literature?

David Foster Wallace's legacy in literature is marked by his innovative narrative techniques, his ability to blend high and low culture, and his profound impact on the psychological and emotional landscape of his readers. His work has inspired a generation of writers to explore complex themes with a similar level of intellectual rigor and emotional honesty. Wallace's essays and speeches, particularly his famous commencement speech "This is Water," continue to influence readers with their insightful commentary on life and society.

How has David Foster Wallace's work been received by critics and scholars?

David Foster Wallace's work has been widely praised by critics and scholars for its originality, depth, and linguistic prowess. "Infinite Jest" was included in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. His work has been the subject of numerous academic studies and is often discussed in the context of postmodern literature. Despite some debate over his complex narrative style, Wallace's contributions to literature are generally celebrated for their brilliance and humanity.

For further reading on David Foster Wallace and his works, you can visit the Los Angeles Times' collection of articles and reviews at, which provides a comprehensive look at his life, his writings, and their impact on contemporary literature.

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    • David Foster Wallace covered Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run for Rolling Stone.
      David Foster Wallace covered Republican candidate Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run for Rolling Stone.