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Who is David Foster Wallace?

By Britt Archer
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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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.

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.

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