Imagine if you could pick up Jim Morrison’s guitar and play it,” says David Foster Wallace researcher Matt Bucher, “or read his handwritten diaries; that’s sacred.“
Wallace is one of few modern authors to inspire the kind of fanatic devotion that’s usually reserved for rock stars. “I do get a little shocked sometimes,” Bucher continues, “when I’m sitting in that reading room holding his white notebook paper, or handwritten Infinite Jest pages.“
For those who visit the Harry Ransom Center, being so close to the manuscripts, journals and paperbacks that make up Wallace’s library can be overwhelming – but what’s more jarring is the intensely personal nature of many notes scattered throughout the documents.
“As you’re weeding through his stuff,” explains teacher Eric Whiteside, “say you’re looking through the handwritten draft of Infinite Jest, and – 20 pages in, 40 pages in – there’s this little, tiny handwriting up in the margin, and he writes: ‘I am a meaningless person.’ There’s a little note, relating to nothing on the page, where he writes, ‘I’m scared to death. I am a MacArthur fellow, I feel like I could throw up.’“
Certain facts about Wallace are widely known: his tumultuous long-term relationship with memoirist Mary Karr, for example, is documented both in her book Lit and on his arm, where a heart-circled “Mary” was inked (later, when Wallace married artist Karen Green, he crossed Karr’s name out, adding an asterisked footnote below: “*Karen.”) Wallace’s struggle with substance abuse has become an integral part of the DFW myth, with researchers working to connect the many imagess of recovery group culture in his work with his real-life stints in hospitals and halfway houses around Boston (where he lived for several years, first studying philosophy at Harvard, then teaching writing at Emerson College.)
These things are known despite the fact that Wallace never publicly discussed or wrote about his own addictions or depression. The archives, then, contain Wallace’s most unguarded writing – his scribbled conversations with himself.
“We do often see a big jump in interest in something when we acquire a collection,” notes Molly Schwartzburg, the HRC’s Cline Curator of Literature. “Norman Mailer spurred a lot of interest because his collection is so diverse, and his career was so diverse and so long, we had people with a wide range of interests – not just in Mailer himself – contacting us. Wallace has been different in scale, and everyone’s interested in him.”
It’s a lot like detective work, combing through the notes that appear apropos of nothing throughout the books and papers in the collection. And the chance to participate in this kind of emotionally charged, interactive sleuthing is irresistible to fans.
“You see his coffee stains, you see his doodles,” Bucher says of the Infinite Jest manuscripts. “He’s got stuff in the margins like ‘I am sad,’ ‘I love Mary Karr,’ and notes about AA meetings. You really get a sense of someone struggling to produce this massive work of art.”
Earlier this year, writer Maria Bustillos visited the HRC with a very specific mission: to explore a set of self-help books in the collection’s otherwise more literary library.
Bustillos followed Wallace’s reading of pop psychology paperbacks and uncovered a wealth of biographical material; the marginalia peppered throughout titles like The Drama of the Gifted Child is full of cryptic, abbreviated references to personal events and memories (many relating to Wallace’s relationship with his immediate family).
Fascinated, but conflicted, at a certain point Bustillos notes, “When I was reading this I felt very bad. Like my hair was standing on end, thinking how this literary sleuthing is also just prying. But I am also glad I read what I did,” she concludes, because it ultimately helped her better understand the author.
“What seems to be common with Wallace scholars is people feel an emotional connection to Wallace,” Schwartzburg explains, “as opposed to an intellectual connection. Or, deeply entwined with an intellectual connection. People tend to speak to me or to the staff about the personal relationship they feel with the writer. And that’s something that’s been quite striking about how researchers are approaching their projects; even if the project is very grounded in a specific theoretical question, their experience of working with the manuscripts is very personal.”
There are, too, those who believe it’s necessary to approach the collection with a sort of guarded, academic distance, to avoid the illusive promise that closeness to these primary materials equals closeness to the author himself. Because (for example) there’s no way of knowing whether notes about “DW” are self-referential or perhaps notes on the fictionalized David Wallace, who appears as a character in both “Good Old Neon” and The Pale King.
While the materials raise many questions, Wallace researchers who visit Texas come away from the HRC armed with scores of discoveries and promising leads to follow. So one thing is certain: as these papers inspire more heated debates over scholarship and biography, the University of Texas is firmly anchored at the forefront of a growing field of study.
This post is part two in a weeklong exploration of the Harry Ransom Center’s David Foster Wallace collection. See previous post, “The Guy With Curious Prose: David Foster Wallace and the Harry Ransom Center,” for background on the collection, the Ransom Center and Wallace’s career. This series continues tomorrow, and we’ll be posting new information and photos from the archive every day this week.