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The Pale King: Completing (and complementing) the David Foster Wallace collection

The Pale King: Completing (and complementing) the David Foster Wallace collection

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Page 1 of corrected proof of David Foster Wallace's 1996 essay on the U.S. Open for Tennis Magazine. Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay "Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise" for Harper's magazine. Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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"Attempted Fax Cover Sheet" from David Foster Wallace to Joel Lovell of Harper's for Wallace's 1998 essay "Laughing with Kafka." Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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Letter and notes from editor Michael Pietsch to David Foster Wallace regarding draft of Infinite Jest, dated Dec. 22, 1994. Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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Letter and notes from editor Michael Pietsch to David Foster Wallace regarding draft of Infinite Jest, dated Dec. 22, 1994. Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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Letter from Jim Harrison to David Foster Wallace, dated late July 2006. The letter was tucked inside a copy of Jim Harrison's book Saving Daylight. Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
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After acquiring cult author David Foster Wallace’s personal library last year, the Harry Ransom Center has enjoyed a marked increase in publicity and popularity. As researchers continue to flock to the HRC, curators are already working to acquire related material.

They’ll be doing it without the guidance of director Thomas Staley, who has announced his retirement; August 31, 2011, will mark the end of his wildly successful tenure at the University of Texas.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg will be continuing with business as usual.

“We’ve already made several Wallace-related acquisitions since we acquired the Wallace papers proper,” she says. “There are various other small collections that have been donated or sold to us by people connected to Wallace; for instance, we just got Bonnie Nadell’s agent correspondence. We’ve received a set of usage ballots from the dictionary for whom he sat on the usage board. I’m hoping that we will continue to acquire related materials, because it would be great for researchers to have as much material in one place as possible.”

Targeting future acquisitions is in line with Staley’s proven methodology, centered on creating thematic “nodes” within the HRC’s complete archives. Much as Don DeLillo and Wallace’s lengthy letters now live under the same, temperature-controlled roof, curators hope that the collection will someday include a wealth of supplementary documents.

The HRC will continue to promote projects that focus on primary sources, embracing materials requests from devoted researchers. 

“We’ve gotten lots and lots of emails from people all over the country and beyond who want to study the collection, who are ordering copies of materials, research copies, from far away for projects that are underway,” says Schwartzburg. “One thing that’s been unusual, we’ve had a lot of undergraduate researchers contact us, who are writing their senior theses on Wallace, and they come from institutions nationwide to do undergraduate research in the archive. We’re seeing people working with the archive from the beginning of their academic careers, and that’s wonderful.”

While the endless parade of visitors is a boon for the archive, can the material itself handle the attention? Constant handling can damage the carefully preserved papers, and some boxes are checked out on a near-daily basis.

“We are digitizing quite a bit of the collection in order to make a second copy available in the reading room for researchers who are here at the same time as other researchers,” Schwartzburg explains, “but because of copyright, none of that material will be visible outside of our reading room. That’s one of the challenges of contemporary archives, that we can’t make it available on the web the way we might, say, Edgar Allen Poe.”

Exclusive access to such a sought-after collection cements the HRC’s role as a must-visit destination for literary scholars.

“It’s a really valuable thing,” Wallace scholar Matt Bucher says of the collection, “and it’s going to be interlinked with the identity of the Ransom Center for a long time. They’re still coping with this — every day they have people looking at this stuff. Half the people in there sometimes are there for the Wallace collection.”

The return of The Pale King will definitely cause another flurry of interest. The 3,000 page manuscript – which was unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death – is temporarily in custody of editor Michael Pietsch, who whittled the novel down to a publishable 560 pages. Scholars are eager to go through the thousands that didn’t make the cut. Next year, after the novel’s paperback release, the boxes will return to the HRC for cataloging.

It’s worth noting that a main draw of the manuscript is it’s position in the Wallace canon; his final work, it was also reportedly his most difficult writing effort, one he spent nearly a decade on.

Ultimately, the HRC will continue to benefit from this purchase “It’s going to continue getting state-level and local-level media attention,” Bucher assures. “As more people spend time with the archives, I think it’s going to become synonymous with the words ‘The Ransom Center.’”

Suggested Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about David Foster Wallace, here are some great places to start:

The Howling Fantods

The most complete digital library on Wallace, containing links to publically available archived work (for the hardcore, try out Wallace-l, a listserv for fans to distribute and discuss writings and ideas).

The David Foster Wallace Audio Project

A collection of interviews, readings and hard-to-find audiobooks, this frequently updated site also collects audio tributes to Wallace.

Harper’s Magazine PDF Collection

A selection of pieces published in Harper’s, which includes “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage,” “The Depressed Person” and “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.”

“The Unfinished” (The New Yorker, 3/9/2009)

If you’re eagerly anticipating D.T. Max’s forthcoming Wallace biography, this comprehensive profile should hold you over.

Infinite Jest Tour of Boston

A reference map of several Boston landmarks mentioned in Infinite Jest.