Harry Ransom Center director Thomas F. Staley is an acquisitions guru. He explained one of his guiding philosophies to The New Yorker in 2007: “Ten percent of an archive represents ninety percent of its value.”
The David Foster Wallace collection, in particular, exemplifies this. Manuscripts, notebooks, titles from his personal library – nearly all the material in his archive is heavily annotated, sometimes clearly marked from several different readings. The library's most fascinating information doesn’t come from the words printed on the page but from Wallace’s handwritten notes.
From his published works, readers see that Wallace was a man whose thoughts seemed to come like hurricane-force waves, roiling and rushing and one on top of the other.
In a 2009 profile of Wallace’s career, writer D.T. Max explains: “His novels were overstuffed with facts, humor, digressions, silence, and sadness. He conjured the world in two-hundred-word sentences that mixed formal diction and street slang, technicalese and plain speech; his prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself.”
Meandering thoughts were often relegated to footnotes, endnotes or parenthetical asides, and looking through stacks of handwritten drafts, it’s common to see phrases and paragraphs amended, crossed out and re-written all on the same page. “He’s very brutal with himself, thinking about what’s going on and making changes from draft to draft to draft,” explains Eric Whiteside, a high school teacher from South Carolina who spent time with the materials earlier this summer. “There’s just essays waiting to be written, those kinds of examinations.”
Whiteside is one of the lucky few to receive a research fellowship from the HRC, allowing him to travel to Texas to study. His interest lies in two connected areas: one, Wallace’s teaching (he was the Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College), and two, his well-documented obsession with grammatology.
“There’s not really, in the grand scheme of things, much in the collection. It’s just really dense,” he says of the archive’s breadth. “Some of the things that are interesting to me are the things that aren’t there. I realize they can’t just walk in and say ‘I want.’ There’s nothing from his creative writing days. A couple of things he wrote there were published but never collected, and there’s a complete absence of that in the files.”
But he’s learned that, while the exact titles he’s looking for may not have been included in the stacks received by the HRC, Wallace’s disorganization may actually be an asset. For example, additional notes on “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” the Harper’s essay that eventually anchored non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, turned up in the most unexpected place.
“While he’s on that cruise he’s reading Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky biography, volume four,” notes Whiteside. “Which isn’t anywhere in the essay, but when you look in the Dostoyevsky bio, on the front page, there’s tons of information about the cruise; the towel boy, just all kind of different things going on. Skeet shooting gets referenced on the inside of that cover.”
Digging into the archive, we quickly see that this style of note-taking was common for Wallace.
“It’s real fascinating to look at inside covers,” Whiteside continues, “that’s where a lot of stuff happens.”
Another observation from the archives sheds light on Wallace’s non-linear outlining habits.
“The interesting work to be done, if someone has a lot of time, is threading through all the Pale King ideas that are floating around as early as ‘96, ’97,” says Whiteside. “They show up as little things, in margins or covers, just ideas. [Main character] Leonard Stecyk shows up in ‘97, on the inside of a book cover, and it’s something that doesn’t make it into The Pale King – Stecyk gets mugged, figured out who did it and wonders, does he use the IRS to retaliate? That early, there’s several novels that have these kinds of notes on the covers.”
How do you accurately catalogue materials when these personal and professional notes are virtually indistinguishable from one another?
“It’s complicated deciding what constitutes a library,” curator Molly Schwartzburg explains, “because we only received 300 of Wallace’s books. His estate gave away a lot of unmarked-up books before they sold us the collection, so we received a handpicked collection of books that were heavily annotated and they felt contributed to a better understanding of his writing. So it’s only a partial library, but we call it a library just as any author library is partial. I would say that the Wallace library is the most heavily annotated of all our author libraries by far, and it’s most distinctive for that quality.“
This is the goal of the archive: to enhance the meaning of the writer’s work, and to provide researchers with access to information that’s unavailable anywhere else. And scholars are jumping at the chance to be among the first wave to make that connection with Wallace.
This post is part two in a weeklong exploration of the Harry Ransom Center’s David Foster Wallace collection. See previous posts, “The Guy With Curious Prose: David Foster Wallace and the Harry Ransom Center and "Infinite Files: Making sense of David Foster Wallace's manuscripts and marginalia" for background.
This series continues tomorrow, and we’ll be posting new information and photos from the archive every day this week.