The Harry Ransom Center’s most popular literary archive, the David Foster Wallace collection, attracts a near-record number of visitors. While some read between the lines in an attempt to personally connect with the writer, there’s equal interest in the light his library sheds on his editing process, writing style and approach to reading fiction.
Wallace taught composition and literary theory to students at Emerson College, Illinois State University and Pomona College. By all accounts, he was a notoriously hard-assed but irresistibly personable professor, a tobacco chewer who kept a spit-filled cup on his desk and gave his home address to students.
While other published writers might treat teaching as a negligible sideline, Wallace took the task very seriously. He was notoriously obsessed with grammar, structure and diction, which earned him a spot on the usage board for the American Heritage Dictionary. His work, whether centered on state fairs, festivals or cruise ships, is inherently about the myriad ways in which we attempt to forge connections with those around us – and language, he felt, was as key to connection as physical presence.
“He could not just let moments go by in the classroom,” says researcher Eric Whiteside, “just perfunctorily prep the lessons then get out of there and write. Because there were humans in the room and because communication, whether it was oral of written, mattered to him.”
The HRC collection contains some of the books he used in class, many of which are covered in rainbows of inked annotations.
“If you look at his fiction, especially the fiction that he taught, you’ll see in the margin, he’ll write ‘do’ next to a block of text,” Whiteside explains. “[HRC curator Molly Schwartzburg] has an essay coming out about Wallace, about how the Ransom Center got the archive, how it was processed and why it’s organized, how it’s organized. And she writes in this essay, she couldn’t figure out what the ‘do’ meant. And I’m making the argument to her, that’s the teacher in him, he’s saying ‘do this passage.’“
Whiteside made this discovery while browsing through paperbacks in the collection. “The smoking gun here is page 140 of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where he actually wrote ‘do in class.’”
Other documents highlight his staggeringly acute attention to detail. The materials in the archive allow researchers to follow some works from manuscript to proof to publication to translation, with Wallace weighing in at every step to make corrections and substitutions.
The Infinite Jest folders especially illustrate this; as the massive novel faced heavy edits, Wallace provides justifications for preserving or cutting certain passages. When the book was printed with errors, he marked his copy up with corrections and sent it back to the publisher. And when Jest became a bestseller overseas, he paid close attention to translations.
“He’s responding to questions from the translators, especially the Italians, they have a lot of questions,” says Whiteside of the preserved correspondence. “He’s trying to parse out definitions to them, like ‘nerd.’ ‘Wedgie’ is a good one, apparently there’s no such thing as a wedgie in Italy. And he’ll say, well you can fix it this way, but you’ll kill the whole connotative value of it.”
While Wallace’s prose is often conversational, seeming to flow effortlessly and informally in sometimes pages-long sentences, heavily edited drafts show that word choice was a painstaking, precise process. Crossed-out, circled and carated options pepper many pages, each strikeout representing a discarded idea — and researchers are quick to search for meaning in every choice the writer made.
Biographer D.T. Max says, “[i]n an archive, the analogy between an author’s literary and physical remains is inescapable.” And as researchers continue to analyze materials in the HRC’s collection, we can expect to see an increase in personal studies of Wallace, and in the ways his story is examined.
“I think there’s a lot of biographical criticism done on a lot of writers, and a lot of that happens in archives, because researchers can look at drafts and also at the corresponding materials, like personal papers,” says Schwartzburg. “That kind of interest in a writer’s life is very common, and in fact one of the most common types of scholars we see here are biographers.”
The most eagerly anticipated product of these efforts is Max’s as-yet-untitled bio, due next year from Viking Books.
“It’s going to be a big deal,” explains researcher Matt Bucher. “Wallace has a really compelling biography and [Max’s] version’s going to be very interesting. I think people who don’t even care that much about his writing are interested in his story – partly because it ends in suicide, and it’s sad, but people want to know what led there. Even for hardcore fans, it’s hard to separate that out.”
Only in the archives, with Wallace’s own writing as a guide, can researchers really attempt objectivity. Jesse Klein at This Recording argues that “[a]rchives provide a fan with the opportunity to spend time with the author, with their private thoughts, with what they chose not to share. It gives the reader the chance to look at the raw data without a filter.”
And that’s the what’s beautiful about the Ransom Center: everyone enters with a blank slate, the material’s dots just waiting to be connected.
This post is part four 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, marginalia and more" for background on the collection, the Ransom Center and Wallace’s career. This series continues tomorrow with more information and photos from the archive.