David Foster Wallace was a noted American author and university instructor. Wallace was a cheerful and funny child and good student. He also played tennis, participating in several tournaments across the state. But at some point in his middle school, he started developing an anxiety disorder and started taking drugs. By the time Wallace entered college, he had become a full-blown addict and began to suffer from depression, missing two full semesters because of it, but excelling academically between the attacks. His first novel was published while he was still a student of creative writing in Arizona. But while working on his doctoral thesis at Harvard, he had a breakdown, having to spend some time at a halfway house. He wrote an encyclopedic novel, ‘Infinite Jest’, after being released from there. The 1996 novel is one of the most celebrated English-language books of our times. Concurrently, he also started teaching and by the time he committed suicide at the age of 46, he had several books to his credit.
Childhood & Early Years
David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962 in Ithaca, New York, USA. His father James Donald Wallace is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Illinois while his mother Sally Jean née Foster was a professor of English at Parkland College, Champaign.
Wallace was the oldest of his parents’ two children. His sister Amy Wallace-Havens is two years his junior. He loved teasing her, knowing very well how to make her hysterical. Much later, Amy lovingly mentioned him as “benevolently sadistic, if that makes any sense at all”.
The Wallace siblings grew up in a liberal academic household in Urbana, Illinois. Their TV time was restricted to two hours each day and one ‘Wild West’ kind of show per week. When David objected, his father encouraged him to write intra-family memo, inducing a flair for writing early in his childhood.
His early writings, now housed in the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, include two interesting poems written about his mother. Later however, he moved to prose, writing fictions like ‘Ralph and the Legal Milestone’ in his senior year in high school.
As a child, he also invented a game called, ‘Captain Phlegm and his trusty sidekick, Goat Bile’, amusing himself by playing both parts during long winter days. Amy often begged him to let her play Goat Bile, but he always refused.
In Urbana, Wallace began his education at Yankee Ridge Elementary School, later moving to Urbana High School, from where he graduated in 1980. He was a good student and earned perfect grades at school, also reading a lot of books, especially ‘Hardy Boys’ and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.
During his middle school years, he began playing tennis. A very competitive player, he soon started attending competitions all over Illinois, achieving a regional ranking. While traveling by car to different destinations, he came in close contact with the state’s topography and fell in love with it.
These tennis trips, undertaken without adult supervision, introduced him to drugs and alcohol. By then, he had begun to develop a self-loathing, leading to occasional anxiety attacks. In some of the early notes, which came to light after his death, he wrote “ankles too thin, calves not muscular enough” and "Thighs squnch (sic) out repulsively."
By the time, Walace was in his senior school, he had started smoking pots. He also started having sweating attacks, which embarrassed him greatly. As an antidote, he started carrying a towel and a tennis racket, as if to show that he was just back from the court.
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In 1980, David Foster Wallace graduated from school and enrolled in Amherst College, doing double major in English and philosophy. There he began to flourish as a scholar, pursuing modal logic and mathematics in philosophy, concurrently participating in the glee club. He soon became very popular among the students.
Despite his popularity at Amherst, he continued to suffer from recurring bouts of depression. In his sophomore year, he suddenly left for home, stunning his family, which did not have any inkling of his condition. Nonetheless, he returned to college after a series of therapy sessions and medication.
While at Amherst College, he lost two full semesters due to his depression, with the third attack occurring immediately after his graduation in the summer of 1985. This time, he was admitted to a psychiatric unit where he was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed antidepressants.
In between the attacks, Wallace continued to excel academically, writing ‘Richard Taylor’s Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality’ as his philosophy thesis. He received Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize for it. In 2011, the thesis was published as ‘Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will’.
For his thesis in English, he submitted ‘The Great Ohio Desert’, which was eventually published as his first novel, ‘Broom of the System’. Till then, he did not have any literally ambition; planning to follow his parents into an academic career.
In his senior year at Amherst, one of his professors commented that his philosophy writing had the quality of unfolding story. It made him consider a career in writing. After his graduation in 1985, he got admission in the University of Arizona to pursue creative writing, getting his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1987.
David Foster Wallace is best remembered for his 1996 novel, ‘Infinite Jest’. The work touches upon various subjects, including addiction, withdrawal and recovery. A literally bestseller, it sold 44,000 copies in the first year of its publication. It found a place in Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
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Awards & Achievement
In 1987, David Foster Wallace received Whiting Award.
In 1996, he received Time’s Magazine’s Best Book of the Year (Fiction) award, Salon Book Award (Fiction) and Lannan Literary Award (Fiction).
In 1997, he received Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
Family & Personal Life
In 1990s, David Foster Wallace became infatuated with poet and essayist, Mary Karr, even planning to murder her husband, Michael Milburn. Later, he had a short, but tumulus relationship with her.
In 2002, he met painter Karen L. Green, who according to his sister Amy, was able to provide some kind of stability in his life. They got married on December 27, 2004 and did not have any children.
Suffering from major depressive disorders for more than 20 years, Wallace regularly took antidepressant on medical advice. But from 2007, the medication started showing its side effects and therefore he stopped taking it on medical advice. He instead tried other methods to control his depression.
When everything failed, he decided to end his life. On September 12, 2008, he wrote a two-page suicide note, arranged the manuscript of ‘The Pale King’ in such way that it would be easily found and hanged himself from a rafter.
On April 15, 2011, ‘The Pale King’ was published posthumously by his widow Karen. Although incomplete at the time of his death, the novel was one of the three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Wallace never used ATM machine because he did not feel at ease with it.