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.
In 1984, David Foster Wallace had his first short story, ‘The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing’ published in Amherst Review. Thereafter, he continued publishing short stories, many of which were later included in his first short-story collection, ‘Girl with Curious Hair’, published in August 1989.
On January 8, 1987, while he was still a student at Arizona, Wallace had his first novel, ‘Broom of the System’, published. It received mixed reviews but impressed critics, making him nationally well-known. Later in the same year, he enrolled in Harvard University for a PhD program in philosophy.
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Wallace never completed his doctoral work; and he tried to kill himself with an overdose of medicines, possibly in 1989. Later in the same year, he was admitted to Boston's McLean Hospital and placed in a facility for alcoholics and depressives.
Although the program at McLean cured his addiction, he found that he could not write anymore. Moreover, he was advised against rejoining Harvard University, and was told that if he did not stay away from drugs and alcohol, he would be dead by the age of 30.
In November 1989, after staying at McLean for one month, Wallace was referred to Granada House, a halfway house in Massachusetts, where he soon experienced a marked improvement in his condition. Later, he recounted his experiences at the halfway house in his bestselling novel, ‘Infinite Jest’.
At Granada, he once again started writing, spending his afternoons in a literally pursuit. In the morning, he worked as a guard in Lotus Development, a local software company, in order to satisfy the Granada House’s stipulation of 40-hour work week.
After leaving Granada House, Wallace moved to Syracuse where he started writing ‘Infinite Jest’ in 1991. He published three short stories; 'Church Not Made With Hands', ‘Forever Overhead’,' and 'Order and Flux in Northampton' in the same year. Later that year, he joined Emerson College in Boston as adjunct professor in literature.
In 1993, he moved to Illinois State University, securing a position in its English department. In the same year, his short story, ‘Rabbit Resurrected’, was published in Harper’s and by December, he had submitted the draft of ‘Infinite Jest’.
‘Infinite Jest’ was published on 1 February 1996. Before that, three excerpts from the novel had been published in Harper’s and The New Yorker; ‘The Awakening of My Interest in Annular Systems’ in 1993, ‘Several Birds’ in 1994 and ‘An Interval’ in 1995.
In 1997, Wallace began researching for his next novel, which would eventually be published as ‘The Pale King’. In the same year, he had his first collection of nonfiction published titled, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments’. Concurrently, he continued to write short stories.
On May 28, 1999, he had 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' published, which was a collection of 23 short stories. In the following year, 12 of the so called "Interviews" were adapted into a stage play by Dylan McCullough. It was the first theatrical adaptation of his work.
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In 2000, he started writing ‘The Pale King’. However, throughout its writing period, it had working titles, such as ‘Glitterer’, ‘SJF (Sir John Feelgood)’, ‘Net of Gems’ and ‘What is Peoria For?’.
In 2002, Wallace moved to Claremont, California, securing the post of the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. There, he had a very light schedule, having to teach just one or two undergraduate courses per semester, allowing him to focus on writing.
In 2003, he published a different genre of work. The biook called, ‘Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity', examines the history of infinity and focuses primarily on the work of the 19th-century German mathematician, Georg Cantor.
In 2004, he published his third and last collection of short stories, ‘Oblivion: Stories’. The book, listed as a 2004 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, explores the nature of reality, dreams and trauma, selling 18 thousand hardcover copies in the very first year of its publication.
In 2005, Wallace had a collection of essays entitled, ‘Consider the Lobster and Other Essays’, published. In the same year, he was persuaded to deliver the commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.
Initially he had refused the offer because of his anxiety to speak in front of a crowd. His anxiety continued until May 21, 2005, the day commencement took place, referring to the event as "the big scary ceremony". He continued to edit his speech almost till the last hour.
Despite his hesitation, his speech, which touched upon various subjects like the importance of adjustment, empathy and loneliness, was highly acclaimed. It would later be reprinted in book form as ‘This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life’.
He continued to work on ‘The Pale King’, publishing excerpts from it in The New Yorker in 2007, and ‘The Compliance Branch’ in Harper’s in 2008. During this period, he also published several important essays, which received great critical acclaim.
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.