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How the David Foster Wallace archive found a home at the Ransom Center

By Megan Barnard

Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.

Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.

We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.

Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.

Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.


Dan Summers

You have my heartiest congratulations and thanks for your acquisition and preservation of this archive. As one of Wallace’s innumerable devoted readers, it is comforting to know that his genius and his work will have a permanent home for perpetuity.

Elizabeth Wong

This is SUCH great news! I am so proud to be a student at such a great university with an amazing place like the Ransom Center. Thank you so much for acquiring the work of such a wonderful and dearly missed author. I hope there will be opportunities to view his archives!

Ann Adams Cleary

Thank you, Dr. Staley–you continue to have a genius for exciting academic acquistions! I’m much more a DFW fan than I ever was of Joyce, and I truly look forward to future visits to Austin and the wonderful HRC.

Susan Van Pelt

Thank you, Dr. Staley! I’ll be visiting the Ransom Center as soon as possible once the bulk of the Wallace archive becomes available. I hope the Wallace estate is satisfied with this acquisition and the Ransom Center’s plans for it as well.

Jason Hammel

Can I ask if student correspondence is included in the collection? I have several letters, mostly in the form of responses to things we wrote in class, some many pages of single spaced writing, that I think show a lot about who David was as a person, a teacher, and a lover of English. We all do. I think there are others out there who have even more. Just a thought. And thank you. This makes me remember him in a way that the published works don’t.

Megan Barnard

In response to your question, Jason Hammel, I have not seen any correspondence between Wallace and his students in the collection, but the archive is still being cataloged, and we’ll know more about its contents when that process is complete.

We would certainly be interested in learning more about the letters you and others have from David Foster Wallace. Please feel free to contact me at


To Jason: maybe you could make a contribution! You had him as a teacher at Ponoma? Please enlighten us!

Michael Y Moon

Congratulations on a wonderful acquisition and thank you for your willingness to preserve the DFW archive. I look forward to hearing any news about plans to digitize and make available through the Internet some of these materials.

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