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Fellows Find: Revelations hidden on post-its, in book flaps, and in the margins of the papers in David Foster Wallace’s archive

By Stephen Burn

Stephen J. Burn, a Reader in American Literature after 1945 at the University of Glasgow, visited the Ransom Center during the spring of 2011 to research his book-in-progress, Neurofiction: the Contemporary American Novel and the Brain (Don DeLillo/ David Foster Wallace). Burn’s research was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.


When I first visited the Harry Ransom Center in August of 2008, I wasn’t looking for David Foster Wallace. I’d just finished revising a book that read Wallace alongside his contemporaries Jonathan Franzen and Richard Powers (Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism), and was putting together a blueprint for a new book that I planned to build out of the Center’s archive of Don DeLillo’s assorted drafts and research materials. During  these hot late summer days I did come across a handful of letters that Wallace had sent DeLillo amid the older writer’s correspondence, but my mind was elsewhere: I glanced cursorily at them, ordered research copies, and went back into the 1970s time capsule of DeLillo’s clippings and notebooks. A month later, more or less simultaneously, a CD containing the reproductions I’d ordered arrived, and—to my total shock—Wallace ended his life in California.

In a state of disorientation, I loaded the CD in my basement office and scrolled through the documents. In the early letters it was easy to find the confident and gifted young writer I recognized from Wallace’s published works. How is this, for instance, as a first line to a writer you admire:

After I discovered an autographed copy of Libra under a discreet spotlight at his home and just about fell over sideways, Jon Franzen told me he’d had the hubris not only to write to you but to send you an unsolicited copy of one of his books, and that your response had been gracious.


<em>Players</em> by Don DeLillo.
Players by Don DeLillo.


In one juggling act of an opening line, Wallace manages to show off his ability for humorous observations in the sentence’s first clause, reassure DeLillo that they have an acquaintance in common in the second, and maintain a deferential formality in its final one. Later letters demonstrate not simply the extent to which Wallace was immersed in DeLillo’s work, but also the extent to which he tended to read DeLillo’s individual novels not as separate books, but rather as interconnected units in one totalizing narrative system: so, in 1993, he asks “is the kidder who drives Billy to Endor’s hole in [Ratner’s Star] the same kidder who drives Talerico into Dallas from the airport in [Running Dog]?” A decade later, he writes: “we can assume, I think, that you’re aware that [Americana’s] D. Bell and [Cosmopolis’s] E. Packer are the same age and live on what I’m pretty sure is the same block.” But reading this material in the Fall of 2008, a voice that I didn’t recognize from Wallace’s interviews or novels was also present, a voice marked by a much more desperate edge that confesses that “I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when I’m trying to write. I didn’t used to.”


Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s <em>Players</em>.
Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players.


When I came back to the Ransom Center in the spring of 2011, I was ostensibly still working on the DeLillo papers, but couldn’t help but be distracted by the boxes of Wallace material that the Center had acquired the previous year. Because I was shuttling between folders devoted to DeLillo and to Wallace, it was hard not to be struck by the differences in working methods between the two writers. DeLillo’s materials were meticulously gathered: he had obviously kept and carefully ordered successive drafts of his novels, with accompanying notebooks painstakingly documenting the research that underpinned each book and the various choices he had made along the way (right down to lists of alternatives for characters’ names). Perhaps the most extreme evidence of the extent to which he had curated his own materials came in my realization that he was still gathering clippings for Ratner’s Star—published in 1976—in September 1993. The shape of Wallace’s archive was radically different, thanks, in part, to the very different circumstances in which they arrived in Texas, but also surely stemming from root variations in Wallace’s and DeLillo’s work patterns. Nevertheless: while there are obvious gaps in the invaluable collection of Wallace’s working library—books we know he read and were vital to him are not here—and while key manuscripts are missing (he alludes to selling manuscripts to collectors early in his career, but they may be simply lost) or disordered, many of the real riches in this collection are in unexpected places. There are revealing responses to critic’s work written at the top of drafts of stories (“AO Scott saw into my character” he writes at the top of one page, with a famous NYRB piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in mind); plans for his final novel, with sometimes outlandish plot developments (such as the IRS spawning a huge food delivery service), can even be found scrawled in the red felt tip in the front of a copy of DeLillo’s Players; but most intriguing of all are the marginalia across the early drafts of Infinite Jest. At times in these notes, Wallace seems to be carrying on a dialogue with himself about the book’s eventual direction (“Did wraith explain this?” Wallace asks down the side of one draft of the novel’s vital scenes where a convalescent Don Gately listens to a ghostly voice in his head), but in others there are mouthwatering revelations about elements of the plot (the drug DMZ, relationships between characters, the novel’s fatally compelling movie) that remain tantalizingly out of reach in the version Wallace decided to publish. Though a scholar might wish that Wallace had been more of an archivist, or that he had clearer handwriting, 20 years after Infinite Jest’s publication not many will be dissatisfied with the revelations that are hidden on Post-its, in book flaps, and in the margins of the papers in Wallace’s archive.

Related content

Read more in our series commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Wallace’s papers are held in the Ransom Center’s collections.


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