David Foster Wallace Biography

Writer (1962–2008)
David Foster Wallace was a maximalist writer known for his novel Infinite Jest and dozens of non-fiction magazine pieces, among other works.


Born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962, David Foster Wallace wrote dazzling journalistic pieces, short stories and novels, becoming best known for his second novel, Infinite Jest (1996), a massive, multi-layered work. Critics found Wallace's dense writing both exhilarating and maddening, and his style and virtuosity drew comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Wallace's lifelong struggle with depression came to an end in September 2008, when he committed suicide.

Early Life and Education

David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York. (Fittingly, his father was a philosophy professor and his mother was an English teacher.) His family moved to Illinois when he was young, and Wallace picked up tennis, becoming a regionally ranked player (and lifelong fan). He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and wrote the novel The Broom of the System as his senior English thesis. He was an English/philosophy double major, and his philosophy studies focused on modal logic.

While at Amherst, what was a recurring affliction really came to the fore: Wallace's depression became severe, and he had to leave school several times in attempts to recover. Between these episodes, Wallace was a stellar student, and his intellect became well-known on campus. He also fell into regular bouts of drinking and pot-smoking to combat the depression, but the combination oftentimes made his condition worse.

The Published Author

Wallace received his B.A. and then headed to the University of Arizona to pursue a master's degree in creative writing. In 1987, while Wallace was still in graduate school, The Broom of the System was published to mixed but impressed critical reviews. The book put him firmly on the literary map, also making him something of a rock star in his graduate program. Another development from his Arizona years was that he began thinking his substance use was problematic and attended group meetings for addiction.

A dense, intellectual collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, would appear next, in 1989. Once finished with Arizona, Wallace, never one to stay put for long, was accepted into another graduate program, this time in philosophy at Harvard University. He soon left, however, and moved to Syracuse to be near novelist and poet Mary Karr, with whom he had a relationship.

Syracuse is where Wallace would do much of the writing for his next novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace's own past—from drug use and abuse to 12-step programs to tennis—would form the backbone of the immense novel (it clocks in at nearly 1,100 pages with 330 footnotes), which would go on to nearly universal acclaim, landing on "best of" lists nationwide. Set in the near future, the novel is a sprawling commentary on consumerism, addiction and art, and has drawn comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and William Gaddis.

After 'Infinite Jest'

Wallace was a hot commodity after Infinite Jest was released, and he began taking on journalistic assignments from national literary magazines such as Harper's and the Atlantic, using his maximalist style to reinvent the magazine article. Wallace stuck with shorter (relatively speaking) pieces generally, and several collections of fiction and non-fiction appeared over the course of his career, including A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion (2004).

Wallace was busy teaching as well, holding posts at Emerson College, Illinois State University and Pomona College. Along the way, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and a Whiting Writers' Award.

In the end, Wallace couldn't escape the depression that had plagued him for 20 years, and he committed suicide on September 12, 2008, in Claremont, California. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.

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