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The Legacy of David Foster Wallace

Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou

Publication Year: 2012

 Considered by many to be the greatest writer of his generation, David Foster Wallace was at the height of his creative powers when he committed suicide in 2008. In a sweeping portrait of Wallace’s writing and thought and as a measure of his importance in literary history, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace gathers cutting-edge, field-defining scholarship by critics alongside remembrances by many of his writer friends, who include some of the world’s most influential authors.


In this elegant volume, literary critics scrutinize the existing Wallace scholarship and at the same time pioneer new ways of understanding Wallace’s fiction and journalism. In critical essays exploring a variety of topics—including Wallace’s relationship to American literary history, his place in literary journalism, his complicated relationship to his postmodernist predecessors, the formal difficulties of his 1996 magnum opus Infinite Jest, his environmental imagination, and the “social life” of his fiction and nonfiction—contributors plumb sources as diverse as Amazon.com reader recommendations, professional book reviews, the 2009 Infinite Summer project, and the David Foster Wallace archive at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center.


The creative writers—including Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and David Lipsky, and Wallace’s Little, Brown editor, Michael Pietsch—reflect on the person behind the volumes of fiction and nonfiction created during the author’s too-short life.


All of the essays, critical and creative alike, are written in an accessible style that does not presume any background in Wallace criticism. Whether the reader is an expert in all things David Foster Wallace, a casual fan of his fiction and nonfiction, or completely new to Wallace, The Legacy of David Foster Wallace will reveal the power and innovation that defined his contribution to literary life and to self-understanding. This illuminating volume is destined to shape our understanding of Wallace, his writing, and his place in history.


Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. ix-ix

The editors would like to thank the contributors to this volume for letting us bring together their words on Wallace’s words and their words on Wallace. The intensity of their engagement with his life’s work, their appreciation and love for it, drove our desire to put together . . .

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Introduction: Zoologists, Elephants, and Editors

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pp. xi-xxv

Editing a collection of academic essays is a pretty complicated thing. As an editor, you get to modify and frame the work of other writers, to mediate that work’s entry into the world, to say what it all means, especially in introductions like this one. And yet, if you’re a good editor, . . .

Part 1: History

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All Swallowed Up: David Foster Wallace and American Literature

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pp. 3-22

The idea of “American Literature” as an area of professional expertise has had a checkered history. When this academic field was first mooted in the late nineteenth century, as Gerald Graff has observed, it tended to be regarded condescendingly by the Ivy League establishment as . . .

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Informal Remarks from the David Foster Wallace Memorial Service in New York on October 23, 2008

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pp. 23-24

Infinity. This is the subject of David Wallace’s book on the mathematics, the philosophy, and the history of a vast, beautiful, abstract concept. There are references in the book to Zeno’s dichotomy and Goldbach’s conjecture, to Hausdorff’s maximal principle. There is also . . .

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Getting Away from It All: The Literary Journalism of David Foster Wallace and Nietzsche’s Concept of Oblivion

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pp. 25-52

On a dry Saturday morning in late May 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College in central Ohio. He sought to tell them why their liberal arts degree had “actual human value instead of just a material payoff” . . .

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Informal Remarks from the David Foster Wallace Memorial Service in New York on October 23, 2008

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pp. 53-55

A few years back I was flying out to California, reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I found the book was doing weird things to my mind and body. Suddenly, up there over the Midwest, I felt agitated and flinchy, on the brink of tears. When I tried to describe what was . . .

Part 2: Aesthetics

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To Wish to Try to Sing to the Next Generation: Infinite Jest’s History

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pp. 59-79

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, his death became part of his legacy. The fact of his suicide illuminates his work for some readers but threatens to overshadow it for others. The difference between these two reactions is in part about the tension . . .

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Tribute Written for Wallace Family Memorial Book, 2008

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pp. 80-82

I had a younger brother’s awe about David, because he was so graceful and hilarious and solicitous in person — as well as intellectually imposing. I treasure the times I got to spend with . . .

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No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief

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pp. 83-112

The American 1990s saw the reinvigoration of two popular eschatological visions, the first explicitly Christian — associated with the new right — the second socioeconomic but no less millenarian in temper. In the fall of 1989, in the National Interest, Francis Fukuyama published . . .

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An Interview with David Foster Wallace

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pp. 113-117

I think books used to be real important parts of the cultural conversation, in a way that they aren’t anymore. And the fact that Rolling Stone, which is a pretty important mainstream magazine, doesn’t cover them that much anymore says a lot. Not so much about . . .

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Infinite Jest’s Environmental Case for Disgust

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pp. 118-142

“The contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic and stupid” (McCaffery 131). In stark terms, David Foster Wallace assesses the bleak condition that he is handed and determines that, in the face of it, the . . .

Foreword to Tenth Anniversary Edition of Infinite Jest

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pp. 143-148

Part 3: Community

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Becoming Yourself: The Afterlife of Reception

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pp. 151-176

If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a . . .

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Informal Remarks from the David Foster Wallace Memorial Service in New York on October 23, 2008

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pp. 177-181

Like a lot of writers, but even more than most, Dave loved to be in control of things. He was easily stressed by chaotic social situations. I only ever twice saw him go to a party without Karen. One of them, hosted by Adam Begley, I almost physically had to drag him to, . . .

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Infinite Summer:Reading, Empathy, and the Social Network

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pp. 182-207

Some years ago, in the conclusion to The Anxiety of Obsolescence, I wrote about David Foster Wallace’s representations of television in Infinite Jest. Throughout the book, I’d focused on the ways that earlier . . .

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On Editing David Foster Wallace: An Interview

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pp. 208-217

A: The first piece of David’s that I read was the story “Lyndon” in Arrivals magazine. Someone must have told me to check it out, it’s not a magazine that I read regularly. Probably it was his agent, Bonnie Nadell, who had advised me that . . .

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Consider the Footnote

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pp. 218-240

David Foster Wallace loved and battled over footnotes. Throughout his writing, he relied on them as metanarratives, employing footnotes for commentary, criticism, cultural history, autobiography, formulas, digressions, . . .

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Conclusion: Observations on the Archive at the Harry Ransom Center

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pp. 241-259

The papers and library of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in late 2009. As curator of the British and American literature collections at the Ransom Center, I have watched these materials travel through the stages of . . .

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 261-263


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pp. 265-266


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pp. 267-270

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381042
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609380823

Publication Year: 2012