Biography of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca New, York, where his father James Wallace was a graduate student of philosophy at Cornell. After earning his degree, James moved his family to Champagne-Urbana, Illinois where he was offered a professorship at the University of Illinois. Sally Foster, David Foster Wallace's mother, earned a graduate English degree in Illinois and was, in the fashion of Avril Incandenza in Wallace's Infinite Jest, an avid (and rabid) grammarian, later writing a textbook entitled Practically Painless English. Coming from a household of intellectuals, Wallace's parents read literature to him and his sister from a young age.

Wallace played and excelled as a junior tennis player in Illinois, where he was regionally ranked. He attended college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and majored in philosophy and English. He graduated with high honors and his English thesis, a novel entitled The Broom of the System, was published in 1987 while he attended the University of Arizona MFA program for fiction. Wallace sought an MFA because he wanted to make a living as a writer and knew, in order to do that, he had to teach, and teach he did. As his career flourished and he continued to publish short stories and essays, he served on the faculties of Emerson College, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Wallace was the recipient of several awards and fellowships including the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the Whiting Writers' Award. His posthumously published unfinished novel, The Pale King, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Wallace also served on the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

After completing his MFA at the University of Arizona, Wallace was briefly enrolled as a Ph.D. student of philosophy at Harvard, but dropped out of the program due to both dissatisfaction with the culture of the program and personal mental health struggles. Wallace made his struggles known to the Harvard health system which promptly turned him over to in-patient care at McLean Hospital. Wallace's experiences at Granada House, a halfway house in the Boston area, would inform many of the intimate details of his depiction of Ennet House in Infinite Jest. Wallace, mired in alcohol addiction, found it difficult to write anything. He saw sobriety as, among other things, a way to regain his ability to write. Wallace began working on Jest in the late nineteen-eighties, during his recovery, and continued to work on the book until its publication in 1996. Infinite Jest was the first work he'd ever sold before its completion.

Early in 1991, Wallace moved to Syracuse, NY, where he wrote and subsequently published three short stories, "Forever Overhead," "Order and Flux in Northampton," and "Church not Made with Hands." He moved from Boston later that year to join the faculty of Emerson. Excerpts from Infinite Jest were published yearly between '93 and '95 in The New Yorker and Harper's leading up to the book's publication in 1996. Wallace published Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in 1999 while researching his next novel, The Pale King, which he began writing in 2000. Wallace moved to California in 2002 to join the faculty of Pomona College. That same year he met his wife Karen Green, and they married in 2004.

In 2005, Wallace was invited to deliver the commencement speech at Kenyon College graduation. There, he delivered his famous "This Is Water" speech, which spins out of the adage of the wise old fish swimming up to a few younger fish and remarking on the state of the water. When the wise old fish swims away, one of the younger fish says to his friends, "What the hell is water?" He uses this same adage in Infinite Jest in a scene in which a young, leather-clad biker relates it to Don Gately after the Tough Shit But You Still Can't Drink AA group meeting. In the speech, Wallace advocates for mindfulness and consideration of others and, while recognizing the inherent solipsism and loneliness of existence, encourages students to think of their lives as constantly occurring, in other words, to "live in the present," instead of forever looking ahead toward some ideal version of the future.

After a long struggle with clinical depression, Wallace ended his life in September of 2008 at his home in Claremont, CA. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published by his widow, Karen Green, in 2011.

Study Guides on Works by David Foster Wallace