Many students at Pomona College had Dave Wallace as a professor. (He insisted we call him “Dave”; we always called him “DFW” when he wasn’t around.) And many students also considered him a friend—even if being a friend meant dealing with his byzantine yet internally consistent and fair network of rules for social contact with the world. I came to think that this interface was necessary for him as a teacher, that it acted as a sort of membrane to let students in and keep critics and literary paparazzi out. In any case, I’m thankful he made this effort with my classmates and me. What follows here is exactly the sort of thing he hated. He couldn’t stand being the center of attention. He’d found that even praise could be harmful, and so he’d brush it off as if it was beside the point, or as if he wasn’t worth it. Of course he was worth it. But if a workshop got particularly warm and congratulatory, Dave would say, “Let’s not sit around and give each other hand jobs.”
In class, his self-effacement and self-presentation were comical—of course, he was self-conscious of that too. He wore bandannas to every class I can remember. He apologized about his need to spit tobacco into a cup. If you’re bothered by it, he’d say, we can talk about that. One classmate wrote a particularly touching and believable epiphany, and Dave talked for a long time, to the laughter of our class, about how he sometimes feels guilty envying an undergrad’s work. How could the author of Infinite Jest envy something one of us had created? He made it clear that our time together in class was about us, not him and his work. The first day of a workshop I had with him, a student took a photo of Dave. He was visibly bothered by it, and later spoke privately with the student about it.
He was always trying to impart the importance of communication, of its precision. The only way you can communicate at a high level, he taught, is to be conscious of everything you write—every comma, every pronoun, every word, and all their implications. He half-jokingly suggested we use Garner’s Modern American Usage as bathroom reading. I called him when I was having, in his words, “an existential crisis about grammar” at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. He was like Virgil in the Inferno; you knew he’d been there before and could guide you out of it. I’d never listened to anyone as intently as I listened to him.
I suppose you can never really guess what exists at the bottom of someone’s personal life—even less so with someone whose mind was so vibrant and fertile. Michiko Kakutani writes: “The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America…” It’s a somewhat dehumanizing trope to make Dave into a giant metaphysical nose, but then again we all could see that he was so fascinated by and attuned to the world around him. He had a deep reserve of wonder about the quirks of life and their endless explanations. It makes last Friday more difficult to comprehend.
His attentiveness to his students in particular was beyond generous. I think he needed us, too. We gave him a tangible purpose and a routine: things that writing didn’t always offer. His care always exceeded what was necessary by professorial standards. Even though we were undergraduates—some of us just wanted to take a course with the famous writer of Infinite Jest—he would write, in response to our work, dense, 1.5-spaced, and yes, amply footnoted analyses that occasionally were as long as what we had submitted. To the ambitious student-writers, who held fast to everything he said and wrote…well, Dave took us seriously; this particular kindness is still unbelievable to me.
After graduation, when I had been out of school for a while, I called to ask his advice, ostensibly about what the life of a writer is like—though what I really wanted was an easy answer to what I should do with my own life. I wanted him to give me some sort of commandment to go forth and be a writer. I paced around my parents’ house, talking nervously, trying to keep up with him, vainly trying to impress him. He refused to give me the validation and satisfaction I wanted. It’s not going to come from writing, he told me. Writing can never do that.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.