David Foster Wallace arrived as a faculty member at Illinois State in 1993. Already an accomplished author, it was here he finished Infinite Jest, often called one of the greatest novels of the late 20th century.

As Wallace did his best to brace himself against the media storm that exploded over Infinite Jest, his Illinois State colleagues watched as he was plunged into a national spotlight.

That surge may begin again, years after his 2008 death, with the filming of The End of the Tour, a movie based on a lengthy interview Wallace gave during a media tour of the best-selling novel. Three Illinois State professors took a moment to remember the Wallace they knew, before Hollywood takes hold of the man known as the most important writer of his generation.

“He would have hated being called that—the ‘most important writer of his generation’—though he was,” said Professor of English Robert McLaughlin. “He was very self-effacing when you tried to compliment him.”

McLaughlin taught alongside Wallace at Illinois State, and also taught several of his famed short stories and Infinite Jest while Wallace was here. “Part of me thinks of him as David Foster Wallace, the author—the same exalted way I think of Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. He helped to define the challenge for this generation of writers. And then he engaged that challenge more bravely than anyone else has.”

David Foster Wallace

Author and former Illinois State professor David Foster Wallace.

For McLaughlin, however, it was the human side of Wallace that trumped the literary reputation. “Part of me that thinks of him as the Dave Wallace I knew here, who was a very funny, very kind, and very interesting guy.”

Kind is a word that repeats when hearing of, or talking about, Wallace.

“He had lightning-fast wit, but was never hurtful or caustic,” said Victoria Frenkel Harris, a professor emerita of English. “He wouldn’t hold forth at parties or gatherings, though I imagine that is what people wanted from him. He would have quiet conversations with one person, and it generally turned out to be the most interesting conversation happening.”

That quiet image collides with the tortured genius persona the world came to know after Infinite Jest.

“The way his press promoted the book was by promoting David, or a particular version of him that had some relationship to the real David, but not completely,” said Professor Emeritus Charles Harris, who hired Wallace in 1993 to join the English faculty and work with the nationally recognized Unit for Contemporary Literature.

“The media made him out to be a recluse who wore the do-rag, who had escaped to the wilderness of Normal, Illinois, to get away from the bright lights of New York City,” said Harris with a laugh. “He did wear the do-rag, but he wasn’t a recluse, he was just shy.”

Frenkel Harris recalled an event where the speaker carried on his praise for Wallace to the guests in the room. “David turned – very discretely – to me, and did this,” she said, imitating a silent gagging visage. She laughed. “I think he liked being David Foster Wallace, but did not like performing David Foster Wallace.”

At times, Wallace was known to have some fun with his national persona. “He liked to play little jokes,” said Harris, who noted he often turned down interviews several times before relenting. “When he did agree to talk to a reporter from Publisher’s Weekly, David took her to the restaurant in Kmart. It was a game he would play. That was David.”

Robert McLaughlin

Professor of English
Robert McLaughlin.

Words, ideas, and people

Wallace seemed unimpressed by his own fame. McLaughlin remembered speaking to a fan who came to the department, wanting faculty to give him Wallace’s home address. Later, Wallace returned to his office and asked McLaughlin about the visitor. “I told him, ‘You know, this is the first time I have been exposed to the creepy side of you being a celebrity.’ He looked at me and said, ‘And it’s only creepy people who think I am a celebrity!’”

It was words, ideas, and people that truly interested Wallace, said Frenkel Harris. “He was engaged by literature the way people were engaged by David. He had an unquenchable curiosity, a need to soak up the world around him, that he would approach with humor and empathy. And his students loved him for it.”

Wallace taught classes when his schedule would allow from 1993 until he left Illinois State in 2002. He was known for pouring over student papers and filling them with notes that could exceed the length of the assignments. “He could spend an hour on one paper. They were a lot like his footnotes,” said Frenkel Harris, referring with a laugh to his famed notes within articles and stories, like Consider the Lobster.

“Even his course syllabi are works of art, as irreverent as they could be,” said Harris. (One sample from his English class: “So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine-gunning … chortles, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student’s in-class question/comment will be warned once and the second offense will be kicked out of class and flunked, no matter what week it is. If the offender is male, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.”)

After his suicide, Wallace became a target for sensationalism.

“The problem is, David is easily sensationalized with his problems. But there was a side of David that he kept private, and that was the side that would do anything for you,” said Harris. He recalled Wallace inscribing a book with a long message for the son of a friend who was battling depression, but connected with Infinite Jest. “That’s the kind of thing David could do, and didn’t want others to know he did it.”

Creative writing scholarship

To help honor the Wallace they knew, Harris and Frenkel Harris established the David Foster Wallace Memorial Restricted Fund. Still working toward an endowment, the fund will help support a creative writing scholarship. “It’s meant for students who challenge the paradigm because everything he wrote did that,” said Frenkel Harris.

DFW director in Bloomington

Director James Ponsoldt, Frenkel Harris and the film’s producer, Louise Lovegrove, in front of Wallace’s former Bloomington home.

Harris and Frenkel Harris had reservations about the upcoming movie. The two felt a bit reassured when director James Ponsoldt, who also directed award-winning independent films The Spectacular Now and Smashed, turned to the Harrises to get a feel of what Wallace saw in his day-to-day life.

“When (Ponsoldt) said he carried around a copy of Infinite Jest all through high school, I felt better,” said Frenkel Harris. “There are a lot of people who claim friendships and connections with David, but those of us who knew him knew his sweetness and so wanted to protect him.”

Harris was impressed with Ponsoldt’s desire to get a feel for Wallace’s life in Normal. The director came to Normal this summer to visit the Harrises. “The first thing he wanted to do was go eat at Monical’s because that was where the first interview took place,” said Harris. The interviews with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky became the short book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is the basis for the upcoming movie Ponsoldt is directing.

“He wanted to make it as authentic as he could. So he wanted to see David’s classroom. He wanted to see David’s house. He wanted to see the airport he flew out of when he went to New York. He took pictures of everything so he could try to replicate it as much as possible,” said Harris.

The movie is now filming in Michigan, which turned out to be cheaper than filming in Illinois. Harris said he is ambivalent about the film.

“I hope it helps people to discover David and his words, but I hope it does not exploit him. There was no one like him. He didn’t do anything like anyone else.”

Rachel Hatch can be reached at rkhatch@IllinoisState.edu.


One thought on “Professors recall David Foster Wallace’s Illinois State days

  1. Professor Harry Deutsch (Philosophy) says:

    I hope against hope that the close connection between DFW’s work and that of the mathematician Cantor is one of the themes of this celebration. I also hope against hope that his interest in the philosophy of mathematics and philosophy generally are a focus. I am surprised that the philosophy department and those on campus knowledgeable about logic and set theory have not been invited to participate, and I definitely do not mean myself. Harry Deutsch