Wallace in 1996, the year his 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest was published.
“We have this almost religious need to believe in genius,” Mark Costello ’84 said on a Monday in late October. He was speaking in Johnson Chapel at a celebration of the life and writing of his close friend David Foster Wallace ’85. Wallace died Sept. 12, 2008, when, after a decades-long struggle with depression, he hanged himself at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 46.
The word genius was heard often in the days and weeks following Wallace’s death. Best known for the hulking novel Infinite Jest, published to wide acclaim in 1996, Wallace was a towering figure in modern literature; many consider him to be the greatest writer of his generation.
At Amherst, Wallace, son of James D. Wallace ’59 and Sally Foster Wallace, played on the tennis team and majored in English and philosophy. He wrote senior theses in both subjects and famously graduated with double summa honors. He found early success when his English thesis became the 1987 novel The Broom of the System. That year, he also served as a visiting instructor at Amherst. In 1999, the college awarded him an honorary doctor of letters degree.
“We want to believe that genius is … like some buoyant object,” Costello said in Johnson Chapel, “that you could release it at the bottom of any tub and it’ll always come up: take a boy and put him with repressive Jesuits and put him with a bunch of drunks, and he’s still going to come up James Joyce.” Wallace disagreed. As Costello explained, Wallace believed that everything was deeply contingent—that had he not been published in his 20s to immediate raves, “he might have been a philosophy teacher, and a good one; a high school teacher, and a good one; a literature professor, and a very good one, and perhaps he wouldn’t have been a genius.”
In the essays below, four people who knew Wallace at Amherst—his English thesis adviser, two friends and one former student—remember a young man who wrote his papers late at night when he couldn’t sleep, who played Bruce Springsteen’s “I'm Goin' Down” until the tape broke and who, even in college, possessed a “Dickensian genius for spawning new characters and newly devised connections among them.”
Photo copyright Gary Hannabarger/Corbis.