September 14, 2008
David Foster Wallace ’85, a towering figure in modern literature who died Friday, Sept. 12, in Claremont, Calif., was remembered by one of his English professors as an unassuming student of both prodigious talent and productivity, while a roommate recalled Mr. Wallace as a close friend who was serious and sincere as a student at Amherst.
“It was an enormous privilege to work with David during his senior honors project in English, which became nothing less than his first published novel, ‘The Broom of the System,’” said Dale E. Peterson, the Eliza Clark Folger Professor of English at Amherst.
“The novel he was writing was the first outflowing of his Dickensian energy as a writer,” Peterson said. “He was wonderfully inventive and imaginative, and constantly putting forth new characters and new situations. Of course at this time he was also pursuing a senior thesis project in philosophy, and he ended up graduating with double summas. In his fiction it was evident that his philosophical mind was always at work.”
Author Mark Costello ’84, was close friends with Mr. Wallace, roomed with him during their sophomore years, and remembered him as a “different sort of guy. There was a tremendously serious hunger to him and sincerity, even at 18.”
“Amherst was a really powerful experience for him in terms of the intellectual ambitions of the place and the liberality of the place,” Costello said. “I don't know that his career starts the same way without Amherst, where you can get that kind of personal relationship with a professor who's really working for you.”
Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst, said he was saddened to hear of Mr. Wallace’s passing.
“The entire Amherst community mourns the loss of David Foster Wallace, and we offer condolences and deepest sympathy to his family and friends,” Marx said. “We were truly fortunate to have been graced by his brilliant presence as a student of philosophy and English, and following his graduation in 1985, as a dedicated and generous alumnus in the years since then.”
Amherst College awarded Mr. Wallace an Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree in May 1999. Costello said Wallace and his family, including his father, James D. Wallace, ’59, appreciated that gesture very much, while Professor Peterson said the address Mr. Wallace presented when he received the honorary degree was characterized by typical brilliance.
“He gave a spectacular talk about prescriptive and descriptive grammar,” Peterson said. “It sounds like a boring subject, but in David’s hands it certainly wasn’t.”
This remembrance will be updated as more information becomes available.
In 1999, Amherst magazine writer Stacey Schmeidel interviewed Wallace by mail. The feature-length Q & A, titled “Brief Interview With a Five Draft Man,” ran in the Spring 1999 issue of the magazine, and is reprinted here.