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British Association for American Studies


Archival Report from Stephen J. Burn, BAAS Founders Travel Grant recipient 2015


Archival Report from Stephen J. Burn, BAAS Founders Travel Grant recipient 2015

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With the BAAS Founders Travel Grant I was able to travel to Illinois State University  to give the keynote paper at the second annual David Foster Wallace conference and continue my research into Wallace’s correspondence network in Bloomington-Normal, says Stephen J. Burn. Wallace’s letters are the submerged mass that lie beneath his novels, essays, blurbs, and interviews.

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Viewed abstractly, the geography of David Foster Wallace’s life spans the country. He was born on the East Coast, in upstate New York, in 1962, and he died 46 years later on the West Coast, in California. The centre of his creative life, however, arguably lies away from those metropolitan coastal hubs, in the country’s centre. Here, in a pair of small settlements that break-up a landscape that Wallace nearly always described in terms of its iconic flatness and endless corn fields, he enjoyed what Charles B. Harris has called “his most productive period,”[1] writing at least part

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]of everything he published after 1993, amid a “cartographic obelisk, walled at the sides and tapered to green points at the horizons front and back.”[2] With the generous award of a BAAS Founders Travel Grant, I travelled to the Midwest to give the keynote paper at the second annual Wallace conference (hosted by Illinois State University, where Wallace worked between 1993 and 2002), and spent a week conducting related research in the twinned city and town of Bloomington-Normal.

At the core of both this keynote and the associated research was my ongoing work preparing (in collaboration with the Wallace Literary Trust) a volume of Wallace’s selected letters. Because Wallace did not keep copies of his letters and cards, I’ve spent much of the last five years attempting to reverse-engineer a blueprint of Wallace’s correspondence network, working first, from clues in his published writing and interviews, and, second, from various leads present in the letters that I’ve gathered. Based on this reverse-engineering process, I’ve come to think that what we have in his novels, essays, blurbs, and interviews, is an iceberg map of Wallace’s literary America. That is, these different parts of his published work are the visible signs of deeper connections, intellectual investments, and personal engagements. The letters, by contrast, are the substantial submerged mass that lie beneath the polished, visible surface, and—because Wallace defined himself as a writer so strongly in his letters—what I think they present is an unusually vivid snapshot of an emerging collective of writers whose interchange of ideas and shared social, psychological, and cultural concerns is likely to provide material for later studies of writer networks and their relationship to literary movements.

The Illinois Wallace conference (which is the largest, and, in many ways, the most important event of its kind) provided me with an opportunity to present a skeletal outline of this network as it’s mapped in my edition-in-progress, describing the project’s challenges and my broader discoveries. Both the conference and the later research provided a vast amount of information about Wallace’s life and work in Bloomington that will significantly enrich my efforts to annotate his letters.  Because the conference featured many of Wallace’s former colleagues, friends, and students (including David Anderson, Victoria Frenkel Harris, JT Jackson Robert McLaughlin, Brian Monday, Sally E. Parry), and because many of his friends continue to live nearby, this was a rich atmosphere for a quasi-biographical researcher, and aside from locating new letters, I can only gesture, via one of Wallace’s signature forms—the list—toward the things I discovered: I knew that Wallace’s antipathy to John Barth had been overstated, but I didn’t know that he had been so excited by the appearance of Barth’s “Ad Infinitum” in Harper’s (Jan. 1994) that he’d had a graduate student Xerox the story so that he could press it enthusiastically into the hands of his colleague, Charles B. Harris; I knew that writing about literature and belief was often important to Wallace, but I hadn’t realized that James Wood (despite his many ambivalent comments about Wallace’s work) had specifically requested that Wallace be sent a copy of his first essay collection, The Broken Estate (1999), and that Wallace had read at least parts of the book; I knew that Wallace’s first blurb had probably been written for David Gurr’s The Ring Master (1987), but I didn’t think two Wallace scholars in a diner (Harris and Mary Holland) would completely change the way I saw that blurb in relation to Wallace’s other writing in the late 1980s; I knew that Wallace had been involved at the nexus of the hugely influential Review of Contemporary Fiction and Dalkey Archive Press in the 1990s, but not that he had reworked many of the literary translations undertaken by the journal; I knew that Wallace’s investment in poetry had been understated, but I was still surprised when Gale Walden told me that Wallace’s underlinings in his copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets might reveal unexpected lines of structural and thematic influence.

The full range of my findings will eventually underwrite my edition of Wallace’s letters. In the meantime, I’d like to express my gratitude to the BAAS; to Jane Carman and Jeanne Merkle at ISU; to the Harris family; to the David Foster Wallace Memorial Fund (Illinois State University Foundation); and to everyone who took the time to share their Wallace stories with me in Illinois.


[1] Charles B. Harris, “David Foster Wallace: ‘That Distinctive Singular Stamp of Himself.’” Critique 51 (2010): 170.

[2] David Foster Wallace, Girl with Curious Hair. New York: Norton, 1989. 268.

Stephen J. Burn (Reader in American Literature at the University of Glasgow) is the author or editor of five books and numerous essays about contemporary fiction. Forthcoming projects include American Literature in Transition: 1990-2000 (Cambridge UP) and (with Mary Holland) Approaches to Teaching the Works of David Foster Wallace (MLA).[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row margin_top=”15″][vc_column][ultimate_carousel title_text_typography=”” slides_on_desk=”3″][dt_teaser image_id=”8757″ lightbox=”true”]

Letter accompanying Wallace’s uncorrected proof of Wood’s The Broken Estate. Author’s own image.

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With Wallace scholar, Mary Holland, outside the house where Wallace put the finishing touches to Infinite Jest, and began all of his later major work. Author’s own image.

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Meeting Barth scholar Charles B. Harris (who hired Wallace into his first academic job) at the Bloomington Denny’s that Wallace acknowledges for their “generous and broad-minded support” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’s frontmatter. Author’s own image.