This page will include personal tributes that we receive from members of the extended Pomona College community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends — who want to add their own brief personal memories of and reflections upon David Foster Wallace and his works.
Personal tributes to David Foster Wallace may be submitted for this page by e-mail to email@example.com.
Please know that my parents and I have found the remembrances of David's students, colleagues, and readers to be deeply moving. I am glad that he was appreciated for his heart and his silliness. He was honored to teach those of you whom he taught, and to write for anyone who would read.
In about, say, 15 years--when we have the necessary distance to the 1990-2000s--I think people are really going to look back and realize how often he just nailed our times. Very few people in any given generation actually have that ability, and even fewer succeed in transmuting the "dark gift" of that talent into something enduring, valuable, and most importantly, shared. The more I think about this, the sadder I get at his passing...and I never even met the guy. But I really would have liked to meet the wonderful person who made me think and laugh so much.
Matthew Shelhamer '95
We were in [Claremont] less than one month ago. My husband well accepted my intimate wish to see the place where my favourite writer worked. It was Saturday and most of the buildings was closed. Nevertheless I was happy just to visit such a beautiful, relaxing and quite place where he lived and was so beloved by his students.
The recent news was a shock; it destroyed a part of me as if he were part of my family. And he was indeed. I had the luck to exchange few opinions with him through simple standard mail and let him know how much was he special.
I only literally met him in 2001 reading an article on September 11 among many others and it was a love at first sight. After that I filled in my home bookcase with all his books and Infinite Jest is still near my bed like a Bible.
It is very hard now going on without him but his outstanding personality and writing gave us a unique gift: We can keeping on reading his books and articles as many times as we want and each time we will enjoy and find new deep emotions that he only could give. Each time we will be stuck to his words slowly perceiving his soul. Thank you, David.
I connected with Dave about tennis, but it wasn’t easy.
When I suggested we hit around, he tried to tell me it wasn’t worth my while. As was typical of the man, he appeared tentative and shy, despite his junior and college tennis experience, not to mention a significant writing background in the sport.
Here’s one of his ducking maneuvers in his first e-mail response to me:
"… you should be aware that I have played maybe 5 times in the last year, and not hit with anyone good for many years. If it's the sort of deal where you have absolutely no one to play with and need someone to just feed you balls and let you swing, I'd be happy to do it. But if you've got good competitive folks there to play with, I wouldn't waste your time with me . .. it'd be boring for you."
It would have ended there, but I was out of practice partners and so he agreed on the condition that we hauled a ball machine out to the court, “because if it's this hot tomorrow I'll have to stop every fifteen minutes to sit and retch.” Incidentally, he did not retch.
Just to satisfy some people’s curiosity about Dave the player – who once underrated himself as a 3.0, an intermediate in tennis terms – he had a complete game, the kind that comes from years of obsessing over stroke technique and ball location. If there was one sign that he was more than an above-par recreational player, it was the fact that he would employ a relatively advanced tactic, what tennis geeks call “taking the ball off the rise.” It requires sharp reflexes and timing. He did it repeatedly that summer afternoon in 2005.
The major media sources will list his literary achievements, of which there are many. I knew Dave as the fan boy who gushed in an e-mail about interviewing Roger Federer: “… even though he's so much younger than I, I felt like a 14-year-old meeting (John) McEnroe.” He was the kindred spirit who watched a DVD of a five-setter fourth round match from the 2001 Wimbledon, all three hours and 53 minutes of it, twice. And then he wanted to discuss it.
Since learning about his death, I’ve noticed the comprehensive influence he had on me, both as a reporter and person. As a freelance journalist, he treated complex topics with care and humility, paring them down for us mere mortals and treating them with a balanced perspective. I think about the bar he set almost every time I write a story. I don’t know if any of us can live up to his legacy, but I’m certain it’s worth trying.
As for Dave the person: He was the first professor to treat me as something other than a student. He said he was learning something from us, too. He was the kind of mentor whose unassuming personality warranted visits, even when the class was finished and there was nothing academic to discuss. I remember there was always a line of students by the bench outside his office in Crookshank. Those conversations were always rich and I will miss them, almost as much as I will miss him.
J.B. Wogan ‘06
Last Christmas our oldest son Bob, an English major at Stanford, gave his mother a copy of Consider the Lobster. After she had read the essays she passed them on to me, and after I had read them, I began recommending David Foster Wallace to anyone who would listen. What we most loved about his writing was his voice, his conscience, his supreme decency. It shone through in everything he wrote.
Some months later (without my son’s knowledge or permission), I wrote to DFW – David – and asked as politely as I could whether he might consider making himself available to be interviewed for Stanford’s Leland magazine, knowing what a thrill it would be for my son. I sent him a copy of Leland’s first issue as a reference, along with a stamped return envelope, and begged him to send back what was my only copy of the journal. Not many days later, it was returned along with a brief note. He had read and enjoyed an essay written by Bob on pseudo-intellectualism, but gracefully declined the invitation for an interview, writing "Nothing personal – I just don’t feel I have anything to say."
At Parents’ Weekend, sitting in a casual restaurant, I confessed my parental overreaching to Bob and shared David’s reply with him. He was partially embarrassed by my request, though thrilled beyond measure that his essay was enjoyed by one of his literary heroes. Having said that, as we all reread his brief note, the overriding feeling we had was of sadness. It had nothing to do with his unwillingness to be interviewed and everything to do with his sentiments. Looking back now, the sorrow is profound. David Foster Wallace has inspired so many readers, young and old, to be - I think – better, kinder people. His work will continue to do so, no doubt, but we will miss him.
If I remember correctly, somewhere in the Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says something about the writers that he likes to read the most are the ones that he discovers he would like to meet. To me, David Foster Wallace is that writer. His time at Pomona did not coincide with mine, so I never met him. But reading him, I feel I grew to know him. His considerable wit, inventiveness, powers of observation, all his talent seems to me to have served his great heart. My heart goes out to him, and to those he left behind.
Kevin O’Halloran ‘86
I'm having a hard time with the idea of a tribute, because it makes me think of 21-gun salutes, awful tribute bands, and, as Wikipedia defines the term, wealth being passed as a sign of submission or allegiance. Implying that Dave had some kind of authority, some power greater than our own is a characterization that, while possibly true, he would have found totally ridiculous and cringeworthy.
But I think it's important for those of us who knew him as Dave—the professor, the (dreaded cliché alert) mentor, the goofy-looking guy—to have a space to talk about stuff. Because I'm scanning headlines about Dave's death, and I'm frustrated because everything I'm finding isn't about Dave, not really. The media is talking about his books and his essays and, sometimes, his teaching career, and, honestly, none of it is making much sense to me. They're talking about someone, but it's not Dave. It's an abstraction or a stereotype. They're telling a story about a character named David Foster Wallace, and it doesn't have anything to do with the person I and a lot of us knew.
Which brings me to another problem I'm having, which is, on the one hand, wanting to bring my memories of Dave to the table as part of this collective remembrance, while, on the other hand, feeling fiercely protective of those memories. In the first days after his suicide, I had a hard time coming up with anything to share. His death was like this massive object that stood in the way of everything that came before. Just in the last day, my memories of Dave have been returning in little snapshots. I've been able to talk with friends who knew him and piece together some of the moments that made him who he was to us. Some of these moments feel too sacred to share, but I'm realizing now how much we need each other and each other's memories in order to keep Dave, the man and not the character, alive in our minds.
So with that, I offer this snapshot.
I almost killed Dave's dogs. This is not a deep secret that I never told him, rather, I called as soon as I found the bottle of dog-arthritis medication mangled and empty on the floor. I was a little hysterical on the inside, but I think I did a good job of faking composure on the phone. I remember following his instructions, my hands shaking as I turned the tissue-paper pages of the phone book, looking for the vet's number. I remember telling receptionist what happened and her questions: "How many arthritis pills would you say were in the bottle?" "And how many did they eat?" "All of them?!" What I remember most, though, is Dave on the phone telling me that I didn't do anything wrong, even though I did, and not to be scared, even though I was, and that he wasn't mad. And he really wasn't. And his dogs were absolutely fine, by the way.
And here's one more. Sometimes people brought food to class, like for a birthday or to celebrate the last class of the semester. Dave didn't eat sweets, but he would often go on about how good it looked or how delicious it smelled. One time, when someone brought brownies, he held it up to his nose and inhaled deeply for a long time before passing it on. He used to bring plain almonds for himself. If you sat next to him, he'd occasionally place an almond in front of you. He wouldn't ask if you wanted it or not, he'd just put it there. If you ate it, he'd probably give you another one.
When I consider what Dave would have wanted us to remember, three things come to mind: how to identify point of view, the difference between "compliment" and "complement," and proper use of the serial comma. But I never want to forget that Dave wore white socks pulled halfway up his calves, and tennis shoes. I want to keep talking and writing about him, all sides of him, because I'm afraid of forgetting these details, which are more important to me than anything he ever published. We trust ourselves to hold onto so much, but our minds are slippery. We can't do it alone. We need each other in order to remember Dave honestly, and we need to resist eulogizing and deifying him in ways that he would have found absurd.
Amanda Shapiro '08
We were astonished yesterday as soon as we read about David Foster Wallace's death. We absolutely love his way of writing, his style, his enormous, devastating use of large amount of words as a never-ending music. We are trying to became writers as well, and his death has given us again the strength not to give up. Many condolences to you all -- students and professors -- and to his family. Forgive us for our [poor] English.
Cristina e Federico
I did not attend Pomona College, and although I never knew Professor Wallace personally, I want to make a note of his remarkable kindness.
While in graduate school, I borrowed and then accidentally spilled a drink on a professor's copy of Infinite Jest. Although my professor -- also a friend -- swore it didn't matter to him, I felt terribly about destroying his book. I went out and bought a first edition copy, and wrote a long, rambly letter to DFW explaining what had happened and asking if he would please sign the book (postage paid, of course) so that it could be presented to my professor as a gift. I waited weeks with no word and soon gave up.
Then, to my surprise, a small card arrived in the mail with only a smiley face as a return address. David had replied to my letter with a sweet card, and had included a sticker with his autograph that I could put in my new copy of the book. The card has always been very dear to me -- a real life writer of such distinction! writing to me! -- and I have never forgotten the gesture. He might have tossed the letter out without another word, but he took a moment out of his busy life to do a favor for a stranger. The loss this world has sustained with his death is very great.
Not only was he a writer of phenomenal genius, it's clear he was also a wonderful person. My deepest condolences to his family and to all of you, his friends, colleagues, and students.
I am a parent of a Pomona alum, and have read and admired DFW's work. My daughter recently began work with Teach For America, and is deeply dispirited and discouraged with the chaos and difficulty of her first three weeks in an inner city school. We spoke on Saturday, and began by noting DFW's terrible departure. I told her, "I think he had great courage to live the last three works of his life, a courage that you've shown in the first three weeks of your work." I've been a psychiatric nurse for 27 years, and have seen a lot of depression. Besides being a brilliant writer and special teacher, I'd like to acknowledge him as a very brave man, who became the special person that he was while struggling, privately, with a very heavy burden. It makes him all the more remarkable, and his passing all the more a loss to us all.
Dave’s suicide has shocked me. I’ve felt a lot of emotions, but I’m focused right now on my guilt that I never told him how much his friendship meant to me in college. I only spoke to him once after graduating. I have had only had a handful of teachers who I also thought of as friends, and even out of those few, he may have been the only one who I idolized in some ways. I believe he was the smartest person I have ever known, no exaggeration. He knew a lot, to be sure, but he also saw things with a clarity that no else did. He understood the concept of irony better than probably any other author in history. Infinite Jest is a satirical opus and quite possibly the definitive work of the postmodernist genre.
I won’t say any more about his work. It’s customary to eulogize a person’s accomplishments after their death, but it’s also important to simply remember who he was. I’ve compiled a list of things—some might say eccentricities—about Dave that I’ll always remember.
1) He chewed tobacco. Everybody hated it and he tried to quit a few times, but he usually spent at least an hour of each class chewing and spitting into a 32 oz. Slurpee cup.
2) He loved pop culture.
3) He had terrible fashion sense.
4) He was cool.
5) He was obsessed with grammar. He wrote about it some, especially in one published essay, but it’s hard to understand the depth of his obsession without having written and turned in papers to him. Responding to the first essay I ever turned into him, Dave started with the line, “There are a lot of interesting themes you’ve touched on ... but to discuss those themes would be like conversing about the weather over a bloody, mutilated corpse.” Over a few years, Dave learned not only some tact but also that not every person in the world was raised to diagram sentences as a child.
6) He talked as he wrote, sometimes literally. He used bullet points in his arguments. He footnoted certain comments with follow-up comments. There was nothing affected or exaggerated about his style.
7) He never talked about his work. Not once in the three workshops I took with him. I’ve had numerous professors force their students to read their own work in courses, but he would have been mortified by the idea. There wasn’t a bone in his body that wasn’t humble.
8) He was funny. God, was he funny.
9) He was fascinated by emoticons. After a student explained them in class one day, he began making his own and using them as his signature when he marked up a draft of our work.
10) He would have found at least six grammatical mistakes in this list.
I’m sorry he’s gone and sorry I never got a chance to say goodbye.
Zack Schenkkan ‘06
It's very difficult for me to put into words my feelings about Professor Wallace. The best summation of what I am feeling appears in the comments section of Michiko Kakutani's New York Times tribute. A reader named "Rafia" discusses her reaction to Professor Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College:
"When I first read it, it felt very much like the voice of a man who, while always having been intelligent beyond the norm, had developed a compassionate wisdom about people and about the world. Someone whose intelligence was now tempered with a deeper kindness and understanding, reminding us all of the greater purpose of the gift of intelligence; not to stand apart from others, but to understand just how near to one another we all really are, which is too, too easy to forget in the daily, petty struggles of life."
Professor Wallace was certainly "intelligent beyond the norm," although that's an understatement if you ask me. He was also relentlessly funny, intensely serious about his work, and a writer of unparalleled brilliance and importance. I will carry all of those things with me now that he's gone.
However, it was his "compassionate wisdom," as the commenter says, that made him truly stand apart from other people. It was what drew students to him, many of them students who felt unable to confide in anyone else. And, of all the talents and wonderful things that he brought to the college, to readers, and to the lives of everyone he touched, that will be missed the most.
David Newman '06
Baton Rouge, LA
Even though I worked at Pomona during his time there and taught in the English Department for a year, I'm sorry to say I did not know him well. But I did know a bit of his work, and had known of him since the mid 1990s when all of my friends were urging to me to read Infinite Jest. I had no interest in his big books when they came out - I found the whole gen-X/irony thing a little toxic, even though he was not part of the problem. However, I did come to enjoy much of his non-fiction, and I did teach his essay "Democracy, English and the Wars over Usage" for a History of the English language class.
I heaped a teaspoon of scorn on the illogic of one or two of his more prescriptivist tendencies (my main point concerned the problem with evolutionary narratives about language). Then I went and looked up the source of the epigram of the article: "Dilige, et quod vis, fac." This is commonly translated as "love, and do what you will," which is also the credo of the modern Wiccan movement. Diligere means something like love/diligence - giving a damn, basically. And the source is Augustine's sermon on 1 John 7-8.
For me, this key passage from that source bespeaks what I imagine was Wallace's approach to teaching, writing, and the very language:
Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.
Following a trail left by Wallace's use of that aphorism led to me see him in a different way altogether: Not the self-described language-"snoot," but one who never forgot that love of language is the basis of all that is and should be done in writing, teaching, and even "correction." We mourn for a humane and generous teacher and lover of the language.
I was lucky enough to be in the first writing class David Wallace taught at Pomona College (he didn't like the "Foster," forced on him by an early publisher, and, apparently, unshakeable thereafter). He had long been the author I most admired, and the news of his arrival at Pomona brought with it a strange feeling of unreality, a blurring of the boundary between the possible and impossible. That boundary feels firmer today, and the world all too real, with the horrible news of his death.
I know there will be much discussion in the days to come about his writing, and believe me, having read everything he's published multiple times, and having long admired him as one of the only authors I can read without ever finding a sentence or paragraph that could have been written better, I have whole volumes I could say about his works. But since the news broke I have been exchanging halting, dazed emails and texts with other Pomona students who knew him, and the predominant theme, aside from shock, has been his kindness, conscientiousness, and all around awesomeness as a teacher, and that's how I want to remember him, as he mattered most to me and the Pomona students who were graced with his presence: a teacher.
Teacher-admiration is a particular conceit of the Good Student. Ask anyone at Pomona (a school stocked pretty much exclusively w/ their ilk) about high school and one is very likely to hear a story about that one hoary old English teacher who, through the mystical application of musty copies of The Catcher in the Rye took the base material of clueless high school students and transformed them into driven and confident college students. I have always written off these florid recountings of pedagogical transmutation as self-dramatization born of a societal obsession with coming of age stories. But then I had my own alchemical experience. I do not exaggerate when I say that David Wallace rarified my Pomona experience. He took a scattered, self-absorbed kid who had a faculty for thinking and turned him into a scattered, slightly less self-absorbed kid who realized he had a faculty for thinking things that were important. What would have been an undistinguished and quotidian college career became an undistinguished but meaningful portion of my life to which (as anyone who knows me well enough knows) I have returned time and again.
He was an amazing teacher -- tough but inspiring, infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely patient, but the core of David Wallace's import to me was in his valiant battle against solipsism. Writing, he told us, is communication, and it is no more about the writer than the reader. He pushed each student to get out of his or her own head and do their utmost to get into the reader's head, to put in the hard, thankless, and, in the end, maybe impossible work of thinking as if one weren't the center of the universe. And that was just the beginning, the preparation for the real work he expected of us: figuring out something worthwhile to say. Fittingly, he said it far better than I can, at Kenyon College in 2005: "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." I do not exaggerate that these lessons have been the most important in my life. I'm an imperfect student, but David Wallace will always inspire me to keep on slogging.
David Wallace thought it was the ethical duty of an author to justify their taking the time and attention of the reader. In writing this letter I feel no qualms; it behooves the Pomona community to know that they have lost not only a genius, one of the greatest writers and thinkers of his time, but the finest of teachers. Someone who used writing as a tool to say what mattered, and did his utmost to help his students do the same.
I knew him: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination.
Peter Cook '03
Santa Cruz, CA