October 19, 2012
Is David Foster Wallace Our James Dean?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Back when Gordon and I started blogging, we wrote a lot of "observing the world" posts.  This post is like that --sort of 2004-ish.

I recently downloaded (but have not read) a new biography of David Foster Wallace called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max.  Wallace is from Champaign-Urbana, from an academic family, so I can't help but be interested.  I've read all of Mary Karr's memoirs, and Wallace makes an appearance in one, so I'm anxious to see if she's in his biography.  (Besides the law, I love to read fiction and am inexplicably drawn to "memoirs of affliction" so the biography should be an intersection of the two, I guess.)  In reading the reviews of the biography, I was struck by the similarities between how Wallace's place in the literary world is similar to James Dean's place in Hollywood.  Wallace only wrote three novels, one of which was published posthumously.  (Wallace also wrote short stories and essays, some of which are as famous as his novels).  Dean starred in only three films, though he was an extra in a few others.  Both, of course, died at young ages when both were becoming quite famous for their incredible gifts.

Posthumously, both Wallace and Dean have become even more famous than in life.  Dean is a Hollywood icon, whose famous face is well-known in popular culture.  Wallace himself was portrayed in a Simpsons episode, though television culture generally only knows literary authors who stick to vampires and wizards.  At a bookstore in O'Hare airport last year, I took this picture because I was struck by the inclusion of Infinite Jest, a book that did not appear on the NYT bestseller list until Wallace died, even though it was swamped by literary praise and awards.  The number of folks who have plowed through its 1000 pages is probably small compared with other well-known books.  But this display puts Infinite Jest with Gone With the Wind, Moby Dick and War and Peace. 

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