The Introduction to David Foster Wallace’s Thesis

In case you’ve forgotten (and let’s face it, unless you’re an enormous fanboy, you probably have), David Foster Wallace’s college thesis goes on sale in December from Columbia University Press under the title Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.

CUP is now offering an excerpt from James Ryerson’s introduction to the book:

During this time, Wallace started writing fiction. Though it represented a clean break from philosophy, fiction, as an art form, offered something comparable to the feeling of aesthetic recognition that he had sought in mathematical logic—the so-called click. “At some point in my reading and writing that fall I discovered the click existed in literature, too,” he told McCaffery. “It was real lucky that just when I stopped being able to get the click from math logic I started to be able to get it from fiction.” When he returned to Amherst, he nonetheless resumed his philosophical studies (eventually including his work on Taylor’s “Fatalism”), but with misgivings: he hoped he would ultimately be bold enough to give up philosophy for literature. His close friend Mark Costello, who roomed with him at Amherst (and also became a novelist), told me that the shift was daunting for Wallace. “The world, the reference, of philosophy was an incredibly comfortable place for young Dave,” he said. “It was a paradox. The formal intellectual terms were cold, exact, even doomed. But as a place to be, a room to be in, it was familiar, familial, recognized.” Fiction, Costello said, was the “alien, risky place.”

Wallace’s solution was to pursue both aims at once. His senior year, while writing the honors thesis in philosophy, he also completed an honors thesis in creative writing for the English Department, a work of fiction nearly 500 pages long that would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, which was published two years later, in 1987. Even just the manual labor required to produce two separate theses could be overwhelming, as suggested by an endearingly desperate request Wallace made at the end of his letter to Kennick. “Since you’re on leave,” he wrote, “are you using your little office in Frost library? If not, does it have facilities for typing, namely an electrical outlet and a reasonably humane chair? If so, could I maybe use the office from time to time this spring? I have a truly horrifying amount of typing to do this spring—mostly for my English thesis, which has grown Blob-like and out of control—and my poor neighbors here in Moore are already being kept up and bothered a lot.”







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