WFPL: David Foster Wallace

Posted Posted by Justine Tal Goldberg in Writings From a Past Life     Comments 32 comments
Apr
11

In previous Writings From a Past Life we’ve printed childhood works and then David has gone off on silly and pointless riffs which have proven funny only to himself. (His words.) This week is different.

While doing research for an upcoming article, I got the chance to root around in the David Foster Wallace papers at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. I unearthed lots of neat (neat? Come on) things (things? Come on), but one piece in particular caught my eye–a childhood poem written by Wallace, presumably for a grade-school class.

The folks at the Ransom Center were kind enough to let us print the piece here on our blog:

Wallace2 1024x716 WFPL: David Foster Wallace

(Early childhood poem by David Foster Wallace. Used by permission of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.)

“My mother works so hard so hard and for bread. She needs some lard. She bakes the bread. And makes the bed. And when she’s threw she feels she’s dayd.”

Pretty powerful stuff. On the whole, I prefer to let you, our devoted readers, draw your own conclusions–and share them below, of course–but I will take this opportunity to point out a few tidbits which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do.

First of all, the spelling errors are downright adorable. Just had to get that out of the way.

Note Wallace’s uncommon phrasing in “so hard and for bread.” I can’t think of a single child who would opt for this phrasing over, say, a more simple “so hard to make bread.” One possible interpretation is that Wallace is using bread to mean money, but this seems unlikely. Another possibility is that Wallace, even at such a young age, was already exhibiting the masterful grasp of language for which he would later become famous.

Also note Wallace’s atypical word choice. Not “when she’s done”; not “when she’s finished”; but “when she’s threw [through],” a nuanced construction more fitting for an adult than a child. This could very well be an indication that the young Wallace was attuned to the speech patterns of the people around him, namely his parents and teachers. His ear for spoken language and talent for mimicry would stay with him into adulthood, exemplified in the authenticity of his characters and the organic dialogue they exchange.

The psychoanalyst I consulted on the poem agrees. (I really did talk to a shrink. I’m not kidding. I wanted to see what I could glean about Wallace the person vs. Wallace the literary figure.) “I definitely think he’s listening to his mother’s language,” Mrs. G says. “That’s a strong feeling I have.”

Her first clue was in the poem’s final line: “she feels she’s dayd” which, in the context of a piece about the consequences of labor, calls to mind the expression “dead tired.” She surmises that Wallace may have heard his mother utter these words and appropriated the experience for his creative work. On the most superficial level, this poem is a commentary on his mother’s complaint.

“On the surface it’s about his mother’s housework, but there’s more to it than that,” Mrs. G tells me.

She goes on to explain that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this poem smacks of loneliness. In third person narration, Wallace observes his mother attending to her work, and wonders if she has energy enough to attend to him; he observes his mother in a state of physical exhaustion, and wonders if her capacity for affection has been exhausted as well. After all the housework–making the bed and baking the bread–will she have anything left for him?

If this is the case, consider the symbolic implications of dead: separate, detached, absent, unavailable. In the simplest terms, feeling dead means not feeling alive.

“For children it’s ultimately about what their parents can give to them,” Mrs. G says. “So as a child when you comment on your parents, you’re commenting on yourself.”

Wallace’s mother feels she’s dead. Does Wallace agree?

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32 Comments to “WFPL: David Foster Wallace”

  • Very interesting. I also wonder about the size of the printing on the first line, “My Mother Works So Hard.” Was it intended as the title of the piece, or for emphasis as in a shout? It could also be that when he saw how much room it took to write, he’d better reduce the size fearing he might run out of paper. It’s also interesting the way he ended with his name misspelled (appearing as if it’s a “b” at the end of his name instead of the way he wrote a “d” above) one letter atop the other and confined in a box. Be interesting to know how old he was when he wrote this.

    • Honestly, the first line as title never occurred to me, but I think it’s a valid point. In this case, Wallace is employing a pretty advanced poetic device in linking the title to the poem’s body, ie. “so hard and for bread” is a continuation of the title rather than a stand-alone line. I buy it.

      As for his age, the folder in which I found this piece was labeled, “Early Schoolwork, 1971-77, undated, very early DFW,” which would make him 9 at the youngest. Mrs. G, however, placed him at age 7.

      • Thanks for the additional info. This has been very interesting. Thanks also for posting it.

      • I really think the imagined punctuation goes:

        My mother works so hard, so hard. And for bread she needs some lard…

        not

        My mother works so hard, so hard and for bread. She needs some lard.

        Follow the pattern of the sentence’s relation to the line throughout the entire and you’ll see that there’s no way the mother “works…for bread.”

    • Is he not just using the blue-lined ruling like one does in school at that age to practice penmanship? Maybe on the next line he realizes he doesn’t need to follow the ruling because this is personal and not classwork.

      • Do you think it’s personal work? Would he have used composition paper at home? (Maybe that question is ridiculous. If composition paper was handy, he would have used it, right?) Would he have written his name at the top of the page if it weren’t for school?

  • This is really amazing. It makes me want to go through my old papers from childhood.

    • I wish you had done that a few weeks ago! This post marks the close of our Writings From a Past Life series. Still, if you come across a treasure, we might just post it as a throwback.

  • Nice one; love the enormous lines on this grade-school paper, too. This entry reminds me of one of my favorite blogs, Letters of Note (http://www.lettersofnote.com). I’m surprised they don’t have any DFW there, actually, since they have several repeats from other larger-than-life writers (notably, Hunter S. Thompson). Maybe you should hit them up with this find!

    • Great idea, Laura. Maybe we will…

      I’m also into the composition paper. Brings me right back to second grade, practicing cursive until I thought my little hand would fall off.

      Remember cursive? Have you ever in your life used cursive? After second grade, I mean.

      • I know you’re supposed to sign your name to paychecks in cursive. So no, I haven’t used cursive since second grade.

        And yes, I was drawing a paycheck in second grade.

      • Oddly enough, I was one of those little freaks who wrote TONS of handwritten letters to pen-pals, back in the day. So I was cursive all the way on that (until my handwriting got super illegible). I also recall a junior high-school librarian yelling at us all that our penmanship was “atrocious!” and he may or may not have forced us all to practice our cursive. In 8th grade.

        Maybe this also explains why I am drawn to cursive-looking fonts?

  • As a child Wallace already evinced the propensity to incorporate design elements in a page of text, not unusual in a grade-schooler, but one more notable in a published author who has to convince mainstream publishers to include his offbeat graphics and typographic oddities in the printed text. It’s a phenomenon also seen in the books of Wallace’s literary progenitors, Pynchon and DeLillo, “I won’t grow up…”

    • He had a tendency to include design. The “very early DFW” folder is full of poems, essays, and short stories signed “David,” his name in a box. It seems he happened upon a doodle he grew attached to.

      We see a similar phenomenon in the smiley face that appears on his drafts and in the books he owned. (Wallace’s personal library is also housed at the Ransom.) “What you call the ‘smiley face’ is a vestige of an amateur cartoon character I used to amuse myself with in grade school,” Wallace explained to a Wall Street Journal writer in 2008. “It’s physically fun to draw—very sharp and swooping, and the eyebrows are just crackling with affect.”

      It seems he had his habits, just like the rest of us.

  • Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. I’m just wondering though, if maybe this poem was intended to be read as:

    “My mother works so hard so hard. And for bread she needs some lard. She bakes the bread. And makes the bed. And when she’s threw she feels she’s dayd.”

    I can’t tell if there is a period in that first sentence.

    • Your way makes sense, but this is how I see it:

      My mother works so hard so hard and for bread she needs some lard she bakes the bread. And makes the bed. And when she’s threw she feels she’s dayd

      I think the wee Wallace is using periods for dramatic effect rather than for grammatical purposes. The first run-on is meant to show how hard his mother works and how exhausting breadmaking is. Full stop. Then she still has to make the bed. Full stop. By now she feels she’s dayd — without a period because wee Wallace knew that death is not a full stop.

      What is it then? Only wee Wallace knew.

    • I can’t tell either. The line break seems to suggest our reading, but could very easily be circumstantial. His periods are both prominent and inconsistent, which complicates interpretation.

      In your reading, I do like the idea that he chose to repeat “so hard” purely for emphasis. An intelligent decision, for sure.

  • D
    A
    V
    I
    D

    vs.

    D
    A
    Y
    D

    • I think the long vertical David in the box is interesting and continuing in the psychoanalytic vein, symbolic of a certain loneliness and isolation. I don’t know if that’s what you were getting at…

  • I really think the imagined punctuation goes:

    My mother works so hard, so hard. And for bread she needs some lard…

    not

    My mother works so hard, so hard and for bread. She needs some lard.

  • [...] “My mother works so hard / so hard and for bread. She needs some lard. / She bakes the bread. And makes / the bed. And when she’s / threw she feels she’s dayd,” wrote the young Wallace, in a piece which Goldberg says is “already exhibiting the masterful grasp of language for which he would later become famous&#82…. [...]

  • [...] at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center. See the poem after the jump, click over to Goldberg’s post for her perceptive analysis, and if you’re longing to read more of DFW’s mature work, [...]

  • [...] of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, writer Justine Tal Goldberg discovered a gem in the archives: a mournful bit of verse written by a young Wallace, “presumably for a grade-school [...]

  • also, in thinking about it (perhaps overthinking), the vertical David at the end is sort of a strange premonition… I imagine that people choose methods of suicide in a deliberate, not arbitrary, way — his mother left him hanging?

  • [...] that we’ve ended our Writings From a Past Life series with a bang, it’s time to launch right into our next one. No flies on [...]

  • Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors would really benefit from some of the information you present here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Thanks a lot!

    • Of course! Quote away. Thanks for your interest.

  • From my blog: urbanityuncovered.tumblr.com

    OK. In my ongoing tirade against the over-analyzation of literature, here is a piece that dissects David Foster Wallace’s grammar school poem and attributes all sorts of complex things to it: great genius, terribly precocious use of language, great emotional despair. Yeah. I have four children and have seen the writing of dozens of others. Wallace wrote a funny little poem that shows a more advanced use of language than some kids his age. But, that’s about all you can really, reliably say about it. The rest is just someone’s very personal and I’d say somewhat wishful interpretation. Which is fine…as long as you remember that’s all it is – one person’s view (and no, I don’t count input from a psychologist as something beyond the personal. Psychoanalysis is just educated guesswork). You can start to see how people like Wallace and Whitney Houston can be driven to self-destruction when you read a piece like this. The need of the writer (of this piece) to worship the subject (Walace), to make him a genius, to read great depth and earth-shattering talent into every little thing he does is so intense, that it might drive the most stable and sane of us totally nuts. Somewhere along the road to respecting someone’s work and acknowledging that they are unique in their abilities there is a turn-off that leads to a clinging neediness that sucks the damn life out of the one being worshiped. We need them to be geniuses, we need them to produce only work of the greatest and most life-altering quality, we need them, we need them, we need them. And they, I’d suspect, need a break. They need to be able to work without having to feel they’ve got to meet such impossible expectations. They need to be able to have their childhood poems be just that: childhood poems, written for mom, hung on the fridge, loved by their parents and thought of as “cute” by the neighbors. Poor David Foster Wallace, he wrote a poem for his mother and look what we did to it.

    • This poem happens to have been written by someone about whose later writing we know quite a bit so it’s interesting to collectively compare notes on what seeds may have been present of what would come later. If you looked at a poem your friend wrote when they were seven you would likely see early expressions of their current day character. Strangers just wouldn’t be able to add to the discussion.

      The notion that the vertical signature predicts his suicide, I do agree, is a bit much. I chalk it up to formal exploration.

  • [...] that we’ve ended our Writings From a Past Life series with a bang, it’s time to launch right into our next one. No flies on [...]

  • [...] That little David Foster Wallace thing we posted a few days ago has been getting a lot of [...]

  • What dead or fictional famous person would be a great Quora contributor?…

    DFW. This guy, not the airport: It’s wild that many people in Silicon Valley don’t recognize those initials. The other day I had to explain Infinite Jest to one of the smartest and most influential people I know. It was the first time he’d heard of …

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