WHEN THE CELEBRATED WRITER David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September 2008, at the age of 46, scholarship on his dense, footnote-laced fiction and nonfiction was sparse. Since then, academics have been hard at work filling the void, essentially making Wallace "the next canonized American writer."
Academic studies of the literary lion have proliferated for a number of reasons, writes Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. One is that Wallace's writing--typified by the 1,100-page Infinite Jest (1996), an "epic, ironic, lonely-in-the-crowd, cri de coeur of a novel"--has all the makings of scholarly fodder.
Wallace's work also broke the prevailing literary mold. In the opinions of some ivory tower denizens, he moved beyond the abstruse postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Don DeLillo--American novelists who seemed to own the future of the canon in the 1970s and '80s. Unlike these bleak writers, Wallace did not seek to unmask "the hollow hypocrisy of the bourgeois social order," Marshall Boswell, an English professor at Rhodes College, tells Howard.
Writing in The Common Review, Rebekah Frumkin agrees, arguing that Wallace's allure derives in part from how earnestly he writes about moral questions present-day American novelists have been reluctant to address directly. His fiction and essays take on a range of complex subjects (mathematics, drug addiction, and the influence of the mainstream media, to name a few), but they are also about "trying your best to be a good, kind human being in a hostile world; about telling the Truth; about admitting your vulnerabilities and sincerely seeking help from others," Frumkin, a student at Carleton College, writes. …