Ruminations on David Foster Wallace’s letters to Richard Elman

Richard died New Year’s Eve 1997 at age 63. From this widow’s point of view, one confounding thing about death is its persistence through time. Day in, day out, year after year, the dead remain dead, even if they return momentarily in dreams or conversation or correspondence. You’re still dead? I find myself asking Richard, even though I’ve been happily remarried for 15 of the 22 years since he died. (Once, I dreamt that Richard returned. I am happy to see you, I said. But I am married. To someone else. That’s all right, he said, slipping into bed next to me and my husband). 

On November 10, 2011, Daniel Max left a message on my voicemail: 

I’m a writer for the New Yorker…I’m working on a biography of the writer David Foster Wallace. Your late husband taught Wallace in Arizona in the mid-eighties and I was wondering whether you had given his correspondence to a library or archive, or maybe if you just had it. I was of course curious if he might have passed on any memories of David Foster Wallace to you, but also whether he had had any letters from David. Your husband was the first person to give a quote, a blurb to Wallace’s first novel The Broom Of The System. Anyway, I would be grateful if you’d let me know either way. 

As Richard’s literary executor, I had been chipping away at organizing his papers, making countless forays into the basement over the years since he died. At first glance, most people would think Richard’s study looked pretty much the way he left it because he never discarded anything. Old bank statements and empty matchbook covers with phone numbers scribbled on the inside were interspersed with letters stuffed loosely in a bureau drawer, or strewn in cardboard boxes, or crammed in clusters in between the books on his shelves. And Richard never allowed anyone to clean his study; the one time he left Long Island to teach at the University of Arizona for a semester in 1985, I took advantage of his absence to vacuum, and have extra bookcases built in the unfinished part of the basement. I swore to him, (which was true), that I had not thrown anything away, and showed him where I had carefully removed the stacks of books filling up the floor space in his study, to the new shelves. 

After Richard died, my housewife’s impulse to make a clean sweep of it all warred with my bookish and scholarly curiosity which slowed me down, and made me hesitant to remove the letters from in between the books on the shelves because their position might provide clues as to the author of a handwritten postcard or letter only signed by an author’s first name. 

Now after listening to Max’s voicemail, I was chagrined that I had allowed so much time to go by with what seemed like so little to show for my efforts. The recent interest in David Foster Wallace was heightened by the tragedy of his suicide in 2008. He was 46 and at the height of his fame. Suffering from depression, he hanged himself on the patio of his home. His wife discovered his body.

I telephoned Max and explained that Richard had passed on few memories of Wallace to me. I never met him and I hadn’t gone to Arizona. I remembered Richard was pleased that he won once when he played tennis with Wallace, but I didn’t say that to Max. I also knew that, among other things, Richard considered Wallace to be a pain in the neck, though I wasn’t exactly sure why. I promised Max that over the next few weeks I would sift through the drawers and cartons and clusters of letters in Richard’s study in search of correspondence from Wallace, but I explained that I had a teaching job and could not focus exclusively on the search. Max offered to come out to Stony Brook and look himself, but I told him things were too disorganized for that. And, I was too embarrassed to say, I was ashamed of the mess.

Weeks later, I discovered a thick padded manila envelope with Richard’s handwriting on top that said, Arizona correspondence and Bennington Workshop 1985-86. And there they were. More than twenty notes and letters from Wallace along with a Xeroxed copy of a short story, “Little Expressionless Animals,” and a note from Wallace that said he considered the story finished, but criticism would be welcome though not “demanded.” I would never know what Richard had to say about the story. Wallace, according to Max, did not keep any notes or letters from Richard, and it was frustrating to me that only Wallace’s side of their correspondence existed. 

I scanned the letters and e-mailed them to Max who was delighted to have them. Over the next few months Max and I exchanged e-mails; I identified some of Wallace’s allusions to individuals or events with which I was familiar and answered Max’s queries as best as I could, feeling important to Max’s research. However, as time went by, I realized that undermining my pleasure in our exchanges, was jealousy I felt about Max’s admiration for Wallace’s genius. I didn’t like the word, “genius.” And I didn’t like the way it seemed Richard was only of interest to Max when he illuminated something about Wallace. I wished that Richard, and not his student, had been the subject of Max’s biography. Other students in Richard’s class that semester had told Max how Richard once called Wallace “Herr Doctor Wallace,” when he brought up Derrida and De Man in a way, I assumed, Richard felt was arrogant. After class, Wallace apologized in a written note which I discovered Richard had saved: “Some people thought I was being impertinent and a general prick. …I take what you say seriously, and I can’t even usually get worked up enough to argue with someone unless I think I can learn from him.” In subsequent letters to Richard, Wallace signed off, “your pupil,” or “your student;” and I wondered at the sincerity of this deferential stance. Wallace seemed to vacillate between extremes. He asked Richard for a recommendation to get into Yaddo. Poking fun at his own servile excesses, Wallace wrote: “I still hope to get into Yaddo for next summer…and will send you something studential and plaintive and unctuous, asking for a letter of support.” 

Max confided to me in another e-mail that students of Richard had reported how he had once fallen asleep, “snoring loudly” during another class meeting when he had asked them to read aloud from their work. In his e-mail, Max tried to soften the blow by suggesting how boring the students’ writing must have been. I offered the more likely explanation, attributing Richard’s sleepiness to the fact that he was an early riser, often at his desk at 5 AM in order to be certain to get his own writing time in, and that graduate classes often met in the late afternoon or evenings when, it would be difficult to stay awake if he were relaxed and quietly listening. Still, I couldn’t help but feel protective when I saw this story included in Max’s biography.

Wallace expressed gratitude towards Richard for his advice about literary agents and for offering to provide a blurb for his novel, The Broom of the System which Viking published and auctioned for, according to Wallace’s letter, “an obscene amount of money.” 

Richard, Max informed me, had agreed to provide a blurb when Don DeLillo and, according to Max’s biography of Wallace, “dozens of others” had passed. “Elman was one of the few to offer praise—sort of.” For his blurb for Wallace’s novel, Richard wrote, “‘As wild elk produce many elkins, so the American heartland produces its own Menippean satirists. David Wallace’s young genius is undimmed. The magnitude of his borrowings he pays back with interest.’” Richard’s reference to “elkins” is a pun on the name of the satiric novelist, Stanley Elkin, a “stylistic virtuoso” who taught fiction in the Midwest and whose novels, the New York Times (June 2, 1995) obituary said, “dealt in darkly comic fashion with the alienating effects of American mass culture and the mysterious power of cliché.” While some felt Broom of the System imitated Pynchon or DeLillo, Richard alluded to a lesser known predecessor, an author who, a generation earlier, had been educated at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana where Wallace was raised and who taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s interesting to me that Max makes no mention of Stanley Elkin in his biography of Wallace. I would’ve thought that once I explained the pun in Richard’s endorsement, Max might’ve pursued the question of whether Wallace had been familiar with Elkin’s fiction. 

When Richard shared the blurb with Wallace, he asked Richard what he meant, and he wrote, “You must not confuse the modesty of hype for lack of admiration of your talent,” (from a letter February 20, 1986 and quoted in, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, p. 77) Richard, I believe, was balking against using the inflated language of advertising campaigns and choosing his language carefully when praising the talent of the twenty-four year-old Wallace. 

To Wallace’s editor, Richard wrote, “I would be hard put to defend David’s writing, for all its charm, as original, in most of the standard senses of the word.’ He added, half joking, “If you want to publish really good writing you should publish mine’” (D. T. Max, p. 77). 

The element of competition that Richard felt towards Wallace was exacerbated by a publishing industry that was creating a feast or famine environment for novelists, publishing fewer books, creating bidding wars between publishers which made for huge advances for new, unknown authors, and making it much more difficult for veteran writers like Richard, whose previous novels had been critically acclaimed but not bestsellers, to continue to find publishers for their fiction. 

On the back cover of the galley proofs for Broom of the System which I found on a bookshelf in Richard’s study, the blurb leaves out the pun on Elk and Elkins.

The American heartland often spontaneously produces its own lovely and promising Menippean satires, and David Wallace’s young genius is one undimmed. The magnitude of his borrowings he pays back with interest. He often writes like a loquacious angel….and tells us as much about his generation as Philip Roth did about his, or Donleavy, or Exley, or, more recently, Brett Ellis and Jay McInerny, with all of whose appetites for literature and irreverent spirits (as well as the Jetsons) I believe he has broken bread. The youthful snare drum of triumph is here made to thrill with talent, observation, and humor.

In a letter dated April 11, 1986, David thanked Richard for sending him a copy of the blurb. “I felt honored by what you say therein, especially since I suspect the novel is not apt to have been your ideal cup of fictional tea. I’d love to hear specific impressions and criticism, and I hope to be able to in person,” and then he explained that he hoped to be in New York later in the spring and summer. There is a light-hearted tone to this letter, where Wallace adds in a post-script that he attended a wedding “administered by Fife, the Sanctuary person, and musically accompanied by 2 Chilean Radicles [sic] who holstered their Uzi’s long enough to salsa everybody there right on their collective bottom.” 

Dave Wallace most likely included that detail about the wedding and “Fife the sanctuary person” because he knew that during the semester Richard was teaching, he was also attending the trial in Tucson of eleven church activists where Reverend John Fife, was indicted by the U.S. government for leading the national church-based sanctuary movement to protect illegal aliens fleeing war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. The trial had been a travesty of justice where the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had placed informants with body microphones to tape-record church activities, and Richard had written about the trial, hoping to publish a book about it. (The manuscript, “Showdown at Tucson: The Great Sanctuary ‘Alien Smuggling’ Trial” may be read on the website, Richard’s interest in Central America dated back to his coverage of revolutionary Nicaragua and the war of the Sandinista rebels to depose the dictator, Anastasia Somoza. The Sandinistas had carried Israeli-made machine guns, Uzis, a fact I recall Richard noted with amused irony, and to see Wallace’s fanciful invention of “two Chilean radicles [sic] who holstered their Uzi’s long enough to salsa,…” was probably a nod to stories Richard had told Wallace, or to Wallace’s familiarity with Richard’s account of his experience in Central America, Cocktails at Somozas: A Reporter’s Sketchbook of Events in Revolutionary Nicaragua.

In this same letter, after the allusion to Fife, and the Uzi’s, Wallace skips a few lines and adds the quotation, “Every love story is a ghost story.” The phrase appears as if suspended in the white space surrounding it. After a few more lines is Wallace’s attribution: “Virginia Woolf to Merv Griffin, on the The Merv Griffin Show, 1971.” 

Max was taken by the phrase and perplexed by its meaning for Wallace. He asked if Virginia Woolf was a favorite author of Richard’s. Not especially, I told him. But she is a favorite of mine. Do I know the source of the quote? No. It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve read in Woolf. My guess is that Wallace made the whole thing up as a joke, I told Max. 

Later that week, I happened upon a small exhibit from the holdings of a rare book dealer in the galleries of the old Forbes Magazine building on 5th Avenue, “Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time.” One letter on exhibit was written by Leonard Woolf, the husband of Virginia, to his sister-in-law Vanessa Bell, shortly after Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning in the river Ouse, March 28, 1941. Leonard wrote to tell Vanessa that her sister Virginia’s walking stick was found floating on the river, and Leonard wanted to forewarn Vanessa before she read about it in the newspapers. 

Then, Max e-mailed me to ask if I would mind if he used the phrase, “Every love story is ghost story” as the title for his biography of Wallace. Not at all. I think it’s an evocative title, I wrote to him. Every love story is a ghost story in the sense that the beloved often lingers, haunts, and possesses the mind of the lover. Widows and widowers, in particular, feel this. I thought of Leonard Woolf and Dave Wallace’s widow. I told Max about the Forbes exhibit and Leonard Woolf’s letter about the discovery of Virginia’s walking stick. Was it just a coincidence, I wondered, that Wallace had attributed his quote to a writer who, like himself, had also suffered from suicidal depression? 

December 11, 2012 Daniel Max wrote a fascinating essay which he was kind enough to send me for the New Yorker Page-Turner blog called, “D.F.W.: Tracing the Ghostly Origins of a Phrase.” In it, Max acknowledges that it was in one of the letters Dave Wallace had written to Richard which I had shared with him that he found the phrase that would become the title of his biography. 

I was smitten; it smote me. When you write a biography, there are moments when you feel that your subject is thinking things just for you to find them out. 

What does “every love story is a ghost story: mean? It captures, I think, the futility of 

 Wallace’s quest. What writer ever had a more passionate affair with language? For him, a thing wasn’t alive if he couldn’t write it down. Living around the corner from Mary Karr, he still wrote to her. 

But Max admits that though he knew what he liked about the phrase, 

 I wasn’t sure what Wallace did. Curiously, it’s the only phrase I can think of that he used over and over in his work. It’s in that letter Alice Elman sent me first. D.F.W. sticks it at the end, a jaunty sign-off,….. No one I spoke to knows when or whether Elman conveyed the phrase to his student. Maybe it was part of a drinking game, nicely dovetailing with the postmodern fun that Wallace was having in his fiction at the time.” 

Max diligently tried to track down the origin of the phrase in Woolf’s work, and, as I had suspected, he couldn’t find it. The phrase, Max concludes, belonged to Christina Stead, the author of The Man Who Loved Children. “She wrote in a nineteen seventies letter to a friend, the American poet Stanley Burnshaw, shortly after the death of her husband, that she was battling depression and that only writing had helped a bit: ‘There was the ghost story (“every love story is a ghost story” of May 1, 1975 which for a time made me think I was coming back to life again.’”

Stead’s letters, however, didn’t appear in print until 1992. I wish I could report that among Richard’s correspondence I discovered a letter from Stanley Burnshaw in which he related the contents of Stead’s letter. But I haven’t… not yet. Still, their paths might have crossed. Like Burnshaw, Richard was a left-leaning poet as well as a novelist and journalist. Both Richard and Stanley Burnshaw were contributors to a Festschrift for the poet John Ciardi, called John Ciardi: Measure of the Man, edited by Vince Clemente which was published in 1987. 

In any case, if Richard came across that letter and shared it with Wallace, what’s illuminating for the point I want to make, is not the phrase, “every love story is a ghost story,” per se, but the situation in which it occurs, a situation wherein Stead was “battling depression,” and working on this story, “for a time made me think I was coming back to life ….” Richard, like Wallace, like Stead, like Virginia Woolf knew what it was like to suffer from severe depression. On November 22, 1971 (the same year that Wallace attributes “every love story is a ghost story” to Virginia Woolf), Richard published an essay in New York Magazine, “All The Thorazine You Can Drink At Bellevuein which Richard wrote: 

Every time I finish a book, I am agitated, raving. …All of my friends were out of town and there was no one keeping track of me. I was acting just a little crazier than usual. Might I want to do myself in? Because I couldn’t be sure, I ran to the nearest telephone and talked the operator into calling the Psychiatric Institute at Columbia…

Did Richard share this experience with his young student? For Richard, and Wallace, and Stead, and Virginia Woolf, writing was a lifeline. Richard may have warned Wallace about the depression that might follow the publication of Broom of the System. And to insure that Wallace had time and a supportive environment to write, Richard recommended Wallace for a residency at Yaddo. 

The phrase, “’every love story is a ghost story,’ flows through the writer’s underground spring,” D.T. Max noted, “resurfacing about five times in Wallace’s work.” To my mind, the phrase functions like a mantra, like code for “keep the faith.” The first time Wallace uses the phrase in his postscript to the letter he writes to Richard, Wallace is optimistic and excited about the publication of his first novel; but in attributing the saying to the writer who battled depression and was finally subsumed by it, he was nodding to the enemy, the underground spring that could drown you. 

A year after the publication of Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, it occurred to me that Wallace’s letters might have a monetary value as well as a scholarly one. Then Sotheby’s was interested and said Wallace’s letters would be a welcome addition to the “Fine Books and Manuscripts” auction of June 2013, “Including Americana and Property From the Descendants of William Faulkner.” When the auction occurred, I was surprised that there were items by Faulkner that did not sell at all, while Wallace’s letters to Richard sold for the hammer-price of $100,000, more than Richard earned from his writing during our twenty years of marriage. I considered the ways fame conferred value in a marketplace where writers, like clothes, went in and out of fashion. 

My friends wondered why I was subdued instead of elated by this windfall. Beyond the initial thrill, knowing our daughters would welcome this inheritance, I hadn’t anticipated my dismay, the discomfort and vague guilt I’d feel sitting in a room at a bidding war, where excessive wealth was unremarkable. No one blinked an eye when hands went up and people at telephone bids offered to pay for a few letters the sum of what it cost to keep a family out of poverty for two years. I don’t know whose bid won out. The identity of the buyer is always kept secret. Perhaps it was a rich actor, a fan who aspired to play Wallace in a movie about his life. 

In the years since the auction, I have made progress in sorting through Richard’s manuscripts, prepared an inventory of his writing and donated it all to Syracuse University Library. 

Recently, I found another short note by Wallace, typed on Algonquin Hotel stationery, praising Richard for his short story, “Hang Gliding” which was about to be published in Arizona’s literary magazine, the Sonora Review, edited by Wallace. I hope that Richard’s association with Wallace has made some people curious about Richard’s body of work. Little Lives which Richard wrote under the pseudonym John Howland Spyker, is a gem recently discovered by someone interested in translating the stories into Italian. Maxwell Geismar found the American folklore in Little Lives to be reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio. “The virtue of Little Lives,” said Anatole Broyard, “what makes it worth reading, is the fresh sense it gives us of human improvisation, of originality flourishing in a society hardly larger than a flower pot.”

Sifting through old clippings in Richard’s study, I noticed that his novel, An Education In Blood (published five years before we met) was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review that showcased Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch on the cover; the following week, listed in the “New and Recommended Fiction” section for May 2, 1971, was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, then, “An Education In Blood by Richard M. Elman…a novel of uncommon integrity and esthetic daring.” I remembered reading the issue with The Female Eunuch and The Bell Jar because I was swept up in the feminist zeitgeist; perhaps the timing was wrong for the publication of Richard’s novel. I thought about, Bitter Fame, the title of Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, and then again about Max’s biography of David Wallace and the fame that offers little consolation in the wake of a writer’s suicide. I felt a little ashamed of the jealousy that took hold of me, wishing Richard were the subject of Max’s biography instead of Wallace, when I helped search for and found Wallace’s letters to Richard. Despair over his inability to finish his novel, The Pale King contributed to Wallace’s decision to stop taking his medication. I was all too familiar with the despair that had plagued Richard, at times. In a rejoinder to Richard’s complaint that he “felt all used up as a writer,” his friend, the poet Bill Bronk wrote, “Don’t you know that to feel all used up as a writer is what a writer ordinarily feels like? I think I’ve felt that way every time I wrote something or failed to write something for the last forty years or so. Of course, it scares us; how else? We need to run scared” (December 29, 1980). I am grateful that Richard was lucky enough to have been able to write through or in spite of his fears, and to continue to live and find joy in practicing his art. Surely that’s enough, and the rest is vanity. 

Photo Credit: Andrys Stienstra from Pixabay

About the author

Alice Elman is the editor of the Complete Poems of Richard Elman (1995-1997) (Junction Press, 2017) and the author of, “What We Were Afraid Of,” first published in the Notre Dame Review; an abbreviated version of this memoir appears in the anthology, Widows’ Words, (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

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