The Faith of David Foster Wallace

There have recently been a spat of blog posts and articles about the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s faith and whether the upcoming D.T. Max bio of Wallace will shed any light on this important subject. The latest round of interest in Wallace’s Christian faith (we don’t know exactly what denomination he identified with) was set off by a blog post by Daniel Silliman.

Silliman’s post was eventually picked up by The Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan who has a fine article on the subject with links to a number of articles that provide us more clues about Wallace’s Christian faith and how it relates to his work. (Last fall Sullivan also wrote about an article I penned on Catholic writers wherein I referenced DFW’s interest in the Catholic Church).


I believe the significance of Wallace’s faith has been largely ignored because the practice of religion, and Christianity in particular, play almost no part in the lives of many literary editors, critics and writers. I think Sullivan gets it right when he writes:

My suspicion is that among DFW’s literary and academic peers, his church-going and attachment to Christianity (however complicated and complex) is not a feature of his life that intuitively is understood – and so the language and themes in his writing that point to this, whether overtly theological or not, tend to get downplayed.

Sullivan has a link to a video titled “A Life through the Archive” which is a panel discussion on David Foster Wallace‘s life and includes biographer D.T. Max. You can also read an excerpt from the forthcoming Wallace bio here.

Last December I blogged about David Foster Wallace‘s concern that writers today are ducking “the deep questions” of life a la Dostoevsky (also a believing Christian). Wallace complained about contemporary literature’s “thematic poverty,” but he just as easily could have criticized its spiritual poverty as well.

UPDATE: 12/8/2012 – I finished reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and there was nothing in the book to indicate that DFW was a Christian or a Church-going person of any kind. Max writes that Wallace was interested in the Catholic Church for a time, but was ultimately not able to get past dogma, established beliefs, etc.

One item that may explain why people believe Wallace was a Christian, was his habit of referring to his AA meetings as “church” (Wallace was an alcoholic who regularly attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings), which was apparently his way of concealing from journalists and others his struggles with addiction.

When Wallace was dating the writer Mary Karr (who later converted to Catholicism), he often talked about faith with her. Max writes:

“Wallace said he was trying to pray, because, even though he did not necessarily believe in God, it seemed like a good thing to do…So for a time Wallace too hoped to receive the sacraments, thinking that if he and Karr were to marry they could have a religious wedding (ultimately the priest told him he had too many questions to be a believer, and he let the issue drop). Wallace’s real religion was always language anyway.”


Grappling With James Joyce

Grappling with James Joyce at the beginning of the 21st Century is similar to reading Shakespeare’s tragedies or even working your way through the Old Testament—you recognize immediately you are knee-deep in cultural source material. It feels less accurate to call Joyce a modernist than to say he was modernism, for it’s clear how much of our contemporary sensibility can be traced back to this peculiar Irishman.

I recently dug into the 1959  Richard Ellmann biography James Joyce. It needs little introduction: many people consider it the greatest literary biography of the 20th Century. I recently came across a David Foster Wallace essay on Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography where Wallace alludes to Ellmann’s great achievement.

James Joyce in 1918.

And though I’m still reading about the young, unknown Joyce at this point, the book is still thick with memorable anecdotes.

In 1902 a young Joyce met the grand poet of Irish letters, W.B. Yeats, who was then 37 years old. Joyce was cocky during the meeting and reportedly talked back to Yeats, which both impressed and upset the poet. At one point Yeats mentioned the French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

“When Yeats imprudently mentioned the names of Balzac and of Swinburne, Joyce burst out laughing so that everyone in the café turned round to look at him. ‘Who reads Balzac today?’ he exclaimed.”


Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.  --- James Joyce
Creative Commons License photo credit: UggBoy♥UggGirl [ PHOTO // WORLD // TRAVEL ]


Joyce, rather famously, was not a believing Roman Catholic from his adolescence onward, but he was (modestly) respectful of the Church’s traditions and a great admirer of the Jesuit order, whom he studied under as a boy. He once corrected a friend who labeled him a Catholic:

“You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.”

There is also Joyce’s experience in Paris, where he was literally starving while failing to make ends meet with book reviews and English lessons. This is a letter from 1903 to his mother:

“Today I am twenty hours without food. But the spells of fasting are common with me now and when I get money I am so damnable hungry that I eat a fortune before you could say knife. I hope this new system of living won’t injure my digestion.”