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.”


Top Five Books for Recluses

If there is one group of people who understood the impulse to retire from society now and again—it would be readers and writers. If for any reason you don’t have time to check into a hermitage for three months, here are a five books that will provide a few hours of reclusive relief.

1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau – It should be stated up front that Thoreau was neither a recluse nor a hermit. Walden Pond was (and is) a heavily-visited site and the pages of Walden are populated with Irish laborers, Concord farmers and ice harvesters, many of whom Thoreau enjoyed chatting with. But two years at the pond offered Thoreau the necessary solitude to live deliberately, study and write his masterpiece (A great biographical resource on Thoreau is the book Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.).

Walden Pond
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela n.

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe – Crusoe’s island solitude was the result of a shipwreck, and not his own choosing, but it’s not hard to fantasize about the delights of your very own tropical island and a buddy like Friday to hang out with (sans cannibals of course). Today we might even call it a YA novel.

3. Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac – This autobiographical novel describes the three months Kerouac spent alone as a fire lookout on a remote tower in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in the 1950s. Kerouac had hoped to kick alcohol and have a Buddhist spiritual awakening, but instead he found only emptiness (in the negative western sense) and wrote, quite tragically, “my mind is in rags.” And while it chronicles a dark time for Kerouac, there are also some exquisite descriptions of nature as well as passages about Beat get-togethers in San Francisco.

Kerouac Montage
Creative Commons License photo credit: Uncleweed

4. Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner – The narrator of this book, an American poet in Spain on a prestigious literary fellowship, is strictly speaking not isolated—he has a girlfriend and attends political rallies and gives poetry readings—but the book perfectly captures how one can be isolated by a foreign language, unfamiliar cultural mores, drug use and by the inability to “feel” anything (This novel is also brilliant and hilarious, which must be pointed out).

5. The Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux – This is the spiritual autobiography of a teenage Catholic nun in a 19th Century Carmelite nunnery in France. St. Therese describes her upbringing and social relations in the nunnery, but the core of the book is her relationship to God, and the discovery of her famous “little way” of spirituality. This book and the life of St. Therese captivated Thomas Merton during his own spiritual search, a fact he describes in the book The Seven Storey Mountain.


Critic Maud Newton Recommended My Essay On Catholic Writers

The noted literary critic and blogger Maud Newton recommended my essay on Catholic writers in The Millions. She wrote:

I recommend Robert Fay’s essay about the end of the Latin Mass — and Catholic “drama of salvation” novels — even though I strongly disagree that “the Christian faith [has] been in full cultural retreat since the 1960s.”

In addition to Newton’s blog post, the essay has generated a certain “buzz” across the Internet.

The venerable Commonweal Magazine blogged about the essay, saying in part:

Over at the Millions, Robert Fay has an essay with the provocative title, “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Fay tells a story of decline, arguing that there has been a profound falling-off in both the quantity and quality of Catholic writers since the mid-century.

Over in the UK, The Catholic Herald UK linked to the story, but took a curious approach, citing me as the source that writer David Foster Wallace considered becoming Catholic before his death:

Robert Fay says that novelist David Foster Wallace considered becoming a Catholic before he took his life.

It was not me, but Evan Hughes in his New York Magazine story, which I mention and link to in the essay.

I also had the privileged of emailing with the writer Gregory Wolfe (publisher of the journal Image) about the issue of Catholic writers. He left a comment on The Millions where he recommended his own 2008 essay on the same topic.