Following David Foster Wallace's suicide on Sept. 12, stunned fans, colleagues and friends paid tribute to the writer in countless articles and blog posts. They wrote of his imagination and breadth of knowledge, of the ways in which his books and essays inspired a generation of writers and forever altered the literary landscape. They used words like "virtuoso" and "genius." Many, like Jocelyn Zuckerman, the Gourmet editor who went to bat for Wallace's infamous and groundbreaking essay "Consider the Lobster," a masterwork that morphed from a scene piece about a festival in Maine into an essay about whether it's ethical to boil lobsters alive (short answer: no), now mourn the enormous talent the world has lost. "A lot of people," she says, "are really sad for all the books we're not going to get to read."
Those who knew him personally speak of his kindness: Longtime agent Bonnie Nadell recalls how he stood on line at FedEx the week before Christmas to mail an autographed book to a fan. "He would just do things like that because he was a really sweet person," she says. His students at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., remember the committed, engaged teacher: Amanda Shapiro had taken writing classes with him the past three years, and recalls the copious comments she got back from him about her assignments. "He would write five pages of notes on a six-page story," she says, "and put so much care and thought into helping us as writers. He would type out the letters, and then annotate them, in pen, with little smiley faces and notes and corrections."
A common thread running through the many magazine and newspaper tributes, the online eulogies and recalled anecdotes, was shock. Wallace may have been a hugely influential and critically celebrated figure, the winner, in 1997, of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, but he was also a very quiet one. He had given few interviews in recent years, and he found much of the fame that came with literary success, the adoration and spotlight that countless other writers would have killed for a taste of, embarrassing and uncomfortable. He taught creative writing at Pomona, wrote short stories and essays and attended the occasional book reading and conference. When news of his suicide began to spread, fans were left wondering: Why? Why had this gifted, funny, often disarmingly humble writer -- a man with seemingly so much to live for -- taken his own life?