For Sale: The Private Letters of David Foster Wallace

9157 lot 150 David Foster Wallace

JT Jackson was David Foster Wallace’s friend and occasional muse at the University of Arizona MFA program they attended together in the nineteen eighties. Or he was Wallace’s old pot dealer, who is now cashing in on the late writer’s legacy. It depends on whom in the inner Wallacesphere you ask. “If JT was a more successful writer,” one person said, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Another described him as “a real character” at the beginning of our conversation, but by the end, he was using words like “charlatan” and “erratic.”

On June 3rd, Sotheby’s is auctioning off a small lot of correspondence sent to Jackson by Wallace over the course of a decade or so—four postcards and eight letters—in addition to an unpublished manuscript of “Shorn,” a short story written for a seminar that would eventually be rewritten and included in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and a presentation copy of The Broom of the System. The auction is expected to fetch between twenty and thirty thousand dollars.

The correspondence is full of intimate and honest dispatches about Wallace’s life. “I’ve never been in a work environment this powerful before,” Wallace wrote on a postcard from Yaddo in 1987. “It is very hard for me getting clean,” he wrote in 1990, from Boston. And while on book tour for Infinite Jest, in 1996, Wallace sent a note, “WAY MORE FUSS ABOUT THIS BOOK THAN I’D ANTICIPATED. ABOUT 26% OF FUSS IS WELCOME. AS YOU SAID YEARS AGO, ‘YUPPIES READ.’”

In Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s acclaimed biography of Wallace, which quotes much of the correspondence, Max clearly states that “JT helped Wallace in crucial ways.” Wallace was the son of academics, Max writes, and had led a relatively sheltered life. Like most writers, Wallace was drawn to those with interesting experiences; by the time Wallace had met Jackson in Arizona, he had been a marine and survived being hit by a truck, which had left him in a coma.

9157 lot 150 David Foster Wallace_2

Matt Bucher, who runs the David Foster Wallace listerv, also doesn’t doubt Jackson’s importance to Wallace, but suggests that Jackson isn’t the best teller of his own story, a quality that he shared with Wallace: “If you met [Wallace] at a party or a reading, you’d have a really negative impression of him,” Bucher explained. “He didn’t like social situations, and negative interactions were frequent.” Today, Jackson remains reticent to speak to the press, and frequently responds in verse. When I first emailed him for an interview, he replied:

Alexis

Ths fool jarhead s a bit odd

  abit more open thn some

  thus susceptible t sayng fool things

n metaphorical ways

n th penance f such public poetry

 r assertion f some obvious

  but specifically obscured

power at play

 steams those t whm th notional benefits stream

He even denied ever selling drugs to Wallace in verse:

Never dealt dope or anything else
Daves demented dissolute drug dealers had MDs n PhDs in psychology
whov made America nto thr guinea pigs
(silence tht slur)
but really

This might come as little surprise to anyone who has read a list of favorite poets that Jackson recently posted to the Wallace listserv:

carolyn forche’ elizabeth bishop Ai Lucile Clifton gwendolyn brooks yusef kumanyakaa amiri baraka

yeats

coleridge

keats

whichever fool wrote the sonnets ascribed to billy boy buffoon of Avon

sappho

homer

mohammed

rumi hafez

on,

and on

beat on

ferlinghetti

gregory corso

wc williams and his protege Alan G.

kenny burke

harry chapin

bruce springsteen

woody guthrie

bob the zimmo

what more y’need

mickey newberry?

let us see

Thom Gunn

mentioned

and again Auden

and Maya Angelou

and friend Sherman (not of Peabody, the native Alexie, basketball and slam king)

who gnew?

have fun with this thread

the poet was heard said

semper fi

friends

pc

out

jt

poetry preferred

According to Jackson, when he first decided to sell the correspondence and manuscripts, he contacted Bonnie Nadell, Wallace’s literary agent, and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which acquired Wallace’s archive in 2010. The archive has continued to grow with purchases and donations from Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, Nadell, and others, including Jackson, who sold the center a small collection of workshop manuscripts two years ago. However, Megan Barnard, the associate director of acquisitions and administration at the Ransom Center, told me that Jackson “did not come to us” with the Sotheby’s lot.

Jackson’s history with the center appears fraught: During negotiations for the items he sold two years ago, he believed that they would catalogued and made available to the public. Recently, however, Jackson took to the comments of a blog post written by Barnard to ask, “did those ever get catalogued n put out?” Other materials acquired by the center around that time have been publicly noted, but “I’ve never seen any announcement or anything on their website,” Bucher said of Jackson’s materials.

Jackson would not tell me how much money he received from the Ransom Center in 2012; one source suggested that it was a paltry sum, just enough to pay for a flight out from Arizona and a hotel. Barnard wouldn’t speculate as to whether or not the center would have purchased the current lot, much less how much it would have paid. Two prior auctions of Wallace materials, overseen by Richard Austin, Sotheby’s head of books & manuscripts—career highlight: bringing an unrecorded Edgar Allen Poe manuscript to auction—have been sold for far more. Last June, Alice Elman, the wife of the late writer Richard Elman, sold twenty-one letters, one postcard and a forty-one-page photocopy of the short story, “Little Expressionless Animals,” for a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Susan Barnett, a writer who never met Wallace, but corresponded with him between 1997 and 2007, sold fourteen letters, five cards, eleven postcards, and a typescript draft of Wallace’s 1985 undergraduate thesis for seventy-five thousand dollars. “Both went to private collectors, which is very pleasing,” Austin told me. “It bodes well for the market.”

9157 lot 150 David Foster Wallace_3

Access to materials remains a tense issue. The Ransom Center’s mission is to acquire, preserve, and provide access to cultural materials for the purpose of “scholarship, education, and delight,” but private collectors are under no such obligation—though Sotheby’s has duly passed on research requests to the winners of the prior two auctions. Nonetheless, if the lot falls into private hands, future biographers may never again have access to the letters. (Barnard would not comment on whether the center would place a bid in next’s auction, but it has a robust acquisitions budget.)

Whatever the fate of the materials, Jackson told me that because of his medical needs, he has little choice. “I have to do this. I don’t especially want to, but if I don’t do it, my circumstances can’t ever improve. America doesn’t treat this class of workers well.” Besides, even if “the husk is going private,” he added, “the nutrition has already gone public.”

Alexis Coe‘s first book, Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, will be published later this year. She has contributed to the Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Slate, the Toast, the Hairpin, and many other publications.

Would you like to buy something weird? Hammer Time is our guide to things that are for sale at auction: fantastic, consequential and freakishly grotesque archival treasures that appear in public for just a brief moment, most likely never to be seen again.

All images by Sotheby’s

This piece has been updated to include Jackson’s denial that he ever sold drugs to Wallace, and to correct the spelling of “Elman.”