Best known for his 1,000+ page post-modern door-stopper Infinite Jest, for which he won a McArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” writer David Foster Wallace is also known for his use (some might say “absuse”) of footnotes. Infinite Jest has 400 footnotes – and it is work of fiction, not a definitive scholarly text about jesters or infinity. I have recently discovered a writing sample by a young Wallace that shows that his penchant for footnotes began as early as the fourth grade.
In my upcoming article to be published in American Literary Review or National Lampoon – “Hey, look Down Here!: The Use of Footnotes in Post-Modern, Post-Ironic American Fiction: Toward a Reconsideration” – I examine the use of footnotes by Wallace and others writers. In the article I also reveal that Wallace began toying with “head-notes” and even “butt-head notes” in the third grade. The use of the former was considered to unwieldy and the use of the latter was scrapped as it created uncontrollable giggles in the young Wallace and his more bookish friends.
Below I have excerpted a portion of the writing sample I discovered, a fourth grade writing assignment called, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”. Wallace’s paper was 27 pages long, contained 83 footnotes, mentioned War and Peace, President Andrew Johnson’s mistreatment of American Indians, Jell-O pudding, and what he did during this summer vacation. The assignment called for only two pages. Wallace received an “A-“on the paper. He would have received an “A+” but points were deducted for disregarding the instructions.
This summer I read War and Peace1 rather than waste time acting out an American version of war and peace2 by playing Cowboys3 and Indians 4 5 with some of the boys6 in my neighborhood. Sadly, my mother forced me out of doors in mid-June7. My suggestion to the other boys that we play the roles of the Russians and French from War and Peace8 was met with peals of laughter, then scowling and then fisticuffs9. I received an epic drubbing10. I spent the remainder of summer vacation indoors, except when I went to Cape Cod and ate lobsters with my grandparents11. I finished War and Peace in late July12.
1. Without Cliff Notes!
2. I suppose we could also be playing “Americans and North Vietnamese” but Tommy McCullough’s brother was drafted last year and had his arm shot off. I thought no one would want to play the part of the Viet Cong.
3. I never found the myth of the Western Cowboys to be that compelling.
4. I have never met an Indian so I am not sure why I would want to scalp, shoot or kill one. I am not sure any of the other boys have ever met one either.
5. Bad, Andrew Jackson, bad!
6. The boys included Tommy McCullough, Richie Harris, Tim Schaffer, Tim Schaffer’s slow* half-brother, Johnny, Randy Gannon and Peter Kim. (* Johnny is both a slow runner and mentally slow.)
7. June 16th, to be exact. I felt this exact date was not needed as the assignment called for broad strokes.
8. Randy Gannon would be my fist choice to play Napoleon. I, of course, would take the dashing and romantic Prince Andrew Bolonsky.
9. More than fists were eventually used. I was beaten with a stick that resembled a peela. I wish I had had a peelb to which I could escape.
(a) From the Middle English pele; a usually long-handled spade-shaped instrument that is used chiefly by bakers for getting something (as bread or pies) into or out of the oven.
(b) From Latin palus stake; a medieval small massive fortified tower along the Scottish-English border.
10. I love this word, but hated being on the receiving end of this word. I am glad I did not mention playing “Americans and North Vietnamese.
11. I did not eat lobster with a side dish of grandparents; rather, my grandparents** took me to eat lobster. You could say that I gave the lobster a drubbing and not be lying. (** Maternal not paternal.)
12. I intend to write a full review of “War and Peace” for the literary journal I want to start this year. I have several 5th graders who are interested in submitting some poetry and prose. Will I get extra credit for this? Will anyone read it?