When David Foster Wallace Taught Paul Thomas Anderson


Arts & Culture

Paul Thomas Anderson and Dainel Day-Lewis

Anderson in 2007. Photo: Jürgen Fauth, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1990, years before he published Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace came on as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, in Boston. As D. T. Max writes in his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, this wasn’t such a hot time for Wallace. He was mentally unstable in those years, and actively ashamed of his latest collection of stories, Girl with Curious Hair; when the Emerson English department posted an advertisement for it, he tore it down. And teaching offered no reprieve from the problems he had with his writing and the culture at large. In a letter to Jonathan Franzen, he called his students “infants”: “you almost have to cradle their heads to help their necks support the skull’s weight.” Were the youth simply too enamored of TV’s easy charms? Max writes,

The students he was teaching made him feel the problem was worse than he had known. They were the Letterman generation he had imagined in [his short story] “My Appearance,” proud of their knowingness. “They’re all ‘television’ majors, whatever that means,” he complained to [David] Markson, adding that he’d had his wrist slapped by his department for “ ‘frustrating’ the students” with a DeLillo novel (he does not say which) by which he meant to wake them up … Wallace knew he did not want to stay at Emerson long.

Still, because he was fluent in TV, Wallace found himself popular with the students. And at least one of them came away emboldened by that “frustrating” experience with DeLillo: Paul Thomas Anderson, whose latest film, Inherent Vice, is in wide release this week.

Yesterday, on a new episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Anderson—who had similar gripes with higher education and never finished college—spoke at length about his time with Wallace, whom he adored.

When I was at Emerson for that year, David Foster Wallace, who was a great writer who was not known then, was my teacher—he was my English teacher … It was the first teacher I fell in love with. I’d never found anybody else like that at any of the other schools I’d been to. Which makes me really reticent to talk shit about schools or anything else, because it’s just like anyplace—if you could find a good teacher, man, I’m sure school would be great.

“So why didn’t you stay?” Maron asks.

“He left,” Anderson says. He goes on:

I called him once. He was very generous with his phone number. He said “Call me if you got any questions,” and I called him a couple times … I ran a few ideas by him about this paper that I was writing. I was writing a paper on Don DeLillo’s White Noise … I’d come up with a couple crazy ideas, and I don’t remember the conversation well, but I just remember him being real generous at like, you know, midnight the night before it was due … I’d love to go back and read [White Noise] again.

We’ll never know what Wallace thought of Anderson as a student—or if he even remembered teaching him. But Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story tells us he was aware of Anderson’s films, at least—he was a fan of Boogie Nights, which he told a friend was “exactly the story” he’d wanted to write. (He went on to write about porn himself in the essay “Big Red Son.”) He was less jazzed about Magnolia, though, which he found pretentious, hollow, and “100% gradschoolish in a bad way.”

Anderson wouldn’t disagree with that assessment, I suspect—in his WTF interview, he confesses that he’d cut the film entirely differently if he made it today. (“I wasn’t really editing myself,” he says. “It’s way too fucking long.”) If you’re not familiar with WTF, the Anderson episode is a great starting point: you can listen to the whole thing here.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.