The Sheepskin Email

Posted: February 18th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: DFW, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

This is a little something I wrote a long time ago, for the first DFW Conference at Illinois State University, in 2014.

I remember submitting a proposal to that conference and wanting to do something short and easy but also something that relied on Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. I think the only place it was published before was in the volume of conference papers.

The Sheepskin Email by Matt Bucher

One day I was sitting in the well-appointed and hallowed space of the central reading room at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, and at my large oak table, I was gently handling a manila folder with plain white sheets of printed-out emails. I was carefully turning through 8.5” x 11″ xeroxes of emails written by when I noticed two librarians approaching me, wheeling a massive cart. Apparently the woman at the table across from me had requested a four-foot high, leather and sheepskin-bound Latin processional book published in Spain in 1462. It came wrapped in a custom velour blanket, and was transported in its own cart. It required two librarians to lift the heavy object from the cart onto the table’s special pillowed, bookstand, the way two paramedics might lift a dead body off a gurney. As I watched this ceremonial procedure take place, I wondered if I was not watching a brief morality play about the progress of technology. It was as if the future of literary archives had set these two endpoints before me, leather and sheepskin at one end and email at the other.

And yet, even as an object, that turdnagel email address interested me more than the Latin processional tome. I had gone out of my way to read these emails (on paper) because they make up part of the officially archived correspondence of David Foster Wallace. And I was curious about how a writer born on one side of the digital divide interacted with technology over the course of his career. The way he chose to communicate matters, I think. Do many writers working today bother to preserve their emails or digital files for archivists?

David Foster Wallace began his writing career in the analog era—and he remained distanced, skeptical, and downright resistant to computers, email, and the Internet in general, but he did use them eventually.

Some of the purest evidence of Wallace’s life in the analog era comes in the form of the handwritten drafts of Infinite Jest available in the Ransom Center. The drafts are extensively worked over, with annotations and edits, often in different colors of ink. The pen is clearly an extension of the author here. This makes the editing and creation process transparent. And yet here is little-to-no evidence of how his edits worked on his own Word documents. The archives include no printouts of PDF markup tools or Word’s track-changes function. How did the computer, the machine influence his creative process? It’s an interesting question, but today I want to focus on his correspondence.

Wallace’s first manuscripts written on a computer came in the early 1990s, but it was not until 2001 in Illinois that Wallace began using email, though he had certainly tried out the World Wide Web before then. The process that initiated his adoption of email was his need to communicate with his agent, who was in California, his publishers in New York, his research assistant (on Everything & More) in Bloomington, and his family and friends. Up until 2001, DFW had communicated with his agents exclusively through phone calls and mailed letters (and occasional in-person meetings).

By 1994, most college campuses had system-wide email, but it was relatively easy for the stubborn professor or two to shrug it off—at least until the turn of the century or so. In “Tense Present,” published in 2001, he wrote “You don’t, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer.” Any professor shunning email or computers entirely these days is the stuff of legend.

In 1988, Wallace told Steven Moore, “I’m shitty at computers.” His initial forays into electronic publishing and word processors made him feel old. Although he eschewed fancy pens and bonded paper, he preferred the comforts of a simple Bic pen and legal pad. Computers, and technology in general, were a cause of frustration in his life and work.

In late 1999, Wallace accepted an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to cover the McCain campaign and the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina. His turnaround time from traveling with the campaign to submitting his piece was incredibly tight: he had fewer than three weeks to write and edit the piece. The leisurely editing pace Wallace experienced with longer lead-time publications was gone and he had to do most of the editing over the phone or, shudder, by driving across town to a Kinko’s to fax in revisions.

This brutal experience informed his decision to perhaps give email a try once he began the process of writing and researching his book on Georg Cantor in earnest in late 2000. This book on mathematics took so much longer than he had anticipated and greatly distracted him from writing fiction. Some of the first emails Wallace sent were to a graduate student he hired to check some of his proofs and mathematical reasoning. Unfortunately, she introduced as many errors as she fixed and Wallace had to complete another round of revisions after the hardcover was published.

Wallace did have a computer at home in 2000, but he tells Steven Moore in April of that year “I don’t even have a modem yet, which people here regard as weird and Ludditic, but mostly I just don’t want to have to see any more ads than I already see every day.” The David Wallace of The Pale King says “I can’t think anyone believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.” Giving up pen and paper for a username and a password is a significant shift, a loss of control, and one Wallace approached with skepticism and dread.

In February of 2001, he was still faxing cuts of “Tense Present” to Harpers via “Borrowed Fax.” Wallace loved, or at least had fun with, the now obsolete convention of the Fax Cover Sheet. In fact, he held on to faxing until at least 2004. He was an extremely creative person and the impulse to draw and scribble and add smiley faces and the general lexical mess he could make of a page were stifled by email. However, email did not stop him from sending handwritten postcards and letters—a practice he continued until the end. And he did eventually adopt a unique email signature –  /dw/ – and adopted basic smiley-face emoticons.

Wallace’s first email address was Why he chose over the more popular Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL, remains a mystery. Who knows? The name TPDRITZ appears to be a fictional character name, as “Herb Dritz” shows up in The Pale King as a Schedule F Specialist, but it’s obvious why he didn’t want an easily recognizable handle: if word got out that actually reached the Man Himself, he would surely have been inundated by mail from strangers, which he would have felt obligated to respond to. No doubt some part of Wallace found the relative anonymity of the internet very appealing.

“I allow myself to Webulize only once a week now,” he wrote to Erica Neely in July 2001. However, most of his writing at that point still began with a pen and not a keyboard. When he moved to Pomona in 2002, he kept the tpdritz handle on the Pomona email system, but in the “real name” field he added “Ryan Trask.” The only literary connection I could find to that pseudonym was the character Myrnaloy Trask from his story “Order and Flux in Northampton.” It served as a good foil, though, because it sounds like a student’s name.

Wallace later switched his official work email account to Comcast rather than Pomona. His personal email address was and his school email was Obviously, Ocapmycap is a reference to Walt Whitman’s poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln (made famous in Dead Poets Society, wherein the earnest young students are told they can address their literature professor as “O Captain My Captain” if they feel daring enough). It’s a testament to both Wallace’s humor and belief in the triumph of art that he had his students effectively address him as such by emailing if they were daring enough to email him at all.

“Turdnagel” is also mentioned in The Pale King as a diminutive of sorts, a cross between a plebe and brown-noser. But the word also shows up in Don Delillo’s “Players.” I think it’s just a funny, scatological word that Wallace liked. He also called one of his dogs “Turdnagel.” Lee Konstantinou has a theory that the term is related to philosopher Thomas Nagel. It also appears that Wallace used the handle “turdnagel” to play a game of online chess in Spring 2008 on the website RedHotPawn.

Online chess:

Turdnagel – joined 23 Mar 08 / last move 10 June 08

He stopped using Pomona’s email system altogether in 2004 and at some point in late 2006 or early 2007 he consolidated all of his email correspondence into

The printouts in the archive do not include any of the attachments included with the emails Wallace and Nadell sent to each other. Future archivists should make sure they are included in the original acquisition and writers should take care to preserve original attachments whenever possible. Curiously, there is no evidence in the archive that Wallace emailed anyone at Little, Brown directly – he always emailed his agent or wrote paper letters to Little, Brown. He was somewhat secretive about his own email habits and kept his authorial distance.

If we examine the email printouts closely, we see a few details—like the fact Bonnie Nadell’s email client is Yahoo—but not as much “personality” comes across as in his handwritten letters. And these plain white pieces of paper really require no special archival handling, nothing remotely approaching that sheepskin behemoth I saw. The copy paper could easily be Xeroxed without any damage done to the originals. I assume that most if not all of the electronic versions of these files are lost or deleted now and we will have to rely on the printouts for the rest of eternity. Of course, this is not ideal. The printout itself, with its corporate logos and metadata and uniform fonts, are deeply banal and boring. I would hope that some forward-thinking author preserves digital backups of their email archive (and computer files in general) or even shares all of their account passwords with their literary executor or spouse. One could envision a virtual inbox where scholars might be able to search and emulate a logged-in version of an author’s own email.

There are hundreds of Wallace’s letters in the Ransom Center’s archive, but there is just no way that the Ransom Center has anything near a fraction of the emails Wallace sent or received. It will be interesting to see how many of them Stephen Burn will be able to collect for his upcoming volume of letters, but it’s highly likely that some of the emails Wallace sent to translators, friends, agents, editors, and colleagues, have already been deleted or lost. Most of his correspondents are still living and some consider the emails and letters too precious or private to share with fans or scholars. So we will never have a complete picture of his correspondence—and no idea really how incomplete it is.

Presidential scholars are already faced with this task – how do you archive and collect an administration’s digital assets, which might include everything from eight years of tweets, Facebook posts and comments, millions of staff text messages, emails, Instagram pics, Reddit AMAs, and the administration’s unique data architecture? Do you try to print it all out and put it into manila folders? It makes much more sense to turn over that vast amount of data and metadata to scholars in a digital format, so why haven’t authors and literary archives followed suit?

The value of an author’s archive lies not just in the amount of information it contains, but also in the shared sense of identity we create about literature by collecting these specific things and that in turn teaches future generations wherein our values lie.

The scholar who requested that huge processional volume in the reading room told me that it required up to five animals to be slaughter to provide the skins necessary to craft a single page. Hundreds of animals were led to slaughter to preserve a single processional song. The current leading lights of literature could preserve their correspondence for future researchers with considerably less bloodshed—just a drop or two of foresight.

Twenty Years of wallace-l

Posted: April 29th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: DFW | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“Are we not all of us fanatics?”—Infinite Jest

Today marks twenty years since the first email was sent to Since that day, another 77,000 emails have found their way through the servers and in to the inboxes of thousands of subscribers. Twenty years of email! The very phrase inspires dread in some. Yet, these emails have brought me so many delightful surprises, so many new ideas to consider, and a real sense of community.

In 2009, I wrote a history of how wallace-l came to be, so I won’t rehash that particular story here. I expected traffic to decline after Wallace’s death in 2008 and it has somewhat, but each month sees a handful of new, substantive posts. After his death, we began to see the emergence of a real “Wallace Studies” in academia as well as other discussion-worthy topics like David Lipsky’s book-length interview, D.T. Max’s biography, the publication of The Pale King, the opening of his archive at the Ransom Center, and dozens of other scholarly works. What has had a greater impact on the email list is the rise of Twitter and Facebook. I now retweet links about Wallace or any mentions of his work rather than composing a new email. But there are still things that cannot be said in 140 characters. I created a list of wallace-l members on Twitter and find myself reading the sorts of short messages there that might have passed as just-chiming-in emails in the past. But, the advantage of email remains, its primitiveness, its text-only nature, and its anonymity. Facebook forces us to focus on the visual elements, the lazy scroll that does not push us to read its contents so much as to “react” to them.

But, despite a decrease in traffic, I suspect there will be many more anniversaries to celebrate. So, it might seem like 20 years is a long time for an email listserv (and it is), but The Howling Fantods is almost 20, and we are getting to the point where digital communities have established and entrenched histories and archives.

I’ve asked Rob Short, who has done some scholarly work on the Wallace fan community, to compile some statistics for this anniversary. So, any stats mentioned here are courtesy of him.

  • The top five posters (who, coincidentally, represent the “over 2,000 posts” club) have collectively contributed over 14,000 posts.
  • Those folks are:
    • George Carr (3,707)
    • Hillary Brown (3,295)
    • Prabhakar Ragde (2,540)
    • Maria Bustillos (2,410), and
    • Matt Bucher (2,094).

Most of those posts (thousands!) were from a period of years before 2008. So, looking at those names for me in 2016 calls to mind an earlier time when Wallace was still writing and publishing, and finding others to talk about his work was vital, an epiphany. And yet, for all those names that popped up in the “from” field of emails, there are hundreds of other subscribers who simply lurk and have never posted.

Rob also created a word cloud of the most-used terms in all wallace-l posts.

Earlier this month, I asked our 1400+ subscribers to send me any sort of fond memories or kind words about the listserv and I will share a couple of those stories below. If you have not read Maria Bustillos’s appreciation of the list, do check it out. A few people emailed me and thanked me for keeping the list going, but the dirty secret of that is that it doesn’t require much work from me at all. In fact, I want to thank all of you who have contributed to such enlightening conversations and who have provided for me the best possible home on the web I could imagine, a real Shangri-La.

The true heroes behind the scenes are the mysterious folks who own and operate I know almost nothing about them. They have never asked us for anything. In return for hosting the listserv (and Pynchon-l and a lot of other stuff) for 20+ years, they have literally never contacted me or anyone I know. The FAQ states:

Who pays for it?

Back when internet was expensive and we had a bunch of phone lines (and we were young and poor), WASTE was supported primarily by user donations. Today, you should probably give your money to the EFF instead.

So that’s exactly what I’m going to ask you to do. If you are inclined to thank for hosting wallace-l all these years, please make a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Now I am going to leave you with two stories from longtime members of the list. Here’s to another 20 years.

George Carr’s story

I’ve been on the list since about 2002, no later than 2003; as I wrote in the blurb that’s still up on the Howling Fantods describing the Brief Interviews Project, I joined after re-reading Brief Interviews and looking for online reviews & commentary. I can’t say exactly when I joined, as my Gmail account only goes back to 2004; I remember getting my Gmail Beta invitation from a fellow lister!

The story that dominates the early years of my time on wallace-l was gathering all the unpublished pieces for what would become the original samizdat DFW Reader; that was a major group effort, as I got scans and Inter-Library Loans from all over the country, and even talked to staffers in the archives of the newspapers that DFW reviewed books for, to make a little extra scratch. The resulting book is a project I’m still proud of, even though more than half of it has since been officially published; I loved how listers were so willing to pen their own essays about wallace-l, and how easy it was to get people excited about the prospect of reading more of DFW’s work.

Oddly, I was kind of distanced from wallace-l by the time Wallace died; we hadn’t done a Group Read in some time, since finishing the big Oblivion analysis project (“OO” in each email header, please!) and I was just treading water until the next book came out. His death actually happened on my wedding anniversary, so every year I commemorate both events, each year more one than the other.

I remember the list being VERY cathartic around the time of Wallace’s death; whatever part of my feelings I wanted to indulge, I could find companionship on wallace-l: cold-eyed cynicism, frustration at the treatment/pharmaceutical scenario that led to his death, awed contemplation of the much deeper and different grief experienced by his family and close friends; it was all thrown out there, as we all helped each other figure out the best way to come out the other end of that tunnel of emotion. In a strange way, that experience and the wallace-l help with processing it helped me greatly when my mother died almost a decade later; by then, I knew pretty well how to feel grief while understanding it at the same time, and what kind of emotional place I wanted to aim for, after the immediate sadness was over. Having felt such frustration and anger over Wallace’s untimely demise, the fact that she lived a long and full life — raising children, traveling the world, reading great literature in depth — made it ultimately easier to deal with her death, emotionally.

Even after the publication of TPK and the realization that there just won’t ever be any more DFW, and even after the amateur analysis we’ve done has been mostly surpassed by the work of hardcore academics, I’ve never felt it would be right to leave wallace-l. It played such a huge part in what I now consider my maturing years, helping create my adult-ish attitudes about everything from what makes great fiction to online etiquette, I don’t ever want it to come to an end. But if it does, I’ll know how to deal with it.

These days, I mostly enjoy the discussion of everyone’s reading lists, and new discoveries that kindle some of the same fire that burns hot in DFW’s writings. I continue to meet up face-to-face with listers whenever possible, and love keeping an ear on the chatter; some of my favorite books of the past decade have found me through wallace-l recommendations.

Ryan Blanck’s story

I know it sounds cheesy and cliché, but finding wallace-l was, in many ways, a life-changing event for me. Maybe not on par with a religious conversion, but it was a profoundly important thing for me.

The stars aligned in the spring of 2009 as I was introduced to DFW, then started my Letters to DFW blog, then I found “my people” in wallace-l. I was a novice writer wanting to take my craft to a new level. I found my muse. And I found a community to help foster my growth.

Because of wallace-l, I was able to hone my art and craft as a writer. I was able to move from periodic blog posts to writing and publishing my book, Supposedly Fun Things. I was afforded the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antwerp to present my first academic paper at the Work in Process conference. I was named a Featured Panelist at the first annual DFW conference, which led to the publication of my Infinite LEGO book. And most recently, I was asked to be a guide in the Infinite Winter group read.

But more than these opportunities and experiences has been the friendships I’ve forged through Wallace-l. Even though I’ve only met a handful of listers in person, I feel an incredible bond to this worldwide group of fans and scholars. And for that I am grateful.

From DFW to wallace-l

As I mentioned in my 2009 article about wallace-l, there was one instance where David Foster Wallace was asked directly about this email list that followed his every word. At a March 2003 Bookworm event at Barnes & Noble in LA, list-member Christina Wilson asked him to write a brief message to the list. That note was, at one time, posted on a wallace-l resources page created by Marcel Molina called That page is long gone so I want to repost the message here, for a little more posterity: