“Ticket to the Fair” by David Foster Wallace (1994)


An early David Foster Wallace publicity photo from Little, Brown. Photograph: Marion Ettlinger

David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962 to James Donald Wallace and Sally Foster Wallace, two teachers then living in Ithaca, New York. After his father received his PhD in philosophy at Cornell, the family moved to Illinois, where he attended the Yankee Ridge school and Urbana High School. In his adolescence (described in his first essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood”), Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis player, began to smoke marijuana and watched “enormous amounts of television.”

After suffering a panic attack during an interview at Oberlin College (a scene recreated at the opening of his mammoth 1996 novel, Infinite Jest), Wallace attended his father’s alma mater, Amherst College, where he double-majored in philosophy and English. His senior thesis on modal logic, Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality won the Gail Kennedy Memorial Prize; his senior thesis for the English department, The Broom of the System, was published as his debut novel after he received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona in 1987. In 1989, he began graduate school in philosophy at Harvard University, but quickly abandoned it for an adjunct position teaching literature at Emerson College.

His first book of nonfiction, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present was co-authored with Mark Costello in 1990 following a 20-page version that appeared in The Missouri Review. He continued to publish essays and articles for The Washington Post, The New York Times, GQ, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The New Yorker, Science, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. In 1997, he published his first collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (named for his canonical essay about the hedonism of a seven-day cruise through the Caribbean).

Before his death in 2008, Wallace published two short story collections (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion), a book-length dispatch from John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign (Up, Simba!), another collection of essays (Consider the Lobster) and a book on infinity (Everything and More). In 2007, Wallace decided to stop taking the antidepressant Nardil which he’d been prescribed for twenty years. In September of the following year, he committed suicide, hanging himself from the patio of his home in Claremont, California. He left behind a neat 200-page manuscript that, in 2011, in addition to hundreds of additional pages found on old computers, floppy disks, etc., became his third and uncompleted novel, The Pale King; it was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (no award was given that year). In 2012, a third collection of essays was published, called Both Flesh and Not.


“Ticket to the Fair” is Foster-Wallace’s extensive account of his visit to the Illinois State Fair in the summer of 1994 (published in July of that year by Harper’s Magazine). It is both reportage and essay, written in first-person, time-stamped sections that proceed chronologically by way of hi-def depictions, pop cultural criticism and caffeinated prose.

Cropped version of Harper's archived folio of Ticket to the Fair

Ostensibly, his conceit is a straight-forward feature piece. Harper’s has deployed him to the fair as a hypersensitive instrument; he is meant to survey, experience and report back. What follows is a 15,000-word portrayal of the spectacle that scrutinized the meaning of the American ritual, the fairgoers and the author, himself. The characters we’re presented with are more or less archetypes: politicians, carnies, yokels, no-collar “Ag-pros”, teenagers, “florid, blue-jawed, bull-necked, flinty-eyed” dads, evangelical Christians, et al. Wallace uses a “Native Companion”–his high school prom date whom he’s taken along for the ride–as a counterpoint to himself. Where he observes, she participates; he is neurotic, she is simpatico; he is overwhelmed by stimuli, she’s thrilled by them. More to the point, he is the East Coast and she is the heartland, a living image of what he could have been had he stayed on in Illinois.

Wallace can’t help but cogitate at every turn–a tick he confesses self-deprecatingly–but what makes his insights so sharp isn’t clinical detachment; it’s his total vulnerability. Comic or melancholy (and usually both), the fulcrum of the piece is irony: the more intense his immersion, the more he is alienated by “the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of the crowd.”

As The New York Times video journalist, Brent McDonald put it in his analysis for Nieman Storyboard, “If, as [Wallace] suggests, ‘the real spectacle that draws us here is us,’ then what keeps us reading feverishly to that last line is him.”


“The Illinois State Fair”, Photograph: Matthew Gilliam Photography

“Ticket to the Fair” was originally published in the July 1994 issue of Harper’s Magazine, a monthly magazine of literary journalism covering contemporary culture, politics, finance and fine arts. Founded in June 1850 in New York City (where it remains based today), Harper’s is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. Straight away, Wallace appropriates the cultural context of his piece, making Harper’s–and by extension, himself–a synecdoche for East Coast parochialism:

I suspect that every so often editors at East Coast magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90 percent of the United States lies between the coasts, and figure they’ll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish.

Wallace later confessed to two departures from the facts reported in the essay–concerning the baton twirler scene and, in a later edition, his Native Companion. Wallace biographer D.T. Max (Every Love Story is a Ghost Story) said: “The odd thing is that I don’t think he needed to do this. His prose and perceptions are so rich that he didn’t really have to make these embellishments. In my mind his embellishments were always a little shticky. I don’t think those pieces would have been much less admired if he’d been a little more literal-minded in what he saw. But I think that every intelligent reader could have guessed, for instance, that the tomahawking cheerleader baton that flies at the state fair doesn’t really knock down the guy holding the video camera. It reads like comedy.”

In this regard, Wallace told David Lipsky (Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself), “Nothin’, nothin’ in there is made up. That’s so weird, I’ve never done something–well, maybe the baton twirling wasn’t quite the carnage that…Although it seemed awfully dangerous at the time.”

Photograph from the State Journal-Register, Credit: Harper’s Magazine

“The thing is, really” Wallace said in a 1998 interview for The Boston Phoenix, “Between you and me and The Boston Phoenix’s understanding readers–you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.”

Despite its length and poetic license, Harper’s ran the piece as is. Colin Harrison, Wallace’s editor at the magazine, said of the piece: “As readers, we knew we had pure cocaine on our hands.”


In 1997, the essay was republished in Wallace’s collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again with the title “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All.” Wallace told Lipsky, in this version, he’d used “somebody else’s voice” for his Native Companion.

In 2003, John D’Agata anthologized the original version in his collection, The Next American Essay.

Courtesy of the Illinois State Fair, Credit: Harper’s Magazine



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Kev, Chitown. “How 2012 Became The Year of the D.F. Wallace Gravy Train.” Daily Kos. Kos Media, LLC, 3 Jan. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Lipsky, David. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print.

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