David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair” The Next American Essay


The Next American Essay

This is a lengthy essay about the author’s experience at the Illinois State Fair in 1993. It is written in first person and is organized into sections according to day, time and location. This organization contributes to Wallace’s almost anthropological approach to writing about his experience. He provides readers with a plethora of details about the types of people, food and animals and spices up the details with occasional comments. These comments, humorous, poignant, and often sarcastic, help Wallace reveal himself without going into mundane background details.

For example, “Middle-management types enter…The words ‘excited,’ proud,’ and ‘opportunity’ are used repeatedly. Ms. Illinois County Fairs…is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, sweating freely in suits, who report the excited pride of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to have the opportunity to be this year’s corporate sponsors.” Statements like these help illustrate Wallace and his world view by, in a way, mocking others’. This mockery however does not come off judgmental or arrogant because no one escapes its wrath. Wallace does not hesitate to mock either Harper’s, the magazine that publishes the essay (“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”) or himself (“I’m reluctant to go shirtless because there’d be no way to display my credentials”), thus maintaining the same casual, curious, and occasionally sarcastic tone throughout the piece.

“Ticket to the Fair” is reminiscent of a travelogue so the primary tension is between the author and his environment. But instead of taking the readers to a far away locale, Wallace travels to the most commonplace of environments to illustrate that one does not need to go far to encounter something exotic. In particular, Wallace addresses the question of why people in the Midwest go to state fairs. In the end he writes, “The East Coast existential treat is escape from confines and stimuli-quiet, rustic vistas that hold still, turn inward, turn away. No so in rural Midwest. Here you’re pretty much away all the time. The land is big here-board-game flat, horizons in every direction…Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd. To see something besides land and grass and corn and cable TV and your wife’s face. Hence the sacredness out here of spectacle, public event: high-school football, Little League, parades, bingo, market day, fair…The real spectacle that draws us here is us.”

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