David Foster Wallace Dies at 46

Posted by Lisa Franzetta, ALDF's Director of Communications on September 17, 2008

Like so many of us, I opened my newspaper this weekend to read in shock about the suicide of noted author David Foster Wallace. I wouldn’t presume to comment on the life or the written achievements of a man widely considered one of the literary geniuses of his generation, other than to express my own sadness at the tragedy of his premature death. I’ll echo the sentiment of a radio commentator I heard memorializing him earlier this week, who suggested that when such a brilliant mind takes his own life, the rest of us are left to wonder, darkly–”what did he know that we don’t?”

Many in both culinary and animal protection circles will remember Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster,” in which he explored the moral issues raised by inflicting suffering on even the primitive lobster–”basically giant sea-insects”–for the sake of a palate preference. In 2003, Wallace had been sent by Gourmet magazine to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. However, instead of reporting back solely on the myriad ways of preparing lobster and serving it on Styrofoam trays to 80,000 tourists hopped up on melted butter, his essay treaded unapologetically into much deeper waters:

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?

Wallace used his characteristic candor to pull-no-punches with his flawless prose, even as he recognized that his take on the subject was likely to unsettle the unsuspecting Gourmet reader:

The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of gourmet wish to think hard about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

His voice will be missed by so many, including the many whose eyes were first opened to considering the ethical meaning of our interactions with even the maybe-not-so-simple-after-all lobster. You can read the full text of David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” here.