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World’s Fair

By E.L. Doctorow

Original and Current Publisher: Random House 

Harold Augenbraum writes:

The Bronx as a series of sepia-tinged Brownie shots made of words, multi-voiced, atmospheric, and one of the great coming of age scenes in American literature, Doctorow’s landscape also seen in Billy Bathgate and other writings, The Grand Concourse, Morris Avenue, Mt. Eden Avenue (full disclosure: I live in The Bronx and think about Doctorow every time I pass Bathgate Avenue, which is often). The urban child, the main character in this book, is named Edgar (the “E” of E.L. Doctorow, though I doubt this character is exactly he), a bit of a literary prodigy wandering the Bronx streets that Doctorow the writer raises to myth by setting it into the context of the great mythmaking powers of the World’s Fair, visions of the future that change portrayals of the present and the past, personal, social and political, “the daily tempest of my life among these elemental powers” and “I secretly grieved for the dark mysterious things my parents did in the privacy of their relationship, the young narrator writes.

These private things he doesn’t understand but that he craves doing, the typical American boy (he enters a writing contest on the topic) with his friend Meg, when his instincts take over and he mimics sex with a water bottle and Meg’s doll (the water is a significant carry-over image to the next scene), which leads to one of the great growing up scenes in American literature, when Edgar accompanies Meg and her mother Norma to the New York World’s Fair, the 1939-40 LaGuardia fair in Queens, where Norma works as sort of bathing beauty, but in this case she cavorts in a tank with Oscar the Amorous Octopus, a man in an octopus suit who removes his friend’s mother’s bathing suit (isn’t it every boy’s fantasy to see his friend’s mother naked?), but this too in the context of the Fair, of mysteries of the future, of possibility achingly desired but unformed. When I first read World’s Fair twenty years ago, I remember thinking about its relationship to Tolstoy’s War and Peace—I know that sounds strange—but the embedding of the wondering boy in surroundings of the images and musings on momentousness—The Bronx and the World’s Fair versus Russia and The Napoleonic Wars—redirected the meaning—to me—of the historical novel, the obscure and quotidian versus the well-known and rare—as it conveyed the personal within the political. A beautiful piece of work, and, in my opinion, along with Lives of the Poets, one of Doctorow’s best.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9780812978209

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Norman Rush for Whites 
  • Peter Taylor for A Summons to Memphis

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx, New York City. He attended city public grade schools and the Bronx High School of Science where, surrounded by students who excelled in math and science, he spent most of this time in the office of the school literary magazine, Dynamo. It was in this magazine that he published his first literary effort, The Beetle, which was inspired by his reading of Kafka.

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