Hailed by critics from coast to coast and by readers of all ages, this resonant novel is one of E.L. Doctorow’s greatest works of fiction. It is 1939, and even as the rumbles of progress are being felt worldwide, New York City clings to remnants of the past, with horse-drawn wagons, street peddlers, and hurdy-gurdy men still toiling in its streets. For nine-year-old Edgar Altschuler, life is stoopball and radio serials, idolizing Joe DiMaggio, and enduring the conflicts between his realist mother and his dreamer of a father. The forthcoming Word’s Fair beckons, an amazing vision of American automation, inventiveness, and prosperity—and Edgar Altschuler responds.
A marvelous work from a master storyteller, World’s Fair is a book about a boy who must surrender his innocence to come of age, and a generation that must survive great hardship to reach its future.
Praise for World’s Fair
“Something close to magic.”—Los Angeles Times
“World’s Fair is better than a time capsule; it’s an actual slice of a long-ago world, and we emerge from it as dazed as those visitors standing on the corner of the future.”—Anne Tyler
“Doctorow has managed to regain the awed perspective of a child in this novel of rare warmth and intimacy. . . . Stony indeed in the heart that cannot be moved by this book.”—People
“Fascinating . . . exquisitely rendered details of a lost way of life.”—Newsweek
“Wonderful reading.”—USA Today
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About the Author
Hometown:Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 6, 1931
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
Read an Excerpt
Startled awake by the ammoniated mists, I am roused in one instant from glutinous sleep to grieving awareness; I have done it again. My soaked thighs sting. I cry, I call Mama, knowing I must endure her harsh reaction, get through that, to be rescued. My crib is on the east wall of their room. Their bed is on the south wall. “Mama!” From her bed she hushes me. “Mama!” She groans, rises, advances on me in her white nightgown. Her strong hands go to work. She strips me, strips the sheets, dumps my pajamas and the sheets, and the rubber sheet under them, in a pile on the floor. Her pendulous breasts shift about in the nightgown. I hear her whispered admonitions. In seconds I am washed, powdered, clean-clothed, and brought to secret smiles in the dark. I ride, the young prince, in her arms to their bed, and am welcomed between them, in the blessed dry warmth between them. My father gives me a companionable pat and falls back to sleep with his hand on my shoulder. Soon they are both asleep. I smell their godlike odors, male, female. A moment later, as the faintest intimation of daylight appears as an outline of the window shade, I am wide awake, blissful, guarding my sleeping parents, the terrible night past me, the dear day about to dawn.
These are my earliest memories. I liked when morning came to climb down from their bed and watch my parents. My father slept on his right arm, his legs straight, his hand coming over the pillow and bending at the wrist against the headboard. My mother lay curled with the curve of her broad back touching his. Together under the covers they made a pleasing shape. The headboard knocked against the wall as they stirred. It was baroque in style, olive green, with a frieze of small pink flowers and dark green leaves along its fluted edges. On the opposite wall were the dresser and mirror of the same olive green and fluted edges. Sprays of the pink flowers were set above the oval brass drawer pulls. In my play I liked to lift each handle and let it fall back to hear the clink. I understood the illusion of the flowers, looking at them, believing them and then feeling the raised paint strokes with my fingertips. I had less fondness for the bedroom curtains of sheer white over the window shades and for the heavy draperies framing the curtains. I feared suffocation. I shied away from closets, the dark terrified me mostly because I wasn’t sure it was breathable.
I was an asthmatic child, allergic to everything, I was attacked continually in the lungs, coughing, wheezing, needing to be steamed over inhalators. I was the mournful prodigy of medicine, I knew the mustard plaster, the nose drop, the Argyrol throat swab. I was plugged regularly with thermometers and soap water enemas. My mother believed pain was curative. If it didn’t hurt it was ineffective. I shouted and screamed and went down fighting. I argued for the cherry-red mercurochrome for my scraped knees and I got the detested iodine. How I howled. “Oh stop the nonsense,” my mother said, applicating me with strokes of searing pain. “Stop it this instant. You make a fuss over nothing.”
I had difficulty with the proportions of things and made reasonable spaces for myself in what otherwise was an unfairly giganticized home. I liked to sit in the shelter of the piano in the parlor.
It was a Sohmer upright of black mahogany, and the cantilevered keyboard made a low-lying roof for me. I enjoyed the patterns of rugs. I was a familiar of oak flooring and the skirts of upholstered chairs.
I went readily to my bath in part because the tub was of reasonable dimensions. I could touch its sides. I sank walnut-shell boats in the tub. I swamped them in tidal waves and then I quieted the water.
I was also aware that for some reason my mother’s relentless efficiency was suspended when I was in my bath. Other than calling in to me from time to time to make sure I hadn’t drowned, she left me in privacy. The pads of my fingers would wrinkle before I rose from the bathwater to unplug the drain.
Of the wooden kitchen table and chairs I made a fortress. Here I had surveillance of the whole vast kitchen floor. I knew people by their legs and feet. My mother’s sturdy ankles and large shapely calves moved about on the pinions of a pair of ladies’ heeled shoes. From sink to icebox to table they went accompanied by the administrative sounds of silverware clattering, drawers sliding open and shut. My mother took confident solid steps that made the glass doors of the cabinets tremble.
My little grandmother inched her feet forward without lifting them from the floor, just as she drank her tea in tiny sips. She wore high-laced shoes of black whose tops were hidden beneath her long limp skirts, also black. Of all the family Grandma was the easiest to spy on because she was always in her thoughts. I was wary of her, though I knew she loved me. She prayed sometimes in the kitchen with her prayer book lying open upon the table and her old-fashioned shoes flat on the floor.
My older brother Donald could not be spied upon. Unlike adults he was quick and alert. Targeting him for even a few seconds before he knew I was there was a great triumph. I lingered one day in the hallway outside the open door of his room. When I peeked around the corner his back was to me, he was working on a model airplane. “I know you’re there, Mr. Bubblenose,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
I valued my brother as a confident all-around source of knowledge and wisdom. His mind was a compendium of the rules and regulations of every game known to mankind. His brow furrowed with attentiveness to the proper way of doing things. He lived hard and by the book. He was an authority not only on model building but on kite flying, scooter racing, and the care of pets. He did everything well. I felt for him the gravest love and respect.
I might have been daunted by his example, and the view I had through him of everything I had to learn, except that he had the generous instincts of a teacher. One day I was with our dog, Pinky, in front of our house on Eastburn Avenue, when Donald came home from school and put his books down on the front stoop.
He plucked a large dark leaf from the privet hedge under the parlor window. He placed the leaf between his palms and cupped his hands to his mouth and blew into the gap formed by his adjacent thumbs. This produced a marvelous bleat.
I jumped up and down. When Donald made the sound again, Pinky began to yowl, as she did also when a harmonica was played in her presence. “I want to try,” I said. Under his patient instruction I chose a leaf like his, I placed it carefully on my palms, and I blew. Nothing happened. He arranged and rearranged my little hands, he changed leaves, he corrected my form. Still nothing happened.
“You have to work at it,” Donald said. “You can’t expect to get it right away. Here, I’ll show you something easier.”
The same leaf he had used for a reed he now split in half simply by pressing the heels of his palms together and flattening his hands.
My brother was very fine. He wore the tweed knickers and ribbed socks and shoes with low sides of a young man. A shock of straight brown hair fell over one eye. His knitted sweater was dashingly tied by the sleeves around his waist and his red school tie was loosened at the knot. Long after he had taken our maniac dog into the house, I conscientiously applied myself to the tasks he had set me. Even if I couldn’t get the hang of them right away, I knew at least what had to be learned.