(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

World’s Fair begins with the earliest memories of Edgar Altschuler and concludes when he is nine years old with two visits to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Edgar is the first-person narrator of thirty-one chapters, but his retrospective point of view merges the naïve impressions of a child with the more perceptive reflections of an adult. Four brief sections narrated by Rose, two sections narrated by Donald, and one section narrated by Edgar’s Aunt Frances supplement Edgar’s egocentric version of the family history. By making the street address and first names of the fictional Altschulers coincide with the actual address and names of his own family, Doctorow suggests that Edgar’s story of growing up is a thinly disguised account of his own boyhood.

Presented as a memoir, this novel has a loose, episodic plot. First, Rose establishes a foundation for Edgar’s narrative with brief comments about her parents’ emigration from Russia and her own birth on the Lower East Side. Then Edgar describes his horror upon awaking in a urine-soaked crib and the subsequent comfort of being dried and transported to his parents’ warm bed. Amid such scenes of parental protection, Edgar also recalls episodes fraught with fear and mystery. A car almost kills his dog Pinky, and thugs from nearby Italian and Irish neighborhoods draw swastikas on the family’s garage doors.

As Edgar’s horizons expand, he observes tensions in the extended family during Sunday visits to Dave’s parents and at a Seder meal. He also overhears his parents argue about Dave’s business mistakes, his gambling, and his alleged infidelities. On a trip to...

(The entire section is 684 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In comparison to Doctorow’s earlier novels, World’s Fair seems remarkably straightforward. It resembles a work of conventional nonfiction, and like a memoir, it is largely bound by a chronological structure. Much of the action is seen through the consciousness of a young boy, Edgar, growing up in the Bronx during the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Given the character’s name and background, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has himself and his family in mind. He had used his New Rochelle house as a model for the house in Ragtime and the mind of a young boy as the intuitive medium through which many of the domestic, private events of the novel were filtered. Doctorow’s interest in the way the fictional and factual impinge upon each other would naturally lead to this exercise in quasi-autobiography, in which the materials from his own background underpin the plot. The World’s Fair becomes a metaphor for the boy’s growing up and for the United States’ maturation.

Unlike many American novelists, Doctorow does not merely criticize American materialism, seeing in the emphasis on things a soul-deadening culture which is antithetical to the artist’s imagination. On the contrary, he enjoys playing with and observing the materiality of the United States—decrying, to be sure, the way in which the culture turns its important figures and events into toys and commercials for capitalism but also capturing the American delight in...

(The entire section is 581 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Atlantic. CCLVI, December, 1985, p. 119.

Booklist. LXXXII, September 15, 1985, p. 90.

Cosmopolitan. CXCIX, November, 1985, p. 66.

Esquire. CIV, November, 1985, p. 25.

Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. A useful introduction to Doctorow’s themes and techniques.

Glamour. LXXXIII, December, 1985, p. 192.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Straightforward biocritical survey of Doctorow’s work, with useful bibliography and chronology.

Levine, Paul. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Methuen, 1985. Concise analysis of Doctorow’s short stories and the five novels prior to World’s Fair, with particular emphasis on his revision of history.

Morris, Christopher D. Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. A theoretical study of the problems of fictional representation based on ideas of Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and J. Hillis Miller. Suggested for more advanced students.

Nation. CCXLI, November 30, 1985, p. 594.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, December 19, 1985, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 10, 1985, p. 3.

Newsweek. CVI, November 4, 1985, p. 69.

Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Continuum, 1991. Perceptive commentary on Doctorow’s novels and the play Drinks Before Dinner (1979), with particular attention to important social and political forces in American history.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, September 13, 1985, p. 124.

Time. CXXVI, November 18, 1985, p. 100.

Vogue. CLXXV, November, 1985, p. 286.