Critical Context

Winner of the National Book Award in 1986, World’s Fair is Doctorow’s sixth novel. Most of his novels, such as Ragtime (1975) and The Waterworks (1994), re-create earlier historical periods and use actual or fictional events from the past to make social and political commentary. In Welcome to Hard Times (1960), for example, nineteenth century settlers on the Western frontier cannot escape evils of the East embodied in the Bad Man from Bodie. The Book of Daniel (1971) questions the workings of the American legal system by focusing on the trial and punishment of two characters much like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

World’s Fair is one of several Doctorow novels set in Depression-era America. In Loon Lake (1980) a poor drifter falls into the strange world of an eccentric millionaire and emerges as that tycoon’s corrupt adopted son. The events of Billy Bathgate (1989), chronicling Billy’s apprenticeship to the gangster Dutch Schultz, are much more overtly criminal.

Doctorow has acknowledged autobiographical elements in World’s Fair and labelled it an “illusion of a memoir.” As such, it deftly maintains a dual focus. It is a rich documentary of life in a Bronx community during the 1930’s, with occasional glances outward at America’s economic disruption and Nazi tyranny in Europe. At the same time, it is a highly individual account of personal and artistic development. The novel offers a detailed picture of another era, intriguing glimpses of Doctorow’s life and thought, and a timeless story of tentative initiation.