Themes and Meanings
As an uncompleted initiation story, World’s Fair portrays a boy’s tentative journey toward maturity. In displaying Edgar’s growing sensitivity to language and skill as a writer, Doctorow also provides a portrait of the artist as a small boy. Edgar’s two trips to the fair serve to focus and develop these two intertwined themes.
Edgar first visits the fair as the companion of two sexually alluring females. He affirms his nascent manhood by protecting Meg and bravely riding the parachute jump with her. Later, he asserts his independence and maturity by leaving Meg behind and watching her mother’s nude performance. In this voyeuristic episode, his sexual initiation is vicarious but still decisive.
Early in the narrative, when his mother uses a strange idiom, Edgar displays a keen interest in and love of words. Appropriately, then, his second trip to the World’s Fair results from his success as a budding literary artist. By describing the typical American boy in an essay contest, Edgar wins tickets to the fair for his entire family. Edgar’s essay displays his emerging skill as a writer but also his ability to blend and harmonize disparate components of life. Using his own childhood experiences as raw materials, he synthesizes uniquely ethnic elements with more generic traits of boyhood to produce a creative definition. At the fair, Edgar further displays the powers of observation and discrimination necessary for the artist. The magnificence of fair exhibits still awes him, but he now assumes a dual perspective and also notes shabbiness and deterioration. Perhaps he already suspects that the utopian promises of the fair, staged amid the horrors of world war, will never be realized.
In burying his personal time capsule, Edgar may be putting away childish things as he enters a new stage in life. At the same time some specific items in the capsule are emblems of his continuing struggle toward personal and artistic maturity. The decoder badge, for example, symbolizes his persistent efforts to probe and decipher the mysterious conversations, objects, and events surrounding him. The book on ventriloquism focuses on a skill similar to that of the literary artist. Just as the ventriloquist animates a lifeless dummy by projecting his or her speech, the creative writer must invent fictional characters and give them authentic voices.