Friday, September 9, 2011

1939 – The Lost World of the Fair

My recent revisit with the work of William Joyce set my mind to thinking on the many things that inspire that delicious sense of wonder in me, and I found myself revisiting David Gelernter’s magnificent 1939 – The Lost World of the Fair.
As David Gelernter (born 1955) makes plain in his 1939 -- The Lost World of the Fair, wonder was in the air at that time. America looked forward to the future with what could only be called a breathless enthusiasm, a heady mixture of exhilaration and hope. It is this sense of wonder that is the central argument of Mr. Gelernter's alternately flawed and masterful new book.
The world of 1939 was congenial to wonder. The nation was on the road to economic recovery, and although a major European war loomed in the immediate future, people had hope for an ultimately better tomorrow. Americans were confident in their technology, their society, and their destiny.
Such enthusiasm were everywhere in the 1930s, including pop culture like the super-science exploits of Doc Savage and the great science fiction comic strips of the time.  The 1930s saw such dazzling visions of the future as the film version of Things To Come, and who could not relish such visions as futuristic airships and monoplanes in films like Just Imagine? The title of a popular pulp magazine said it all: Thrilling Wonder Stories.
The fair was sold as The World of Tomorrow. In 1939, the future was envisioned in colors running deep in awe and wonder. It was a bright, beautiful place, a wonderland just beyond our grasp, just over the horizon of tomorrow.
But, author Gelernter argues, the Americans of today are much better off than their 1939 counterparts. Why then, he asks, are we less optimistic? The future as predicted by the Fair -- faster cars, world air travel, television, medical and scientific advances -- has pretty much come to pass. Why then, the nihilism, the sense of despair, the dread of a dystopia in our collective sense of tomorrow?
Gelernter offers fascinating arguments for this change of perspective during the course of his tour of the 1939 World's Fair. It's impossible to read his text without a wistful longing for the future as envisioned by America's past. It is almost equally impossible to read of the New York of 1939 without a twinge of envy -- with it's streamlined style, sense of purpose, and giddy exhilaration, it's more like Mars than contemporary New York. The Lost World is not some dinosaur-ridden jungle, but America of the 30s, the ruins of which lay all around us.
While detailing the Fair, the author's prose rises to rhapsodic heights. Some extraordinarily evocative passages actually bring the reader there, standing on the pavement of the Fair, gazing at the Trylon and Perisphere. The reader is introduced to the wonders of the Democracity, the Futurama, the mysterious voder, and such marvels as robots and Vitrolite.
Whole passages of the book can be lifted and savored for the almost Ray Bradbury sense of poetry they evoke. It is impossible to read the closing two paragraphs of the prologue, for example, and not be touched by something mysteriously akin to magic. When Mr. Gelernter is in touch with this adventurous and enthralling past, his sense of wonder and enthusiasm is an almost palpable thing. It is with astonishment that the reader realizes that such virtuosity is present in sections of the book which are non-fiction.
Unfortunately, the author almost loses the entire ball game in the bottom of the ninth, with bases loaded. Gelernter has done exhaustive research to bring the 1939 World's Fair to life, but rather than deliver such first-hand observations piecemeal, he creates two fictional characters to deliver the goods. Unfortunately, these fictional constructs, a young couple Mark and Hattie, are a crippling miscalculation on the author's part.  As painted by Gelernter, the Fair was a mixture of the Land of Oz and Flash Gordon. It cannot help but be compelling. Tragically, he creates as tour guides two of the most obvious and obnoxious characters in recent times.
Mark is an architect, committed to a better world and a better tomorrow; Hattie, the willful and intelligent woman that loves him. Hattie wants marriage and children while Mark questions the wisdom of bringing children into a world where Hitler might rule one-day as supreme dictator.  The situation is hopelessly contrived, and Hattie and Mark are crudely drawn. It is in these passages that Gelernter's prose magic fails him completely. In a total miscalculation of reader sympathy and interest, almost the entire final third of the book is devoted to their story, a story which was predictable and pedestrian to readers even remotely familiar with the excesses of melodramatic story-telling. The Fair almost vanishes from view as Hattie and Mark play the turgid final act of their tragic story, while the reader desperately wants to get back to the Hall of Aviation or the Lagoon of Nations.
In other books, such tiresome diversions would be enough to destroy them utterly. Fortunately, Gelernter is a non-fiction writer of remarkable power and skill. When not doting on the make-believe doings of Hattie and Mark, he takes us into an America that is mystical in its other-worldliness.
By temperament and talent, David Gelernter is the perfect man to take us to this exciting time and exotic place. Gelernter is a celebrated scientist and historian and, ironically, one of the many victims of the Unabomber (in 1993 he lost several fingers and use of one eye opening a letter-bomb sent by that maniac).  With a scholar's perspective, he tellingly pegs the America that once was, and what it is today. Nor is 1939 -- The Lost World of the Fair a tragic lament for the country's love and faith in the future, a sentiment that seems lost forever. Gelernter is too much of a realist to be negative about the future, and he is adamant in his one prediction:  that one day America will once again have a sense of wonder for tomorrow.

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