by Jesse Garon
1939. America has just begun to work its way back from the Depression, and across the Atlantic, events are taking place that will plunge Europe into war before the year is out. In New York City, though, the World's Fair opens, offering a vision of a utopian "World of Tomorrow." In the two years during which the Fair is open, about 45 million people pass through its gates, where several nations and large corporations display the best that they have to offer. Television is a big attraction at the Fair; so is automated cow milking, and so, though it's not often mentioned, is topless dancing.
Author David Gelernter takes us back to the world of 1939 to examine the promises that the World's Fair made. He makes an interesting argument: that though some of the particular visions of the World of Tomorrow have not come to pass, our society has in spirit achieved the utopia of which the Fair dreamed -- and the achievement of that utopia has left us with nowhere to go, created an emptiness inside us. His comparison between 1939 and the present highlights the obvious differences between the two eras, but Gelernter also points out the not-so-obvious differences, and some of the ways in which 1939 is surprisingly similar to the present day.
But what makes 1939: The Lost World of the Fair really stand out is the author's use of a composite character, Mrs. Hattie Levine, to couch his examination of the era's beliefs attitudes and conventions. Gelernter interviewed many fairgoers during his research for the book, and he uses them as the basis for a fictional relationship that is truly compelling. In 1939, Mrs. Levine is still Miss Laurie Glassman, and she attends the Fair in the middle of May with her boyfriend Mark Handler, a young architect with a careful eye on the future. She wants to get married and have children; he's not sure if the world of the immediate future is a place to have children. Gelernter reads entries from a diary that outline that day at the Fair, in which the young lovers argue with each other about how they should let the world affect them, and he also conducts interviews with Mrs. Levine, in which she fills him in on the rest of her relationship with Mark, both before the Fair and after it, as America enters the war. Mrs. Levine also serves as a voice from the past, chastising us for our society's lapses in education, morals, and civility (in the broadest sense of the term).
Gelernter constantly shifts between allowing Laurie and Mark's story to unfold and stepping back to place things in a broader context, filling us in on the careers of men like Robert Moses, George Gershwin, and Mayor LaGuardia, the status of ethnic Jews in 1930s America, and the dress codes that had a man wear a necktie until it was time to undress for bed. I found this information very helpful, and though I was eager to rush through it so that I could get to the next stage of the fictional story (which unfolds with the richness of a well-written novel), I never found myself skipping over the material, even during Gelernter's rather preachy moments.
At one point, Mrs. Levine says to the author, "You respect the past... I give you credit for that. But... [d]on't live in the past. It's morally repugnant." That statement is the core of what 1939 is about. We should not try to return to some idyllic dream world of the past, Gelernter argues; but we should be willing to examine the vision that the people back then had of their future, try to understand why that vision both succeeded and failed, and begin to ask ourselves some challenging questions about what direction we want to take as a society.