|Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378
Despite its occasionally giddy optimism, the Fair represents a triumph of planning over reform. High ideals have their place in 1939, but public life is not a place for dreamers; it's a blueprint for designers. While the Fair's motto was officially, "Building the world of tomorrow," I agree with David Gelernter who cites an exhibit narration that better captures the ideology of the Fair: "All eyes to the future." Gelernter's 1939: The Lost World of the Fair is part historical analysis and part travelogue. Though he does not employ the same language as found in our course, one might argue that Gelernter seeks to transport his reader through a Gernsback Continuum to the Fair that somehow still exists in the public memory of visitors and those who wish they could have been there. In the excerpts found in the course reader, Gelernter introduces us to Hattie Levine, a composite figure designed to represent a "typical" Fair-goer. The prologue sets the scene for Gelernter's interview with Levine with a discussion of "acute hope" - the sense that, despite the fact that America teetered between economic depression and world war, public life could be improved.
The nature of this promise emerges from Levine's recollection of the General Motor's Futurama display. [Here's another postcard view.] Designed by Norman Bel Geddes [Visit Susan Yamada's Woz Way Streamlining Page to learn more about Bel Geddes], Futurama was a ride that offered participants a trip through several dioramas representing the world of 1960 - a vision of highways and city planning. An excerpt from a 1939 GM "Highways and Horizons" pamphlet describes Futurama as a largely corporate vision of tomorrow:
What becomes clear through careful analysis of the Fair and artifacts such as this one is the sense that optimism and planning were co-mingled with industrial propaganda as an automaker employed the Fair as a gigantic backdrop to advertise its idiosyncratic vision of the world of tomorrow.
In his chapter, "Into the Fair," Gelernter introduces the reader to institutionally sanctioned complement to Futurama, the Fair's Theme Center with its majestic Trylon and Perisphere. For this narrative, Gelernter situates the reader on the Fairgrounds itself through the fictitious diary of Hattie Levine. As with any insightful discussion of public life, Gelernter strives to balance the grand concepts and historical trends of the age with the artifactual details of a day at the Fair. An excerpt from the 1939 Fair Guidebook, offers several similarities between the Democracity of 2039, Futurama of 1960, and - of course - Ebenezer Howard's Garden City.
Here we revisit the city of concentric rings, the separation of work and leisure, the attempted reconciliation of garden and machine. However, Democracity is no romantic arcadia or idealized plateau where labor and intellect are Platonically separated. As its name implies, Democracity promises a better world for all members of public life who embrace the promise of science.
What remains to be explored, of course, is whether this vision of public life does indeed include all members of society. Close examination reveals that the dazzling vision of Tomorrow offered by the 1939 World's Fair a rather conservative one indeed.
[Note: While these readings are designed to shed light on the Fair and its significance to American public life, I strongly suggest you visit my Images of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair website to learn more.]
Gelernter, D. (1995). 1939: The lost world of the fair. New York: Free Press.
Expositions Publications. (1939). Official guide book. New York: Expositions Publications.
General Motors. (1939). Highways and horizons: The general motors exhibit building. Detroit: General Motors.
Jeffrey Hart, Greatness in Flushing Meadows: "Mr. Gelernter believes that, since the time of the Fair, authority has evaporated. He is certainly correct in this, but he offers no theory to explain it. Perhaps it has something to do with the circumstances we live in.
Wired Magazine, Lost World of the Future: "Technology and nostalgia are the evil twins of contemporary imagination. One torments us with the miraculous possibility of what might be, the other tempts us just as powerfully to mourn what was."
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