Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

E.L. Doctorow's Fictional Autobiography: World's Fair (1985) as a Carnivalesque Bildungsroman/E.L. Doctorow Se Fiktiewe Outobiografie: World's Fair (1985), as 'N Karnavaleske Bildungsroman

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

E.L. Doctorow's Fictional Autobiography: World's Fair (1985) as a Carnivalesque Bildungsroman/E.L. Doctorow Se Fiktiewe Outobiografie: World's Fair (1985), as 'N Karnavaleske Bildungsroman

Article excerpt

Introduction

On 30 August 2014, the novelist E.L. Doctorow received the Library of Congress Prize for American fiction. James Billington, the 13th Librarian of the United States Congress, described Doctorow as '... our very own Charles Dickens, summoning a distinctively American place and time, channelling our myriad voices' (Flood 2014). This certainly also brings to mind Doctorow's 1985 fictionalised childhood memoir, World's Fair--even though this novel has elicited very little research in the past decade. World's Fair was preceded by five novels since his 1960 debut, Welcome to Hard Times, and followed by six more, the most recent being Andrew's Brain (2014). Doctorow relates that it took him only seven months to write the book:

Usually it takes me a few years to write a book. World's Fair was an exception. It seemed to be a particularly fluent book as it came ... I think what happened in that case is that God gave me a bonus book ... I imagine He just decided, Well, this one's been paying his dues, so let's give him a bonus book. (Plimpton 1986)

Harter and Thompson (1990:107) emphasise that the novel to a large degree consists of the author's memories of his own childhood even though it is difficult to distinguish between '... the novel's material and his own past experience'. The author himself also draws attention to the fact that it is 'virtually a memoir' by giving the protagonist his own first name, birth date and biographical facts (Harter & Thompson 1990:107).

Indeed, World's Fair (1985) appears, on the surface at least, to be less experimental and political (cf. McGowan 2001:233) than Doctorow's other novels: a rather simple, mostly chronological, first-person account of a boy's coming-of-age in 1930s New York. Doctorow's novel is comparable to Saul Bellow's The adventures of Augie March ([1953] 2006) in the sense that World's Fair is filled with the discursive construction of the childhood memories of one Edgar Altschuler. Doctorow says that Saul Bellow was important to him:

I'd read his 'Adventures of Augie March' in college, and it was in the nature of a revelation, the freedom in that narrative--that there were no rules for the writing of a novel except as you made them up. (Sunday book review 2014)

However, whilst Augie March is a picaresque novel, World's Fair is, as McGowan (2001:233) states, 'an autobiographical Bildungsroman', filled with the memories of a more or less normal childhood. Thus Towers (1985:23) remarks that events like the grandmother's death, a Sunday visit to paternal grandparents, a Seder celebrated at rich Aunt France's house and a near mugging at the hands of anti-Semitic toughs from the East Bronx are 'ordinary' and infused with realistic period detail.

Critics like Lewis (1986:101) and Weber (1985:78), however, recognise that the autobiographic nature of the novel does not supersede the fictional quality of the book: '... the deliberate withholding of the narrator's name for so long helps to blur the distinction between fictional and real selves, between imagination and reality' (Lewis 1986:101). Weber (1985:78) also quotes Doctorow, who himself calls World's Fair a Bildungsroman, emphasising that this novel is not simply autobiographical: the autobiographic details are '... all true. But the book is an invention. It's the illusion of a memoir' (Weber 1985:78). Doctorow avers that the sources which he used do not matter in the final analysis because 'you're making a composition' and '... the sources may be autobiographical, but a composition has been made, so it's fiction. We can no longer think of it as autobiographical' (Silverblatt [1994] 1999:217). An accurate portrayal of historical New York based on memorial reconstruction is not at issue; the literary value of the work is.

Firstly, as a Bildungsroman (cf. Tokarczyk 2000:36-37), World's Fair has been compared, in fact, to another well-known example of this genre, James Joyce's ([1916] 1992) A portrait of the artist as a young man. …

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