The Last Great Fair

By Hart, Jeffrey | New Criterion, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The Last Great Fair


Hart, Jeffrey, New Criterion


In the Spring of 1939, standing on the roof of our apartment house at night and gazing due cast, you could see in the distance the glow of the New York World's Fair. Sometimes you saw the colors change, from blue to green to rose and sometimes there were sky-rockets and star-bursts. You could not hear the music at that distance, but you could imagine it--and the crowds, and the fountains reaching toward the sky. "It's a thing like a fair;' says a character in Scott Fitzgerald's story "Absolution"--

   Go to one at night and stand a little way off
   from it in a dark place--under dark trees.
   You'll see a big wheel made of lights turning
   in the air, and a long slide shooting boats
   down into the water. A band playing somewhere
   and a smell of peanuts--and everything
   will twinkle.

The New York World's Fair continues to be a subject for reflection for me as the decades go by. Like the historic Crystal Palace London Exposition of 1851, a celebration of England's industrial achievement (and, not least, Empire), the Fair was a luminous assertion of optimism, in the face of the Depression. It's theme was "The World of Tomorrow:' It was also the last great Fair, innocent in its faith. It believed in Progress as a comprehensive idea. We no longer have that kind of belief. We believe in advances--in transportation, medicine, communications, computers, longevity, and so on, but not in Progress as a central animating idea, one that gives meaning to life. Just when that idea died is difficult to say. By the time the Fair was closed in the Fall of 1940, Hitler had defeated France and was bombing England. The Soviet Union had signed its pact with Hitler and invaded Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland.

Much of the technology foreseen and celebrated at the Fair has become actuality: television, interstate highways, mass air transportation, synthetics, organ transplants: Charles Lindbergh mad Alexis Carrel exhibited a chicken heart beating in a large glass jar, stimulated by some machinery. Yet all these things are now touched by ambiguity. You can reach Los Angeles now in a few hours, but there seem to be fewer reasons for going there than there were in 1940. Pan Am no longer flies the great clipper-ship flying boats down to Rio. The Fair was innocent in a way that cannot be recaptured. And because we no longer believe in Progress as a metaphysical certainty, there can never be another great Fair like that one.

For a nine year-old boy whose parents had bought him a children's season ticket, mad probably for everyone else who went to it, the Fair was an astonishing experience. You got off the elevated IRT train at World's Fair Station. Both train and station are still there today, though it cost a nickel to ride the train then, and costs forty times as much today. Then you walked down a broad boardwalk that is still there, too, serving Shea Stadium and the National Tennis Center. Neither of these entities has for me anything like the glamour of the Fair.

In the sunshine, the first thing you saw as you came down the boardwalk and into the Fair was its dominating symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere, the former a triangular spire fifteen stories high, the latter a gigantic globe a city block across, both gleaming white during the day but illuminated by pastel floodlights, playing through fountains, at night.

The Trylon and Perisphere remain in our minds today. They have become something like the archetypes Jung imagined as central to the mind. We have them in salt-and-pepper shakers, plates, scarves, pencil sharpeners, glasses, rings, ash-trays. I have a copper penn), rolled oblong with the image of the Trylon and Perisphere stamped on it, a souvenir of the Fair. I wear it on a silver chain as a necklace along with a silver cross. The Trylon and Perishpere were symbols so powerful that they possess continuing imaginative life. They are both severe, timeless geometrical symbols, the signature of their era, immortal but gone. …

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