The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White


the world of tomorrow

I seem to be getting mostly essays lately for my Deal Me In Challenge.  This week, I read The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White, the famed author of Charlotte’s Web.  White wrote this essay about the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where visions of the future abounded and a bright tomorrow was laid before eager and credulous eyes.

“The eyes of the fair are on the future —- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.

To the visitors the Fair will say, ‘Here are the materials, ideas and forces at work in our world.  These are the tools with which the forces of the World of Tomorrow must be made.  They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way.  Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”
( ~ official New York World’s Fair pamphlet)


british pavillion
British Pavilion
source Wikipedia

Someone is obviously trying to sell something grand, and it was enlightening to read about White’s experience at the Fair.  Right from the start, we sense a disconnect between the two, as he personifies the event.  His first sentences read:  “I wasn’t really prepared for the World’s Fair last week, and it certainly wasn’t prepared for me. Between the two of us there was considerable of a mixup.”  White informs the reader that upon his visit, he had a cold and that “when you can’t breath through your nose, Tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.”  He then gives a catalogue of the exhibitors with strangely impersonal names such as Kix, Astring-O-Sol, Textene, Alka-Seltzer and the Fidelity National Bank. White’s impressions do not inspire awe or a trust in Tomorrow.

“It is all rather serious-minded, this World of Tomorrow, and extremely impersonal.  A ride on the Futurama of General Motors induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  The countryside unfolds before you in $5-million micro-lovliness, conceived in motion and executed by Norman Bel Geddes. The voice is a voice of utmost respect, of complete religious faith in the eternal benefaction of faster travel ……..  When night fall in the General Motors exhibit and you lean back in the cushioned chair (yourself in motion and the world so still) and hear (from the depths of the chair) the soft electric assurance of a better life — the life which rests on wheels alone — there is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood.  I didn’t want to wake up.  I liked 1960 in purple light, going a hundred miles an hour around impossible turns ever onward toward the certified cities of the flawless future.  It wasn’t till I passed an apple orchard and saw the trees, each blooming under its own canopy of glass, that I perceived that even the General Motors dream as dreams so often do, left some questions unanswered about the future.  The apple tree of Tomorrow, abloom under its inviolate hood, makes you stop and wonder.  How will the little boy climb it?  Where will the bird build its nest?”

White makes a few other observations which are very powerful statements:

“In Tomorrow, people and objects are not lit from above but from below”


“Rugs do not slip in Tomorrow, and the bassinets of newborn infants are wired against kidnappers.  There is no talking back in Tomorrow.  You are expected to take it or leave it alone.” 


“In Tomorrow, most sounds are not the sounds themselves but a memory of sounds, or an electrification.”

At the end of the essay, instead of remembering the Fair itself, White’s recollections are quite different:  the trees at night, eerie shadows, fountains in the light, a girl, remembered not just as passing impressions, but in generous detail.  The last line of the essay stabs home his point:

“Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aspetic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast.”

After my first read of this essay, I was left completely unmoved.  I had no interest in the 1939 World’s Fair, and White’s ramblings about his cold, standing in line, etc. which I found annoyingly pointless.  It was only when I read the essay for a second time, that his consummate skill as a writer drummed me over the head.  Though not stating his views outright, with each sentence White was building his case, having the reader experience the loss of humanness and empathy that the rapid rise of technology was moving towards.  When one places the value of machines and progress above the people they are supposed to be serving, you lose the human qualities of life and the simplicity, the wonder and human connection in life that make it so fulfilling.

Perhaps it’s telling that White moved from New York to Maine that very year.

Deal Me In Challenge #8


deal me in challenge
deal me in challenge

Once and Future King by T.H. White

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”

The Once and Future King encompasses five books written by author T.H. White about the legend of King Arthur.  In The Sword and the Stone, we meet Wart, a young boy who is the ward of Sir Ector and who lives with his guardian and his guardian’s son, Kay, near the Forest Sauvage.  By an unexpected set of circumstances, he encounters the wizard, Merlyn, who becomes his and Kay’s tutor, although we can see from the beginning that Merlyn favours Wart and there is obvious foreshadowing that we should expect something extraordinary from him later in the tale.  This book concludes with Wart unknowingly pulling the sword from the stone, a clear indication that he is England’s next king.  The book The Witch in the Wood (re-written as The Queen of Air and Darkness and apparently with little resemblance to the original) follows, chronicling the establishment of Arthur’s court under the political idea of right instead of might, and, of course, the love affair between Lancelot and Guinever receives the most attention.  The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, gives primary focus to Lancelot, his quests to purge his thoughts of Guinever, his relationship to Elaine who bears him a son, the development of a odd love-triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail, and Lancelot’s fight to defend Guinever’s honour.  A Candle in the Wind waxes philosophically about the metamorphosis of England into its present condition and the ideologies of war.  The height of tension appears in this book as Lancelot and Guinever’s relationship is revealed by a dastardly plot of Arthur’s Orkney clan, a war begins and the throne is seized by a usurper.  The death of Arthur and his son, Mordred are foreshadowed.   The Book of Merlyn, published posthumously, is added at the end and sets an aged Arthur amongst Merlyn and his animal friends from Book I, as they discuss the evils of war, why men want it, and how can it be avoided.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn
(source Flickr)
Creative Commons License

I’m really stumped as to where to start with reviewing this book.  My idea of the Knights of the Round Table was woven with nobility, courage, daring, self-sacrifice, self-denial and chivalric actions.  While the Arthur of this tale professes to have started the Round Table with the idea that might does not equal right, White makes Arthur a rather weak character.  In his youth, he is quite simple; Merlyn plants the social and political ideas into his head and as a reader, I never got the feeling that Arthur intrinsically believed in them himself.  He knowingly allows Lancelot and Guinever to have an illicit relationship and is often paralyzed in moments when it is necessary for a king to show his strength and decisiveness.  He is a simple, loving old soul who calls everyone “my dear” but it is a hard task to imagine him as the legendary King Arthur.  Lancelot for a good part of the book is a brooding morass of insecurity and dark thoughts.

“The boy [Lancelot] thought that there was something wrong with him.  All throughout his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap:  something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand ….  We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.”

 However after Lancelot’s quest for the Grail and his encounter with God, he at least develops into a man with a sense of what is important in life and an internal code of conduct that he believes is worth following.  Guinever is a moderately believable character, professing her loyalty and love to both men, but White puts her through a period of womanly jealously that is almost embarrassing to read and certainly not worthy of her.  With Arthur’s half-relatives from Orkney, the devious and twisted brothers who become not only knights of the Round Table but are the poison that festers inside Arthur’s kingdom, White does a satisfying job with crafting their personalities.  At times they can be quite appalling …… perfect villains to fit the story.  Also, King Pellinore and his Questing Beast should receive an appreciative nod, adding delightful humour to the first book.

Lancelot and Guinevere (1890s)
Herbert James Draper
source Wikimedia Commons

T.H. White was a rather tortured soul.  He was beset with fears of nearly everything, except, apparently, God.  After holding the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School, he retreated to a game-keeper’s cottage at Stowe Ridings on the Stowe Estate and, with hawks, owls and a setter bitch as his only companions, he began to write.  As war loomed over England in 1938, White’s fear almost choked him.  He declared himself a conscientious objector and in February 1939 found himself lodging in a farmhouse in Doolistown, Ireland, out of harm’s way.  He remained there for the next six and a half years.  In a December 1940 letter to L.J. Potts, a former tutor at Cambridge, he wrote: “….. [The Candle in the Wind] will end on the night before the last battle, with Arthur absolutely wretched.  I am going to add a new 5th volume in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground ….. and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese.  Don’t squirm.  The inspiration is godsent.  You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal …….”

The above information perhaps explains White confusing re-crafting of the legend, and the plethora of social and political philosophical concepts that twist the characters into a means of furthering the development of these ideas.  Instead of White employing creativity to show the reader various themes in the novel, he simply tells us, which leaves a very weak effect.  As one of my reading buddies stated, instead of cleverly weaving his opinions into the story, White attempts to weave the story into his opinions.  The result is sloppy and, in effect, he actually strips these noble characters of the dignity they had been given by previous writers.

The Sword in the Stone, by itself is an appealing read, a nice story about the young Arthur and his upbringing.  By the second book, the story takes a turn for the worst.  I only have two words:  very disappointing.