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

0 thoughts on “The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White

  1. i remember attending a similar event in the 50"s and being awed and struck dumb at the vision of the future. tail fins on cars seemed like the ultimate in futurology. looking back now, my feeling is somewhat different… white and thurber were giants and their like is not today apparent…

  2. You know a lot of authors and thinkers felt that the future world will be perfect but cold…apple trees under a glass dome variety.And considering the climate changes and other human security issues, that vision is not very incorrect. Having said that, it is also true that we live in a far more smaller world and I truly believe that we are way closer to a world village concept. Otherwise, how would someone sitting in north India, get up every morning to debate, books, ideas and life to someone in West Canada?:) While we have to work to preserve the nature and its related dependencies for the better of mankind, I think, this increased interaction across the world has forced all us to become more aware, truly espouse equality and work towards, ok may be take babystep in becoming one mankind!

  3. When looked up the 1939 World's Fair, I was very struck by all the innovative technology ……… but I was even more struck by the fact that not only did few of the items seem to last, but many didn't even get into production. I guess we learn by failures, but I certainly expected us to get more things right! Wow!

  4. Ah, but Wendell Berry would disagree with the world village concept. He would say that it only appears that we're more connected and only appears that we are able to do more as a whole, when in fact, this global village is too big to keep us focused on particular problems and makes us more impotent to solve them. It can spout bombastic rhetorical promises or visions, but our ability to practically make a difference is bankrupt. Only by breaking down into communities and by being a physical presence can we gain personal experience, motivation and energy to constructively do some good. So, in effect, by being separate we become more globally effective. I rather think he's right, but certainly time will tell! 🙂

  5. intresting. i think both are right. to keep the planet viable, small communities are best(actually Gandhi proposed that first) but universal communication could help keep it that way. i've long thought that most people really want a liveable planet and a non polluted environment, but that greed and/or an insane drive for power on the part of a few make the whole place bad for the rest of us. education is the only way to make things better, i think; that and weeding out the minority who want to wreck everything. maybe that's all naive, i suspect so; as one blogger said a short time back, maybe all we can do is keep one candle lit against the dark…

  6. I remember e.b. white as having a wicked sense of humor. Did you notice this in his essay? White's english teacher made him learn rule 13:
    "Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”
    This just makes me laugh…doing exactly what is forbidden! (excess words!)

  7. Yes, I think universal communication is imperative (otherwise, it's easier to go to war), but universal control is problematic. It's much easier to take advantage of people when they are nameless and faceless and it's much harder for the people to hold a nameless group to account. There are certainly a minority who has a negative impact, but I think we all have a negative impact without realizing it, even if it appears negligible. Education is good, but who will be the educators? Because we're so flawed, I like the idea of small communities, because if you take advantage of a situation, or do something wrong for your own benefit, etc. it's much more likely to smack you back in the face, sort of like a natural education. There is no perfect solution, but the more I see the world globalized and the worse it all gets, the more I'd like to try the community model. Me too, I might be naive, but it makes more sense. And now, I'm going to get my candle …… 😉

  8. You sold me on this essay with this sentence:

    "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."

    I'm so shocked that this loss in empathy due to technological use was noticed by someone so many years ago.

    And this Deal Me In challenge sounds like SO much fun! I've decided to participate with the Full Moon Fever version. Not nearly as much to catch up on either, since I've only now discovered this at the end of March. How exciting!

  9. Honestly, his sense of humour irritated me initially until I got a grasp of what he was trying to do. I can't wait to read more of his essays!

    🙂 Ah, excess words! I don't think I'm the queen of excess words, but I certainly like them. IMO, you have to be a very gifted writer to be able to chop down to a minimum and still have a well-written, engaging product. That's White, but it's certainly not me. There is very much an art to it. So perhaps I can say that I'm a princess of excess words. 😉

  10. I was surprised too but it made me rather sad that not much has changed and that people are still under the lure of technology. Technology itself is fine if it doesn't compromise or take the place of other more important things in life.

    Yay! Another Deal Me In convert! 😉 Are you going to put your list on your blog? I'm always looking for list ideas each year. It's a good idea to ease into it. I really failed at this challenge last year and would have been feeling much better about it if I'd chosen the Full Moon version. Good luck! 🙂

  11. Yes! I'll be putting my list on my blog as a new project within the next week. I've started compiling titles…and have decided to do the Fortnight Version rather than the Full Moon because I have too many for the Full Moon, LoL.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!