'The Comic Being of a Little Kid'

The other day, as I headed out for the a long train ride, I asked for suggestions, over twitter, for books. I ended taking Middlemarch and World's Fair. Being a Doctorow acolyte, I started with World's Fair


It interested me particularly that in the circus there was one wistful clown who climbed the high wire after the experts were done, and scared himself and us with his uproariously funny, incredibly maladroit moves up there. Slipping and sliding about, losing his hat, his floppy shoes, and holding on to the wire for dear life, he was actually doing stunts far more difficult than any that had gone on before. 

This was confirmed, invariably, as he doffed his clown garments one by one and emerged from the woeful little potbellied misfit as the star who headlined the high-wire act. In his tights and glistening bare torso he pulled off his bulbous nose and stood spotlighted on the platform with one arm raised to receive our wildest applause for having led us through our laughter, our fear, to simple awe. 

I took profound instruction from this hoary circus routine. It was not merely that I, the sniffler with the red nose, would someday in my good time reveal myself to be a superman among men. There was art in the thing, the power of illusion, the mightier power of the reality behind it. What was first true was then false, a man was born from himself. All the problems of my own being were not the truth of me, 

I knew. In my own eyes I was a man no matter what daily evidence was thrown in my face to the contrary. But that there were ways to dramatize this to an unsuspecting world was the keenness of my understanding. You didn't have to broadcast everything you knew all at once, but could reveal it suspense-fully, and make them first cry out in fear, and make them laugh, and, above all, make them applaud, when they finally saw what an achievement had been yours by taking on so well and accurately the comic being of a little kid.

I don't know if this is Doctorow describing his initial impulses toward art and writing--the book is an autobiographical novel--but it perfectly describes the revelation I enjoyed when I first started rhyming. As Doctorow says, it not that I thought I'd become Superman. It was that "all the problems of my being were not the truth of me," that I was "a man" because I said so, and I could make other cry/laugh/applaud through demonstration of that deeply held belief.

I've seen World's Fair described as nostalgia, in several reviews. I disagree. The book strikes me in much the same way as Mad Men and, to some extent, The Wonder Years--as a kind of romantic skepticism. Doctorow is writing about a family during the Depression. He is not blind to the vices of the time. People die in horrible ways. The father is a gambler and a philanderer. Antisemites lurk threatening at the border of his neighborhood. One of his friend's mothers is, I think, a prostitute. But Doctorow is very good at explaining why someone could love that world, why it hypnotized him. He doesn't look back in anger or spite. 

We live in a time flush with cynical and dystopian art. All around us, life sucks. I don't really disagree with that. But more interesting to me than the obvious fact of life's shortcomings, are the reasons people hang on to it with all their might. If everyone and everything is awful, than no one and nothing is truly awful. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In