BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY—“Here comes the summer!” as the Undertones rejoiced. The Muckdogs’ home opener is next Friday, and two days later the sun makes the season official. In preparation, today I checked out of the library Dandelion Wine. Why? Via First Principles…
Byzantium, I come not from,
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;
I dropped me forth in Illinois.
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.
Every summer solstice my daughter Gretel and I sit on the front porch and read the opening chapters of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957), the finest evocation of a boyhood summer I have read. If ever a science fiction writer has deserved the honorable tag of “regionalist,” it is Ray Bradbury of Waukegan, Illinois.
Critic Wayne L. Johnson once described Bradbury as having “one foot amid the tree-lined streets of Green Town, Illinois in the 1920s and ’30s, and the other foot planted on the red sands of Mars in the not-too-distant future.” He is a pastoral moralist who jokes that he eats metaphor for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; his line of descent has little to do with Jules Verne or Robert Heinlein and instead can be traced to the Nathaniel Hawthorne of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Young Goodman Brown.” Like Hawthorne, he has Salem connections: in 1692, Mary Bradbury was convicted of witchcraft, though she escaped hanging. I’ll wager that her descendant hopes she really was a witch.
Bradbury’s people were among his hometown’s earliest settlers. A great-grandfather was mayor of Waukegan in the 1880s, and the author’s creative memory was carved by the ravines of his native city, as Sam Weller emphasizes in his fine biography The Bradbury Chronicles (2005).
He left Waukegan at age 13, when his family westered to sunny Southern California, and though the starstruck boy loved Los Angeles (W.C. Fields once signed Bradbury’s autograph book and told him, “There you are, you little son of a bitch!”) he would forever recall, and transmute into myth, twilit summer evenings on the Bradbury family’s front porch. Not a day went by, said Bradbury, “when I didn’t stroll myself across a recollection of my grandparents’ northern Illinois grass, hoping to come across some old half-burnt firecracker, a rusted toy, or a fragment of letter written to myself in some young year hoping to contact the older person I became to remind him of his past, his life, his people, his joys, and his drenching sorrows.” (He really did write such a letter: As a forty-something-year-old man, Bradbury returned to Waukegan, walked the ravine of his childhood, and located the oak tree in which he had, decades earlier, deposited a note to his older self. He poked around in a squirrel hole of the tree until he found the message from boy to man. It read: “I remember you.”)
Like H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, and other original Americans, Bradbury “had the advantage,” wrote Russell Kirk, “of never attending college,” which “constricts people,” in Bradbury’s words. He was an autodidact, a library rat who also cherished old people—not the self-pitying valetudinarians (though they, too, are made in the image of God, albeit a kvetching deity) but wise wizened elders. “I was a boy who did indeed love his parents and grandparents and his brother, even when that brother ‘ditched’ him,” he writes. The grandfather in Dandelion Wine is vintner of this “common flower, a weed that no one sees…but for us, a noble thing.” Grandfather Spaulding disparages the maintenance-free turf that a young newspaperman threatens to bring to Green Town (the fictive Waukegan), instructing the fellow in the joys of grass and its mowing, for “it’s the little savors and little things that count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You’ve time to seek and find.”
(From the what-might-have-been file: the songwriter Jimmy Webb worked on a musical of Dandelion Wine that, alas, seems never to have flowered. Imagine the craftsman who wrote “Wichita Lineman,” which Creem justly called “one of the most perfect pop records ever made,” and “Galveston,” among the most effective of all antiwar songs, scoring Green Town. Oh, the things that never were!)
I cannot think of another writer whose work is so redolent of a season and a month. Not June and summer, contra Dandelion Wine, for Ray Bradbury is October’s storyteller; in his epigraph to the collection The October Country (1955), he describes his land as “…the country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, subcellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…”
This is where he sets the second novel of his Green Town trilogy, the “dark carnival” fable Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), the story of an Illinois town of the 1920s visited one October by a mysterious circus whose owner and ringmaster promises maturity to callow boys, eternal life to worn-out men, youth and beauty to gnarled old maids. “Unconnected folks, that’s the harvest the carnival comes smiling after with its threshing machine,” says Charles Halloway, the wistful and exhausted library janitor who finds, in his son, the means to resist the tempter and accept mortality, limits, and the homely pleasures of life in Green Town, Illinois. (Bradbury scripted an underrated film of this novel, released in 1983.)
The final piece of the Green Town triptych is the long-awaited Farewell Summer (2006), set in the summerlike October of 1928, the year of Dandelion Wine. Though not as bad as its pans would indicate, Farewell Summer was the Godfather III in the trilogy. It is no Dandelion Wine, but nor does it detract from that work, which Bradbury, in his characteristically lyrical (my view) or overwritten (the view of his critics) style, has described as “the boy-hid-in-the-man playing in the fields of the Lord on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.” The characters and character of Green Town feed each other, grow strong and individuated in their commingling; Dandelion Wine is, I think, his most beautifully realized book.
The Green Town novels established Bradbury as a Midwestern pastoralist of tremendous skill and one of the best novelists of American boyhood. His reputation as a science fiction master rests on two novels, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and The Martian Chronicles (1950), and a passel of stories.
The prophetic quality of Fahrenheit 451 lies not so much in the image of burning books. Who today would even bother to incinerate the works of Sean Hannity or Al Franken? They probably read better in ash anyway. Rather, it is in the way that technology and bureaucracy vitiate the family, deprive it of essential functions. Fire captain Beatty explains to the late-blooming rebel Montag: “Heredity and environment are funny things. You can’t rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.” (Not that the well-meaning advocates of mandatory preschool have any such thing in mind…)
As the foregoing quote suggests, Bradbury has a libertarian streak, which flared especially in his work in the ’50s. As he explained at that time, “Science fiction is a wonderful hammer; I intend to use it when and if necessary, to bark a few shins or knock a few heads, in order to make people leave people alone.”
Since his earliest stories Ray Bradbury has warned of the potential of technology to replace its makers, to substitute the artificial and the efficient for the clumsy and human. (See his masterpiece “The Veldt,” a story, in Kirk’s description, “of children abandoned by modern parents to the desolation of the Screen.”) The forlorn Professor Faber tells Montag in Fahrenheit 451, “It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but they are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.”
As the foregoing passage suggests, Bradbury is not a technophobe. He rather likes gadgetry, in the manner of a bright Green Town boy reading Popular Mechanics and fussing with radio tubes. Though sometimes disparaged by science fiction hardware buffs as a Luddite, he is an effervescent optimist, confident that we needn’t choose (as he put it in one poem) “Einstein or Christ” but can have “both.”
Thus in The Martin Chronicles, as American expansion plays out on our planetary neighbor, Bradbury’s poetic appreciation of the frontier virtues vies with his melancholic awareness of the omnipresence of cupidity and the lust to dominate. He later explained to an interviewer, “You don’t have to give in to the wilderness, and you don’t have to kill it. You can work with it.” Well, maybe.
Ray Bradbury has never given in to cheap despair or the illusion that air conditioning and moondoggles signal the inexorable march of Progress and Light. He is Waukegan in its Golden Age, between the wars, the Waukegan of grandfathers sitting on porches with grandsons, telling family legends and transmitting winemaking secrets, and while those grandsons may grow up to design rocketships and even fly to Mars they will, in the world and wishes of Ray Bradbury, bring Waukegan with them. Of course Waukegan/Green Town is dirt and earth, not just memories, and it can never be transplanted. Something is lost and something is gained in such moves, and Ray Bradbury—more than any other American writer—has taken the measure.
Waukegan, Bradbury knows, is as mythopoeic as any place on earth or in time, if its sons and daughters will just remember. He remembers. In a lovely passage from a 1974 introduction to Dandelion Wine, Bradbury writes that “one of the last memories I have of my grandfather is the last hour of a Fourth of July night forty-eight years ago when Grandpa and I walked out on the lawn and lit a small fire and filled the pear-shaped red-white-and-blue-striped paper balloon with hot air, and held the flickering bright-angel presence in our hands a final moment in front of a porch lined with uncles and aunts and cousins and mothers and fathers, and then, very softly, let the thing that was life and light and mystery go out of our fingers up on the summer air and away over the beginning-to-sleep houses, among the stars, as fragile, as wondrous, as vulnerable, as lovely as life itself.
I see my grandfather there looking up at that strange drifting light, thinking his own still thoughts. I see me, eyes filled with tears, because it was all over, the night was done, I knew there would never be another night like this.
No one said anything. We all just looked up at the sky and we breathed out and in and we all thought the same things, but nobody said. Someone finally had to say, though, didn’t they? And that one is me.
The wine still waits in the cellars below.
My beloved family still sits on the porch in the dark.
The fire balloon still drifts and burns in the night sky of an as yet unburied summer.
Why and how?
Because I say it is so.”
That, my friends, is the voice of a beautiful soul.