Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5 at the age of ninety-one, will be remembered as a writer of science fiction or, as he preferred, fantasy. That’s not surprising. As the obituaries have emphasized, he imagined ATMs, the Bluetooth, and artificial intelligence decades ago.
For me, though, science fiction isn’t the center of Bradbury’s imagination or his appeal. The most magical place in his fiction isn’t Mars. It’s Green Town, Illinois, a fictional stand-in for his birthplace, Waukegan, Illinois. Its enchantments included the local library, City Hall with its bell tower, the ravine and the bridge, the wild outskirts where Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show sets up every autumn.
Like Catcher in the Rye, Bradbury’s work is most appealing for boys of a certain age. After he died, I went back to Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer to find out if the magic was still there. It is. Damon Knight said that with Dandelion Wine Bradbury dove “with arms spread into the glutinous pool of sentimentality that has always been waiting for him.” Bradbury himself admitted that he never “thought” at the typewriter, only felt. I concede: Bradbury boyhood is sepia boyhood, gauzily nostalgic, the boyhood I wish I had had instead of my own. Still I’m captivated all over again. Still it’s magic. Turns out, Bradbury is appealing for boys of any age.
He is at his most exotic when exploring the mysteries of a summer evening in a small midwestern town. Streetlights blink on, fireflies flicker over the yard, cicadas and crickets chirp in the warm air. As you walk down the sidewalk, you can hear the clatter of dishes through open kitchen windows, the creak of swings and rocking chairs and the murmur of the men sitting in the yellow dome of light on the front porches, a whiff of tobacco smoke hovering overhead. Out on the darkening lawn, a cluster of boys led by Douglas Spaulding argues, wrestles, and plots. Tomorrow, they’re going to refight Shiloh all over town, using the parks and cemetery as battlefields. They’ll steal the chess pieces from the old men who play in the town square and magically control the boys with their knights and rooks. Tomorrow night, they’ll break into city hall and kill the clock that keeps the town in thrall.
The idyll is touched with melancholy and a tremor of gulping panic. It’s late enough in the summer for the boys to feel the chill of a new school year coming. Pencils and notebooks are displayed already in the shop window at the five-and-dime. Summer is ending, and with it, freedom and innocence. Bradbury’s America feels as vigorous as boyhood, and as elegiac.
Other endings overshadow Douglas and his friends in Dandelion Wine. Colonel Freeleigh the living time machine dies, and Douglas understands that all the characters that lived in his memory died with him. Douglas’s great-grandma dies, and his best friend John moves away. At the end of the summer, Douglas takes out his yellow pad and his Ticonderoga pencil and lists all the things that you can’t depend on in life—machines, tennis shoes, trolleys that come to the end of the line, people. As he writes, the fireflies in the jar beside his bed “turned themselves off.”
Written in 1957, Dandelion Wine is set in the summer of 1928. Both dates evoke late summers in American history. The exuberant twenties were about to crash into the Depression, and Bradbury sniffed change in the fifties air. He must have known he was a late summer writer himself. He may be one of our last writers whose imagination was formed entirely by the great boyhood classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Bradbury stood fast and kept his boyhood right to the end. In interviews from the seventies on, Bradbury returned with uncanny regularity to formative experiences that took place when he was five, six, ten, or twelve. Early in June, the New Yorker published his last essay, where Bradbury reminisced about setting off fire balloons with his grandfather:
I remember him so well: the two of us on the lawn in front of the porch, with twenty relatives for an audience, and the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go . . . I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.
Bradbury once said that his purpose was to find fresh ways to express basic truths. He did. Re-reading Bradbury means reliving the existential Illumination that comes to Douglas early in the summer of 1928. Sprawled on the grass after wrestling his brother, one eye open to “everything, absolutely everything,” Douglas discovers the summery wonder: “I’m alive.” The world around him brims with glory he never noticed before. Bradbury helps us notice. Then, and more slowly, he brings the further Revelation: Summers end, so make the best of it.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.