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Dandelion Wine

by Ray Bradbury

Essay  by Ted Gioia

By his early thirties, Ray Bradbury had established
himself as one of the luminaries of science fiction, but his
ambitions and interests were already leading him to
abandon the formulas of genre storytelling.  Around this
time, he began crafting a series of
stories inspired by his childhood in
Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury
had spent most of the first fourteen years
of his life.  This careful mining of the
modest and uneventful happenings of
his own youth would eventually result in
several books, and numerous short stories.

Just as surprising were the periodicals where
Ray Bradbury was now publishing these Illinois
stories.    "The Season of Sitting" appeared in
Charm—which positioned itself as "the magazine
for the business girl"—in August 1951;  "The
Lawns of Summer" was published in
in May 1952;  "Dandelion Wine" found
a home in the June 1953 issue of
Gourmet;  "The Swan" was
featured in
Cosmopolitan in September 1954; and the
Saturday Evening Post accepted "Summer in the
Air" and ran it in its February 1956 issue.   The author who
had cut his teeth on
Weird Tales had clearly moved into a
better literary neighborhood.  

These efforts reached their culmination in Bradbury’s
ambitions for a big "Waukegan novel," which he sent to his
publisher at the end of 1956.   Years later, the writer’s wife
Maggie would mention that
Dandelion Wine was Bradbury’s
favorite among his books—although the author himself was
more coy.  "They are all my children.  You can’t pick favorites
when it comes to children."   But if you have any doubts about
how closely Bradbury identifies with this work you need merely
look at is protagonist Douglas Spaulding, whose very name
makes clear that he is the author’s alter ego:   Bradbury’s
middle name is Douglas, and his great-grandmother’s maiden
name was Spaulding.   Here in Green Town, Illinois—the
stand-in for Waukegan—we follow in this boy’s path during the
summer of 1928.  

Our novelist, at first glance, seems to be ignoring the science
fiction and fantasy concepts that brought him to fame.  But at
closer examination, the familiar genre themes are employed
repeatedly—albeit in altered or parodied form.  In a chapter
also published separately as a short story called "The Time
Machine," Douglas’s friend Charlie Woodman promises to
show his friends exactly that.  "Travels in the past and the
future?" inquires another youngster.  "Only in the past, but
you can’t have everything," Charlie responds.  But the time
machine here is nothing more than their neighbor Colonel
Freeleigh, a Civil War veteran, whose stories of time past
have such Proustian immediacy, that the children sit around
him in rapt fascination as he recounts anecdote after

No, this is not the same kind of
time machine that H.G. Wells
made famous, but Bradbury is willing to poke gentle fun at the
very genre formulas that most readers would associate with
his own work.  And if he didn't make the point clearly enough
in this interlude, he returns to it again in a separate chapter,
one of the deepest stories Bradbury ever penned, about a 95-
year-old woman in her final days and a young reporter for the
local newspaper.  This story, a delicate reworking of the
timeless theme of the old trying to find something of value and
remembrance to hand down to the young, seems almost too
poised and mature, a vintage of something more substantial
than dandelions, for an author in the full flush of youthful
ambition to construct.

We see this same oblique reference to the fanciful and
conceptual in other sections of
Dandelion Wine.  Two
separate interludes in the book incorporate the subject of
witchcraft, but in ways that parody the traditional MacBethian
"fire burn and cauldron bubble" trappings of such accounts.   
Another chapter presents a Lovecraftian horror story about a
killer known as the "Lonely One";  the account creates
genuine suspense and is capped by an unsettling surprise
ending—but then Bradbury undoes it all with an epilogue that
turns the horror into comedy.  In another chapter, Douglas’s
neighbor Leo Auffmann decides to build a "happiness
machine," and the contraption he constructs bears an
uncanny resemblance to the modern day virtual reality
generator known as the World Wide Web.  Only in this
instance, the residents of this small town reject the innovation,
finding that it merely leaves them depressed and teary-eyed.  
The message here—the assertion that the modest reality of
the here-and-now is superior to the grand promises of the
future—is emblematic of
Dandelion Wine as a whole.  Who
would have guessed, based on his earlier work, that Ray
Bradbury would be the stick-in-the-mud to cop such a
reactionary attitude?

Bradbury, by his nature, is a short story writer, and even when
he tries his hand at longer forms, they still show their origins in
more compact narrative forms.
Fahrenheit 451 actually
started life as a short story ("FireMan" published in 1947) then
became a novella ("The Fireman" published in 1951) and only
finally grew into a novel that barely stretches out to the 200
page mark.   
The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man
try to create the impression of bulk via larger framing
narratives, but without losing their identity as short story
collections. Bradbury was more successful in stitching
together his little stories into novelistic form in his accounts of
small town life, notably here in
Dandelion Wine and
Something Wicked This Way Comes, but even in these
instances the finished works come across as collections of
vignettes that only gradually give way to a larger vision.  

Even so, this book transcends the miniaturist sensibility of so
much of Bradbury’s work.  He has worked hard to draw
together his diverse subplots through the use of unifying
themes and characters, as well as various anticipations and
flashbacks.  As a result,
Dandelion Wine has more coherence
than, say,
The Illustrated Man or The Martian Chronicles.    
Above all, a certain wistful nostalgia permeates the book, and
gives it a unifying flavor from the opening page to the
concluding sentence.  But it is nostalgia mixed with an
ineffable sense of immanence.  That latter quality ultimately
makes this book about the past—nowadays 1928 seems like
the distant past—into an admonition for the reader to take
watchful delight in the present.   
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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Barefoot in the Head

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The House of the Spirits

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Like Water for Chocolate

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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The Wanderer

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His Master's Voice

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Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

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The Chronicles of Narnia

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Magic for Beginners

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Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

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Gravity's Rainbow

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Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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