The Regionalist: Ray Bradbury of IllinoisBill Kauffman - 07/07/08
Byzantium, I come not from,
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;
As a boy
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 turned westward 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.”