M.J. Downing Influences #5: Heady Stuff.

The summer of 2019 reaching its unofficial close—although we’ll have the heat, now and then for a while yet—I pause to try and capture some of it, capture Summer, with a capital S, the proper noun, Summer. This summer marks one sixty-fifth of all my summers, so I suppose that I ought to be thankful for the long hot days and nights that passed on their rusty ankles, as Zora Neale Hurston might say. They did drag some, and I found myself, more than once, thinking of the time when autumn and winter would come and I would not wake up and go to sleep in a sweat.
But a couple of days ago, my wife finished Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine again for the umpteenth time, and in our talk about it, I went back into my first memories of it. There, Summer resides, particularly an American Summer, and it doesn’t matter that I live in a large city, Louisville, Ky, rather than a small place, like Green Town. I can find Summer with Douglas Spaulding, his brother, Tom, with John Huff, and Leo Auffmann—even the Lonely One within the covers of this classoc. I find Summer’s charm, its adventures and challenges, its sense of release from cares, and the happy threat of its inevitable end, the turn of the seasons. For that is what makes Summer special, and now, with way fewer summers ahead and most of them behind, I can appreciate them more, even if I slog through the sweat. Each summer, indeed, each day of life itself, is a gift, like writing, and I had my first inklings of that when I read this Bradbury classic for the first time.
The cover shot above is from my wife’s copy of Dandelion Wine. My copy has disappeared long since, but I remember picking it up along with A Canticle for Leibowitz sometime in my late teens. Both were second hand copies, purchased at a used book store on Preston Highway, just south of Belmar Drive. It has long since gone—it was even a video store I frequented in later years. That, too, is gone.
Bradbury’s work was the first one of the two I read, and though I had a notion that I wanted to write, I hadn’t even started college yet. I worked in the Louisville Fire Department, at the time. I worked a twenty four hour shift and was off for forty eight hours. My friends were all in school or working regular jobs, and I split my time in my off hours between reading and working out at the dojo, with my friend and sensei, Paul Bryant. I read what I wanted which I considered mostly fluff stuff, not serious literature. And reading it was akin to the hardest Jui-Jitsu techniques: it takes years to know how they work, even though you can tell that they work. But Bradbury’s work had me about convinced that I had no clue about writing.
That book earns its praise as “lyrical.” When I first sat down to read it, I knew that I had no capability to write a book that spoke like that one did:
Grandfather stood on the wide front porch like a captain surveying the vast unmotioned calms of the season dead ahead.He questioned the wind and the untouchable sky and the lawn on which stood Douglas and Tom to question only him.
I knew nothing about neologisms like “unmotioned,” nor did I take issue with it. At a much later reading, I did take issue with it, as I did other passages, like “Douglas’s eyes dropped to the floor.” I read that line to my wife, once, and followed it up with my comment, “I bet they didn’t.” But poets break as many rules as they stand by, even rules that many consider inviolable, like starting a sentence with a conjunction. At my first reading of Dandelion Wine, I was only aware of the impact that such language had on me, and I knew that I was denied the capacity to write such things. The desire was there, but the ability, the confidence was not.
I knew that passage invoked a complex vision which resonated with my own memories of a Grandfather whom I took as a Captain, with wisdom to see his way ahead, where I could only react to the next thing I had to do. It made me think of the summers of my life and the impact they had on my life. Conscious that the few words of that passage compressed that many faceted idea, I simply read it, speeding through it, hungry for more, yet starving for the ability to do it on my own. I simply told myself that I couldn’t write, that I wasn’t cut out for it, educated enough for it. Reading Bradbury, like reading Tolkien, told me that I was just a reader and would never make a writer. Yet I wonder if that desire to read, to sink myself into story, get lost in it, is not but the obverse of the same coin as writing. Yet, reading Dandelion Wine stopped cold any notion that I could write a book. I knew that spinning together every scene that makes up that encapsulation of Summer was a profound feat, but I didn’t realize that every writer drafts, makes mistakes, revises, and works hard to make something like Dandelion Wine into what it is.
Whether Bradbury realized that he wrote about archetypes, as the critics say, in relating this autobiographical tale, he had to begin somewhere, and his use of craft had already made him a successful writer by the time, 1957, that this book came out. By that time, his confidence in his style, as well as his desire to write a book about his childhood, had grown and gave him the license, I think, to enter into drafting these episodes, concentrating on the evocative language of each moment in this homage to Summer. He could concentrate on them one by one, refining, I imagine, the relationships depicted in each, pulling them all together into a lastingly beautiful coming of age novel as a result. Bradbury possessed the ability to work from his strengths and not worry about his weaknesses. The greatest weakness of all would have been to put aside the stories of Douglas, his family and friends. And that confidence, I think, is what gives him the warrant to write this classic.
Others have criticized his work as unrealistic, that Green Town, as a reflection of his native Waukeegan, Illinois, leaves out the sad, depressing history of that real city. Bradbury could respond with confidence that he wrote of his town from the perspective of a twelve year old, who loved his life. Writing about a beloved thing tends to make our view of it rather rosy, and that, in itself, creates some of the power in this book. The negative aspects of life in Waukeegan at the time were likely expressed in the yawning ravine that runs down the center of Green Town. Things disused fall into it, and, there, Douglas and his friends find a source of adventures. It is even the abode of “The Lonely One,” as he has dubbed the local murderer, whose presence weaves its dark thread through Douglas’s imagination, to the degree that when the murderer is caught, Douglas cannot conceive of the idea that he was a man who was captured. The presence of evil, of desperation, remains in Douglas’s mind, for evil lives in the world, in every town.
I cannot calculate Bradbury’s influence here. I have found myself doing similar things in Tracking a Monster, which has morphed into Starling’s Call in its most recent iteration. Doug Spaulding loves his world as thoroughly as my Andy McKinney does his, and though I know that I have fictionalized—made fantastic, really—events of my own youth, I rejoice in the confidence I have now that makes me see that writing it is what I should have been doing all along, rather than doubting my ability. If I’d stopped any notion of writing my own variations on the theme of Summer, simply because they lack realistic representation of the whole world in 1967, I’d have done so on the basis of someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong in my stories. There is no freedom in that.
Now, when I read Dandelion Wine again, it reminds me that it is a gift, the gift of Summer, one that I’m thankful to Bradbury for sharing. Summer itself, in my history of seeing it as a chance to be free from school, to carry out my own adventures, such as they were, finds its greatest value in the notion that the seasons change. And, if we are fortunate, they will go on doing so. I need to love something enough to write about it, to find the confidence to say, “this is what I know,” and I have, in part, Bradbury to thank for it. I am aware, though that my characters whom I try to bring to life in my stories aren’t just a matter of nostalgia. That, I think, is the sentiment that lies behind the criticism of Bradbury’s Green Town not reflecting the real Waukeegan. Nostalgia goes nowhere, and Dandelion Wine would have gone nowhere if it had been just a matter of glorifying the past. For, with every moment having its roots in the past, this homage to Summer is about change, ongoing, unremitting change.
The emphasis is on Douglas’s discovery that he is alive, not just awake and breathing, letting things wash over and around him. His great joy lies in his realization that, frustrations and fears notwithstanding, his life demands his active presence in it, engaging with everything. His life is not mediated by a screen. True, every episode, like the metaphor of the book takes great pains to point out, fills a bottle of Dandelion Wine in the Spaulding basement. That, I think, is how the book takes on life that reaches into every season, and that is the beauty and worth of story, in and of itself. The boys’ discovery in ancient Colonel Freeleigh as a kind of time machine that connects them to an heroic past shows Bradbury’s awareness of the change that is embodied in the interrelations between his characters. It stresses the need for connection between generations, which we need more now than we ever have. The technology that fills our heads with more information about “now” than we can deal often lacks a human element to it. To the point that everyone’s truth becomes truth. It has become cheap, stripped of a connection to the person who lived that story. Without the connection to a person, a story cannot be judged as true or false. Getting everything as just information makes it seem like everyone’s account of an incident is true. We don’t get that someone can be romanticizing an event. Unlike Freeleigh’s stories, technology strips away that a story is always a matter of perspective, taking something personal and making it monolithic. Listening to Freeleigh’s stories gives the boys a chance to see that life is about discovery.
And there, I think, lies the reason for this book not having gone out of print. Born of his confidence to tell his own story, glamorized in the world of Douglas Spaulding’s twelfth summer, Bradbury shows us our need of one another. Humans are story telling animals. We need to hear each others stories, and when those stories are big enough to take on a life of their own, we need to write them.

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