Dandelion Wine, first published in the United States in 1957, is the story of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding as he approaches manhood in the mythical city of Green Town, Illinois. As Douglas moves from a childlike state of ignorance toward the full knowledge of his own existence, he learns to value family, friends, and time. Moreover, as Douglas becomes increasingly aware that all life ends in death, he also must confront his own mortality and that fact that he, too, will someday die. This confrontation erupts in a mysterious summer illness that almost costs Douglas his life; his awakening from the fever coma signifies Douglas’s mature acceptance and valuing of human life.
Dandelion Wine is different from most of the canon of Bradbury’s work. Although he rejects the label of science fiction writer, it is true that most of his work could be classified as fantasy or science fiction. Dandelion Wine, on the other hand, grows out of Bradbury’s own childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, in the golden years before the Great Depression. Bradbury himself frequently comments on the autobiographical qualities of the novel. He writes in his 1975 introduction to the book, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not 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.” This, then, is a glimpse into the childhood and formative years of one of America’s major writers, and a coming-of-age-story for readers of all ages.
Ray Bradbury was born to Leonard Spaulding and Esther Moberg Bradbury on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois. He spent his formative childhood years in Waukegan, the town that became the basis for “Green Town,” and the setting for several of his stories and novels.
In 1926, the family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Bradbury’s younger sister was born. She died of pneumonia in 1927, and the family returned to Waukegan. The family again moved to Tucson in 1932, only to return in 1933; their last move, however, was to Los Angeles in 1934, where Bradbury has lived ever since.
Bradbury fell in love with Hollywood during his teenage years, and spent much of his time trying to get a glimpse of his favorite screen and radio stars at their studios. He handed George Burns a script for his show every week until finally Burns used a small bit to close his show.
After graduation from high school, Bradbury pursued his writing, selling newspapers on street corners to support himself through 1942. His first professional publication, “Pendulum,” appeared in Super Science Stories in 1941, the same year that he attended renowned science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s writing classes. By 1945, Bradbury was writing full time and placing stories in both science fiction “pulp” magazines as well as such mainstream publications as McCall’s. During the late 1940s, he also began earning the kind of critical acclaim that would continue throughout his career. His stories regularly appeared in The Best American Short Stories, and he won an O. Henry award in 1947.
In the 1950s, Bradbury became a major American writer. In addition to publishing collections of short stories including The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and The Illustrated Man in 1951, he also brought his novel Fahrenheit 451 to print in 1953. During this time, Bradbury continued to work as a dramatic writer as well, composing radio adaptations of his stories, television dramas, and the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. In 1957, Bradbury finally published a novel he had been working on for nearly a decade, Dandelion Wine, a book that was later adapted as a full-length musical drama. The book drew heavily on Bradbury’s own childhood in Waukegan, Illinois.
Over the next four decades, Bradbury continued to work prolifically, producing many collections of stories, screenplays, teleplays, voiceover narrations for documentaries and movies, essays, nonfiction books, speeches, lyrics, and poems. For his effort, he won awards, including (among many others) the Aviation Space Writers Association Award (1968, 1979); the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Association (1977); the Jules Verne Award (1984); Body of Work Award from PEN (1985); National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters; and the National Medal of the Arts (2004). The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him a Grand Master. Bradbury also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Although Bradbury suffered a stroke in 1999, he continued to write and publish work, including One More for the Road (2002), a collection of short stories; several collections of poetry; and the 2003 novel, Let’s All Kill Constance.
Because Dandelion Wine is what is sometimes called a composite novel or short story cycle, the plot does not follow the kind of development one would expect from a novel although the same characters continue to interact throughout the book.
- Bradbury adapted Dandelion Wine as a musical several times, most notably in the 1967 Lincoln Center production. While reviews of the performance are available, there are no films of the production.
- Dandelion Wine was released on tape by Books on Tape on August 1, 1987.
Nevertheless, it is possible to break the book up into sections for discussion. In this first section, Douglas Spaulding opens the book by standing in the cupola of his grandparent’s home and willing Green Town to life: “He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes, sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season. He gave the town a last snap of his fingers. Doors slammed open; people stepped out. Summer 1928 began.”
In the next chapter, Mr. Spaulding takes his sons Tom and Douglas to the forest to gather wild berries. While there, Doug knows that something big is about to happen. Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by the sense of being alive and of being part of all that is alive. Later that day, the boys help their grandfather make the first batch of dandelion wine for the summer, the first ritual of summer.
In the second ritual of the summer, Doug obtains his new tennis shoes, shoes that he is convinced will allow him to run faster and farther than any shoes he has ever had before. He then opens a tablet and writes in it with his Ticonderoga pencil the first entry of his diary of the summer. He tells Tom that he intends to divide the diary into two parts: Rites and Ceremonies, listing things that they do every summer; and Discoveries and Revelations, a place where he will record what he thinks about the rites and ceremonies. Doug’s writing in the notebook becomes an important structural device for the novel.
The story then turns to Leo Auffman, who decides to invent a Happiness Machine. However, although the machine shows everyone wonderful things, it brings pain and sadness to anyone who tries it. It eventually goes up in flames; but Leo finally understands that his family is the real Happiness Machine.
Next, the children visit old Mrs. Bentley. They refuse to believe that she was ever young, even when she shows them items from her youth. Eventually the children persuade her that they are right and that she has always been old. Doug later writes about this, and he and Tom decide that old people never were children.
Charlie Woodman then tells the boys that he has found a Time Machine in the person of Colonel Freeleigh, an old man who tells the boys many, many stories about the past. Doug, writing about this later, calls it “far traveling.” Later, Doug returns to talk to Colonel Freeleigh and finds him dead.
Things begin changing for Doug and Green Town about section 20. Mr. Tridden, the trolley driver, tells everyone that the trolley is being decommissioned. He takes everyone for one last ride. In addition, Doug learns that his best friend, John Huff, is moving to Milwaukee. Doug wants Tom to promise never to leave. He is worried about God, and the future. Doug has learned the difference between playing dead and being dead, and it frightens him.
In section 28, Bill Forrester and Doug meet Miss Helen Loomis at the ice cream parlor. Bill Forrester accepts an invitation to go to the old woman’s house for tea, and consequently begins spending everyday with her. It is clear that the two love each other very much; but for their ages, there would have been a romance. Helen dies later in August; however, there is an indication that perhaps during the next go around of life, the two might be in the right place at the right time and not miss each other.
Around this time, the Lonely One is reintroduced into the story. A frightening, mysterious figure who haunts the ravine, the Lonely One has been killing women all summer. In section 29, Lavinia Nebbs and her friends cut through the ravine on their way to the theater and stumble on the body of another woman. Doug is in the ravine with them, and is badly shaken. Lavinia insists on going to the theater anyway. Walking home alone through the ravine, she is frightened by footsteps behind her. She races to her home, locks the door behind her, and breathes a sigh of relief. It is then that she realizes that the Lonely One is in the house with her.
The next day the boys tell the story of Lavinia killing the man with her sewing scissors. They decide that this cannot really be the Lonely One. Doug remains shaken, and suddenly realizes that he, too, will die.
Doug and Tom next visit the arcade only to discover that the Tarot Witch, a wax figure who tells fortunes, is not working. Doug becomes convinced that she is being held captive and needs to be freed so that she can tell them the truth about the future. He steals her with the help of Tom and Father, but she does not reveal anything but a blank card. Shortly after this, the town is caught in an extreme heat wave, and Doug falls deathly ill. All are afraid that they will lose Doug.
Late one night, the junkman, Mr. Jonas, visits Doug while he is sleeping under the apple tree in the yard where his family has left him in the hope that it will cool him off. Mr. Jonas gives Doug magic cool air to breathe, and this cures him. The next day, rain falls on the town and Doug begins to write again.
In a final story, Aunt Rose visits Grandma and Grandfather’s boarding house. She decides to set Grandma’s kitchen straight, and in so doing, destroys Grandma’s ability to cook. Doug sneaks into the kitchen late at night and undoes the damage. The boarders send Aunt Rose away.
In the final section, summer is over, and the porch furniture comes back into the house. Doug, standing in the cupola once more, commands the town to go to sleep.
Lena Auffmann is married to Leo Auffmann and is the mother of their six children. She attempts to stop her husband from building the Happiness Machine and continues to be the voice of reason throughout the stories about the Machine. She tells Leo that he has made two mistakes with the machine: “You made quick things go slow and stay around. You brought things faraway to our backyard, where they don’t belong… .”
Leo Auffmann is the Green Town inventor. One evening when Douglas casually tells him to build a Happiness Machine, Auffmann undertakes what he believes will be his greatest invention. He works many long hours on the Machine, nearly destroying his health, his marriage, and his family in the process. After his son and his wife use the Machine to ill effect, he tries it himself, and is nearly killed in the ensuing fire. He realizes later that the real Happiness Machine is right in front of him, sitting on his own front porch: his family.
Mrs. Bentley is an elderly resident of Green Town, visited by children who refuse to believe that she was ever young. Under the constant pressure from the children, eventually Mrs. Bentley herself believes that she has never been young, that she has been seventy-two years old forever, that she does not have a first name, and that she has always lived in the same house.
Elmira Brown is a thirty-two year old woman married to the town postman. She is clumsy and often hurts herself; at the same time, she often blames others for her own problems. When she hears that her rival, Clara Goodwater, has received instruction manuals for becoming a witch, she believes that all of her tribulations have been caused by Clara casting spells. Although it appears that this is ridiculous, the ending of the story is ambiguous. How a reader ultimately receives Elmira largely depends on the reader’s reception of Clara as well.
Miss Fern is an elderly, unmarried woman who, along with Miss Roberta, owns the Green Machine.
Bill Forrester is one of the boarders at Grandfather and Grandma’s house who finds a special relationship with Helen Loomis.
Colonel Freeleigh is an elderly resident of Green Town who has lived all over the world. Charley Woodman discovers him and says that he is a Time Machine. Freeleigh shares his adventures with the boys in such a way that they feel transported to the time and place he describes.
Clara Goodwater is a young matron of Green Town and the President of the Honeysuckle Ladies’ Lodge. She has mail ordered books on witchcraft and magic, ostensibly for her cousin Raoul. She says that she is not a witch, in spite of Elmira Brown’s accusation. However, by the end of the story, it is not clear whether she is admitting to witchcraft, or humoring Elmira in a fit a guilt over the latter woman’s fall down the stairs.
Douglas and Tom’s Grandfather owns the boarding house where many of the characters of Dandelion Wine live. He is especially important to the story as the maker of dandelion wine. He pays the boys a dime a bag for the flowers, then he processes them through the press in his basement, making one bottle of the elixir for each day of the summer. Grandfather is also the character who decides when summer begins and ends by choosing the day on which to hang the porch swing, and then take it back in the house for the fall.
Douglas and Tom’s Grandma’s major role in Dandelion Wine is that of cook. Her meals are magical and unlike anything anyone has ever had. Each day she prepares large quantities of strange, delicious food for her family and for her boarders.
Great-grandma lives at the boarding house. Her role in Dandelion Wine is that of an elder wise woman who knows when it is time to leave this life. She is the character who explains to Douglas just what death is, and who offers him solace from his contemplations of the process.
John Huff is Douglas’s closest friend. When his father gets a job in Milwaukee, John tells Doug that he will be leaving Green Town. John’s importance in the book is that he serves to demonstrate to Doug the impermanence of life. As much as Doug wants things to stay the way they are, the characters continue to change and, in the case of John, leave Green Town.
Mr. Jonas is the Green Town junkman. There is a magical quality about the man; the children can hear him coming long before adults know he is anywhere near. In addition, he is also a healer. During the night hours, he wanders the roads, dispensing aspirin or delivering babies. When Doug nearly dies, it is Mr. Jonas’s bottle air that revives him.
The Lonely One
The Lonely One is the name given to a man who terrorizes the nights of Green Town. Women who find themselves in the Ravine after dark have a way of finding themselves murdered. Eventually, the town believes that the Lonely One has been killed by Lavinia Nebbs in her house. The boys, however, do not believe that the man was really the Lonely One; in their need to have a boogieman on which to focus their fears, they convince themselves that the Lonely One survives. More than a physical character, the Lonely One is also the specter of death. Like the Grim Reaper, he represents the end of time, the end of the world, and the end of life for Douglas.
Helen Loomis is a ninety-five-year-old resident of Green Town. A beautiful, wild woman in her youth, she passed up the chance for love. Now she develops a special relationship with Bill Forrester.
Lavinia Nebbs is considered to be the “prettiest maiden lady in town.” Lavinia demonstrates both her courage and her resourcefulness by killing the Lonely One with a pair of scissors.
Miss Roberta is Miss Fern’s sister, and co-owner of the Green Machine.
Douglas Spaulding is the twelve-year-old main character of Dandelion Wine. The book begins with his awakening into life and closes with his near death. Doug is a writer. In his notebook with his Ticonderoga pencil, he attempts to make sense of the events of the summer as well as of life and death. It is almost as if he tries to capture each of the days in the same way his grandfather bottles the summer in the dandelion wine. In many cultures, reaching the age of twelve is the traditional coming-of-age time. For Doug, the summer of 1928 is just that. He becomes aware of the rituals and practices that structure Green Town just as he attempts to understand what these rituals embody. For Doug, this is the summer when he understands what it means to be alive; but it is also the summer when he knows in the very core of his being that all creatures die, including himself. This knowledge nearly kills him, and it is only through the intervention of Mr. Jonas with his magical air that he is revived. Doug stands in for Bradbury in this novel; not only is the role autobiographical, it is also a comment on the role of the writer, the one who gets everything moving, and who ultimately decides when the story is concluded.
Mr. Spaulding, Doug and Tom’s father, is an important figure in the book, although his role is small. In the opening sequence of stories, it is Mr. Spaulding who takes the boys into the forest to gather wild berries. He seems to have a special connection to both the boys and nature, something that most adults in Dandelion Wine seem to have forgotten. Doug believes that his father has planned the outing specifically to initiate his son into the wonder of being alive.
Doug and Tom’s mother has only a minor role in the book. Her most important scene is when she and Tom go to look for Doug when he does not return home at the expected time. Her fear demonstrates to Tom that not even adults can control their environment.
Tom Spaulding is Doug’s ten-year-old brother. Not yet initiated into the mysteries of life, Tom is both confidant and enumerator for Doug. He keeps track of how many times they have done each of the rituals of summer. In addition, he listens as Doug tries to work through the puzzles of life. While he is not old enough to fully understand Doug’s struggles, his listening and companionship allow Doug to accomplish what he must. It is clear that Tom’s time will come as well and that in the future, he will have to face some of the same demons that have hounded Doug during the summer of 1928. For now, however, Tom is content and full in the moment.
Mr. Tridden is the trolley driver of Green Town. When the trolley is scheduled for decommissioning, he gives all of the residents one final, free ride on the wonderful machine.
Charlie Woodman is Doug’s friend.
As in many of his other works, Bradbury explores time in Dandelion Wine. The book begins on the first day of summer, 1928, and continues on chronologically until the last day of summer of the same year. This is calendar time, the day-by-day progression throughout the year. Bradbury underscores this progression through the scenes where the boys and Grandfather make dandelion wine, each bottle labeled for each day in the summer. As the number of bottles increases, the days of the summer dwindle. Calendars and clocks, however, only represent the kind of time that is measurable; these devices divide time up into ever smaller, equal divisions. Yet anyone who has ever thought about it knows that sometimes time passes more quickly or more slowly than at other times. Thus, while the calendar or the clock mark a linear, chronological progression, there is much that these devices do not reveal about time.
Bradbury introduces another notion of time through Colonel Freeleigh, a man who is able to travel freely through his memories, so much so that the children call him a Time Machine. When he tells the children his stories, he is able to transport them into a different kind of time, one that is cyclic, or circular. This is the time of stories and memory, moments that can be revisited again and again. Likewise, through the rituals of summer, those things the children do again and again, they are able to create a kind of sacred space that exists out of time.
Bradbury also uses clocks and calendars metaphorically in this novel to represent the time allotted to a person for a life. When Doug discovers he is alive, he suddenly realizes that he himself is a timepiece: “Twelve years old and only now! Now discovering this rare timepiece, this clock gold-bright and guaranteed to run three score and ten …” Thus, the passage of time through the summer in Dandelion Wine also serves to remind the reader that each human being has a metaphoric spring, and autumn in his or her life.
In Dandelion Wine, Doug experiences both kinds of time, chronological as well as ritual. In the tension between the two, Doug finds himself facing the most important questions of human existence.
Bradbury is often accused of finding technology distasteful or negative. In an article in English Journal, Marvin E. Mengeling notes that Bradbury’s “distrust of too much technology and mechanization” is a major theme in Dandelion Wine. In this novel, Green Town seems poised on the brink of a new age, one in which technology threatens to change human existence. Bradbury’s attitude toward technology seems to be that people need to remember what is important in life. Leo Auffmann’s attempt to build a machine that will give people happiness, for example, does just the opposite. People who use the machine find that because they see things they never knew they missed, they are now much more unhappy than they have ever been. In this case, then, Bradbury seems to be criticizing the way technology leads people into the desire for things, and for more technology. The real source of happiness, however, is not more things, but rather family. Indeed, Bradbury’s concern with technology is also tied to his concern with time. He seems to be telling the reader that time with family and with friends is the way time ought to be spent, rather than monkeying around with new machines.
Topics For Further Study
- Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is a disturbing look at the future when books are burned by firemen. Read this book, and consider the importance of reading and writing in both Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine.
- Bradbury is often classified as a science fiction writer. Research what is meant by the term “science fiction.” Does Bradbury fit into this classification? Why or why not? Is Dandelion Wine a work of science fiction?
- Read Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. What are some of Bradbury’s major ideas about writing? Does Douglas use the same techniques in his writing that Bradbury describes? Practice some of the techniques he describes, and develop a portfolio of writings based on his ideas.
- Bradbury wrote many screenplays in addition to his novels, short stories, and plays. Perhaps his most famous is his 1956 screenplay for director John Huston’s Moby Dick. Watch this version of the movie. Can you identify some of Bradbury’s themes and ideas present in the film? Are there any points of connection between Moby Dick and Dandelion Wine?
Just as Douglas discovers early in the book that he is alive, and that he is part of a larger world in which everyone and everything is alive, he also discovers later in the book that he will eventually die, just as everyone and everything will eventually die. This is a difficult concept for Douglas; however, the realization follows logically from not only what Doug can reason, but also from what he observes. In the space of a few short weeks, Doug loses his Great-grandma, Colonel Freeleigh, and Helen Loomis. In addition, he finds the corpse of the Lonely One’s murder victim. The realization is overwhelming for Doug, and he falls into a strange illness, one that threatens to kill him. Only through the intervention of Mr. Jonas, and through his own decision that living is preferable to death does he recover. But the introduction of death as a theme in Dandelion Wine shifts the book away from a sentimental recollection of the perfect boyhood and toward a darker understanding of human existence.
In Dandelion Wine, the setting of Green Town becomes almost another character. On the one hand, Bradbury has been very clear that he modeled Green Town after his own childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. According to Bradbury, there were tree-lined streets, people sitting on porches on a summer evening, and even a frightening dark ravine. However, Green Town becomes mythic in its significance to Dandelion Wine. The town is isolated, surrounded by a deep forest, with no connection to the outside world. Symbolically, the town is a kind of Garden of Eden for Doug, the place where one day he realizes he is alive. Likewise, the Lonely One, skulking about in the ravine is akin to the serpent in Eden, the serpent who brings death to humankind. Doug’s growing awareness of life and death is paralleled by Green Town’s gradual change from an isolated city where no one new arrives and no one ever leaves to a town where people die, and people go away. For Doug, this new knowledge of his city is dangerous; it is after witnessing the murdered corpse in the ravine that he falls into the coma that nearly wins him for death. Thus, while Green Town is simply the setting, it provides the mythological grounding for the novel.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung theorized that there are particular, images, character types, settings and stories that operate across cultures, and that these archetypes are embedded deep within the human subconscious. Bradbury, who writes frequently in books such as Zen and the Art of Writing about tapping his own subconscious mind for material, makes use of the idea of the archetype in Dandelion Wine. Douglas is the archetypal young hero and his story is the archetypal quest story. In this type of story, the hero is nearly always a young person about to enter adulthood who receives a calling that starts him or her on his journey. For Douglas, the quest is metaphoric as he moves through a series of initiatory rites designed to bring him from childhood into adulthood. He first is aware of this on the day his father takes him to pick grapes. He realizes that his father and his grandfather “live on riddles;” that is, they have knowledge that is outside of his understanding as a child. However, when he is in the forest, he receives the archetypal call when he realizes that this is the day when everything will change. He is aware of some presence outside himself ready to pounce. When this “something” finally makes itself known, “the world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.” From this moment on, with the utter certainty that he is alive, Douglas begins his journey to adulthood, encountering loss through both death and change, and his own near death.
Other archetypes that Doug encounters in Dandelion Wine include wise, older helpers such as his Grandfather and Colonel Freeleigh. He also encounters evil in the form of The Lonely One. In an archetypal subplot, through his dream, he wanders in the “other world” where he sees John Huff, the Happiness Machine, the trolley, Colonel Freeleigh, and his great-grandma, all people and things that have passed out of his life. Mr. Jonas, then, plays the role of spiritual guide, the archetypal character who brings Douglas home from the otherworld. Douglas’s awakening from his fever dream signifies a rebirth, and the end of his metaphoric journey. He is no longer a child, having earned his adulthood.
The Great Depression
Bradbury was born in 1920, and so was just nine years old when the Great Depression began, throwing his father out of work and forcing the family’s move from Waukegan, Illinois. This event had a lasting effect on the writer. In his choice of his novel’s setting, Green Town during the summer of 1928, Bradbury attempted to recreate a time and place that no longer existed, a place where the economic, political, and technological upheavals of the twentieth century had not yet touched. For Bradbury, the pre-Depression Midwestern town represented a kind of Eden, a place isolated from the rest of the world where people sat out on their porches at night and were truly neighborly. The social chaos brought on by the downward economic spiral of the Depression followed closely by the horrors of World War II made the final years before the Depression look particularly innocent and golden by comparison. This contrast, between the world of 1928, and the world of 1957, the year of the book’s publication is stark, and renders Douglas’s experiences all the more bittersweet.
The Cold War and the Nuclear Arms Race
During the years that Bradbury worked on Dandelion Wine, the United States was engaged in both World War II and the Korean War. Even when these wars ended, the struggle for world power between the Soviet Union and the United States continued in the cold war. At stake was the survival of the entire world, for as the cold war continued, both the United States and the Soviet Union (along with a number of other nations of the world including France, England, India, and China) began stockpiling stores of nuclear weapons to be used as a last resort against the other nations in the event of full-scale war. Such use, however, would mean the end of the world, as the nuclear arsenal grew to such a size that scientists estimated that nations could blow up the planet seven times over.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: In the aftermath of World War I, the United States enters an isolationist phase, concerning itself with its own economy and politics, an isolationism that continues until the American entry into World War II in 1941.
1950s: In the aftermath of World War II, the United States engages in the cold war with the Soviet Union, as the country attempts to stop the spread of communism throughout the world.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the cold war is now over.
- 1920s: The stock market booms, and many invest in the stock market, often on credit, undermining the economic stability of the country. In 1929, the good times come to a halt with the stock market crash of October, ushering in the ten long years of the Great Depression that follows.
1950s: As soldiers return home first from World War II and then the Korean War, unemployment rises and the country experiences another economic slow down, although not nearly as serious as in the Depression-era 1930s.
Today: The bombing of the World Trade Center towers in 2001 leads to a substantial drop in the stock market, pushing up the unemployment rate and causing economic hardships for many Americans.
- 1920s: The automotive and aviation industries are in their infancy, although it is clear that increased technology will lead the way to ever-greater productivity in both fields.
1950s: Americans purchase cars in record quantities, made affordable by the growth of technology. The newly born aerospace industry races to develop technology to compete with the Soviet Union’s launching of spacecraft.
Today: Growth in technology has taken Americans to the moon and back, and now makes possible communication satellites and further exploration of space. The world grows ever more accessible because of cell phones, jet aircraft, computers, and television, all products of the rapid technological growth.
Bradbury clearly hoped to return to a gentler, more naive time in his creation of Green Town. His thinly veiled distrust of technology had its roots in the 1950s, as he saw his nation rushing frantically toward some gigantic conflagration. The launching of the unmanned satellite Sputnik in 1957 by the Soviet Union, the first human object in orbit around the earth, only served to confirm both the promise and the dangers of technology for Bradbury, ground he had explored earlier in his 1950 collection, The Martian Chronicles. Although Dandelion Wine might seem to have little to do with the world at large, the novel, through its idealization of small town America in the years before the Depression, marked a rejection of the political and technological dangers of mid-twentieth century America.
Dandelion Wine is a popular book that has never been out of print since its first publication in 1957. Often assigned to students in junior and senior high schools, Dandelion Wine is a book much-loved by readers and critics alike. Nevertheless, the book did not receive as much early attention as it might have. As George Slusser in his article “Ray Bradbury” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography notes in 1978, although Bradbury is an important writer, he has “unjustly suffered from critical neglect.” Likewise, Marvin E. Mengeling, in his 1971 article “Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine: Themes Sources, and Style,” in English Journal, argues that although “Ray Bradbury happens to be one of America’s major prose writers… . his works have been abysmally neglected by critics.”
Like a number of later critics, Mengeling addresses this need in both the English Journal article, published in 1971, and much later in his book Red Planet, Flaming Phoenix, Green Town: Some Early Bradbury Revisited, published in 2002. Mengeling reads Dandelion Wine from an archetypal perspective in both sources, noting in the latter that “Dandelion Wine… is Ray Bradbury’s first major imaginative attempt at reconciliation with his past and family. More specifically, it is Bradbury’s first tentative step toward reconciliation with the Father.”
In addition to Mengeling, many other critics note the archetypal patterns Bradbury uses in Dandelion Wine. For example, John B. Rosenman in the South Atlantic Bulletin looks specifically at the heaven and hell archetype in both Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” and Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. He argues that the ravine is “mysterious and malignantly alive.” Further, the ravine “exert[s] a primal terrifying force and exude[s] an ominous menace that pervades the work with an air of expectancy and suspense.”
In one of the only readings that accounts for gender in Dandelion Wine, Robin Anne Reid argues that the book “focuses on the masculine world.” Further, while Reid writes positively about Dandelion Wine, she also notes that the novel “does an excellent job of showing the initiation and maturation of a man in a traditional patriarchal culture, but its theme is not universally applicable to everyone, especially to women.”
Finally, another approach that critics often take is a consideration of Bradbury’s theme of childhood in his work. Damon Knight, in a much reprinted critique, offers a negative view of this treatment in Dandelion Wine: “Childhood is Bradbury’s one subject, but you will not find real childhood here… .” He further accuses Dandelion Wine of being a “glutinous pool of sentimentality.” Lahna Diskin, however, takes a much deeper look into Bradbury’s children in an important essay, also reprinted in several volumes. She examines all of Bradbury’s children, focusing particularly on Doug and Tom from Dandelion Wine and the boys of Something Wicked This Way Comes. She writes of the children, “Their most outrageous actions are instinctive ploys against the inevitable doomsday of exile from childhood. Thus, in both books, the boys live at the quick of life, marauding each moment. They are afire with ecstatic temporality, resplendent immediacy.”
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English at Adrian College who writes widely on literary topics for academic and educational publications. In this essay, Henningfeld analyzes Dandelion Wine as an example of magical realism.
Magical realism (sometimes called magic realism) is one of the most interesting literary trends to emerge worldwide during the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Generally associated with South American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, recent critics have also included North American writers such as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison within the genre. Dandelion Wine, written in the 1950s as a mainstream autographical novel, however, has not generally been read as a magical realist text; nevertheless, Bradbury as a self-admitted fantasist, leaves himself open for just such a reading. Indeed, an accounting of the magical elements in Dandelion Wine not only deepens the reader’s understanding of the novel, it also revitalizes the text, making Dandelion Wine a surprisingly contemporary vintage. The purpose of this essay, then, is threefold: first, to provide a working definition of magical realism; second, to identify the elements in Dandelion Wine that can be classified as magical realism; and third; to consider how this approach opens the text to the twenty-first century reader.
Magical realism, in simplest terms, is the mixture of realistic elements along with fantastic elements. Further, the characters treat elements that might seem fantastic to the reader matter-of-factly. Likewise, everyday realistic elements for the reader may be treated as something magical by the characters. For example, in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the characters scarcely notice the flying carpets that gypsies ride into town, yet they are utterly astounded by ice. William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, in A Handbook to Literature, write that in a magical realist work, “[t]he frame or the surface of the work may be conventionally realistic, but contrasting elements—such as the supernatural, myth, dream, fastasy—invade the realism and change the whole basis of the art.”
Dandelion Wine clearly offers examples of these elements. Its setting (or surface) is early twentieth-century, small-town America, its characters the men, women, and children of this town, all engaged in everyday, daily activities. Yet magic erupts from the first moment that Douglas climbs into his grandparents’ cupola and wills the town into existence. Even in the most quotidian circumstance, an election for the presidency of a ladies club, there is an implication that witchcraft might be involved. Likewise, the main character, Douglas, is saved from death by a magical healer.
In their classic book Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris argue that “magical realism is a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic. Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds… .” Further, magical realist texts “often situate themselves on liminal territory between or among worlds—in phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common… .” In other words, magical realist texts often include many different ways of interpreting the world, interpretations that often exist side by side. “Liminal territory” is something like a borderland, or the space between two places, ideas, or worlds. In boundary spaces, characters and locations can find themselves transformed, changed, or even dissolved. Focusing on these elements of magical realism offers a particularly rich reading of Dandelion Wine because it is in the geographical, temporal, mythological, and spiritual boundaries that magic most often erupts in the novel.
As Zamora and Faris describe above, Green Town coexists in two separate worlds. In the first, it is the real city of Waukegan, Illinois, the place where writer Bradbury was born. Readers know this from Bradbury’s 1975 introduction to the book. At the same time, however, Green Town is a mythical location, a place that is not really anywhere or anytime. This is largely because Bradbury isolates the town; there is no one coming into the town from the outside, so it functions much as a Brigadoon or a Shangri La, or, for that matter, an Eden. At an even deeper level, however, Green Town is not anywhere or anytime because in the final analysis, it only exists in Bradbury’s memory and imagination. Bradbury’s description of the town imbues it with mythical qualities, and leads readers to understand that Green Town itself is a liminal space, a place where boys are transformed into men: “And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”
Likewise, the ravine serves multiple functions in the novel. Just as Waukegan is a real city, there is a real ravine in Waukegan, according to Bradbury. It is a place where the river cuts through the city to Lake Michigan. In Dandelion Wine, however, the ravine is not just a gully, but an opening into another mythic space not bound by the order or structure of the town. The ravine divides the town in two, and Douglas senses the primeval struggle between life and death in the space: “Panting, he stopped by the rim of the ravine, at the edge of the softly blowing abyss… . Here the town, divided, fell away in halves. Here civilization ceased. Here was only growing earth and a million deaths and rebirths every hour.”
The ravine indicates the “coexistence of possible worlds.” Whereas Green Town itself is ordered and ultimately knowable for Douglas, the ravine is not. It functions under a different reality from town, and the contrast opens the uncomfortable gap between order and chaos, between the knowable and unknowable. The ravine is the space where anything can happen: a young woman can be transformed into a corpse, or a young man into a hero. There is just no telling in such a magical place.
Dandelion Wine also suggests another pair of alternative realities coexisting in the same space. Bradbury clearly sets up two worlds, the world of the children and the world of the adults. When the children visit Mrs. Bentley, they are able to convince her that she never was a child herself. Indeed, Tom reports to Douglas who writes it down in his table, “Old people never were children!”
Tom, throughout the novel, is clearly within the realm of the children. When Douglas falls ill, for example, Tom tells Mr. Jonas “It’s been a tough summer … Lots of things have happened to Doug.” What he lists are the concerns of a child: Doug has lost his best aggie, someone stole Doug’s catcher’s mitt, Doug dropped his Tarzan statue, and it broke. Because he is a child, Tom fails to recognize that the summer has been hard on Doug not because he has lost his toys, but because he has lost his boyhood. Further, although Tom senses that Doug has had difficulties over the summer, there is no way that he can understand that the metamorphosis from child to adult has been exquisitely painful for Doug.
As Doug wanders in the liminal territory between childhood and adulthood, he becomes obsessed with the Tarot Witch, a wax arcade fortuneteller. This obsession is a manifestation of Doug’s fear of the future. Doug wants the Witch to reassure him that the future can be known, because if it can be known, then it can be controlled. When she issues a blank card, the blank card of the future, Douglas falls into a state of serious, and life-threatening, melancholy.
This is the final, and ultimate, liminal space of Dandelion Wine, the boundary between life and death that Doug travels as he falls ill. His is a disease of the spirit; the extraordinary transformation and metamorphosis that he has experienced over the summer threatens him with utter dissolution. In magical realist texts, these are the moments when magic is most likely to erupt, and so it does. Mr. Jonas, who is both junkman and spiritual healer in the coexistent worlds of Green Town, offers Doug a magic elixir: “GREEN DUSK FOR DREAMING BRAND PURE NORTHERN AIR… . derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa… .” Doug, in a coma and dreaming under an apple tree in his back yard, breathes in the magic air and is healed.
It is clear in the final chapters that Doug has been transformed in the borderlands between life and death, and has become a healer himself, restoring his grandmother to her magical self after his Aunt Rose attempts to organize her kitchen. When Doug, in the final section, climbs once again to his grandparents’ cupola to put the town to sleep at the end of the summer, he does so as a young man, not as a child.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Martian Chronicles (1950) is a collection of intertwined short stories about a series of attempts to colonize Mars. Many critics consider this to be Bradbury’s best book.
- Conversations with Ray Bradbury (2004), edited by Steven L. Aggelis, is an important collection of many interviews with Bradbury, who talks about his life and his writing.
- Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Toupance’s Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction (2004) is the definitive critical biography of Bradbury and his work.
- Bradbury: An Illustrated Life: A Journey to Far Metaphor (2002), by Jerry Weist and Ray Bradbury, is a coffee table book with wonderful illustrations, copies of posters, photographs, scenes from films, and more.
- Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is perhaps Bradbury’s most famous book, set in the not-so-distant future when reading is a crime.
Some earlier critics have found Dandelion Wine to be a cloyingly sweet and overly sentimental bit of autobiographical and nostalgic fluff. These readers seem to have wanted Bradbury to create a “realistic” vision of childhood. However, a more contemporary consideration of magical realism suggests that Bradbury has created multiple worlds in his simple tales. Readers can find on the streets of Green Town front porches, families, furniture—a perfect place to spend a long summer evening. At the same time, however, readers also find the spaces where the unpredictable and chaotic seep through. Indeed, a reading that takes into account magical realism opens the door to the boundary lands where reader, writer, and text are utterly transformed by acts of co-creation. Like Grandfather in the cellar, like Douglas in the cupola, and like Bradbury at his typewriter, readers create Dandelion Wine for themselves, the liminal space of the novel welcoming them in for just another sip.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Dandelion Wine, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Robin Anne Reid
In the following essay excerpt, Reid argues that Dandelion Wine depicts a journey “toward masculine maturity” and “its theme is not universally applicable to everyone, especially to women.”
Alternative Perspective: A Gender Reading
Gender criticism is an approach to literary analysis that builds on the earlier work of feminist critics and draws on later work by gay and lesbian critics and by scholars in the newly developing field of men’s studies. The basic assumption of gender studies is that while some aspects of maleness and femaleness may be biologically determined, social gender roles—masculinity and femininity—are learned and reflect specific cultural beliefs and specific social or historical contexts (Bressler 270).
Bringing the ideas of gender analysis to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine complicates any idea that this novel describes a universal theme of initiation or maturation and leads the reader to question how the novel presents the issues of what it means to be a preadolescent boy in a Mid-western town in the 1920s.
The family in Dandelion Wine is an extended family: several generations live, if not in the same house, close to each other. Doug, his brother Tom, and his father and mother live together, but close by is the boarding house where Doug’s great-grandmother, grandmother, and grandfather live with various boarders. Other family members apparently live close by.
From the start, the novel makes clear that its central journey is one toward masculine maturity: Doug and Tom go with their father into the woods. This male journey into the woods, or wilderness, is a traditional theme in American literature. The woods, or the wilderness, around “civilization” are a domain inhabited by wild or untamed animals. The Ravine in the novel is another kind of wilderness, a more threatening place that only the “older boys” go to. Doug’s mother is not a part of this journey, nor is she described as knowing what results. Later, Doug and his male friends Charlie and John run through the Ravine, while Tom stays at home with their mother. The mother and the young boy go to the Ravine when she worries about her son, but Tom’s perception of the danger in the Ravine is removed when Doug returns. Neither mothers, girls, nor younger boys go into the Ravine. Women who go into the Ravine are menaced by a monster-killer called the Lonely One; one woman is killed, and her body is found in the Ravine.
The family and social structures of Green Town reflect the traditional model of sharply defined gender roles. Chores are designated as either for women or for men: women, like Doug’s grandmother, do the cooking, while the grandfather, helped by the boys, makes dandelion wine. The sexes often separate for social gatherings: men smoke cigars, while ladies go to the movies together. The wives and mothers tend to stay at home, but all family members mingle on the porches in the evenings.
Women characters are always identified by their martial status. While there are a few bachelor characters, they are not identified as such, just called by their names. The children, with the exception of Tom, a younger boy, tend to play in groups segregated by sex.
Women who step out of traditional roles may suffer negative consequences. When Miss Fern and Miss Roberta run over Mr. Quartermain in their electric car, they retreat quickly to the attic of their house, but Doug saves them from public humiliation. Women like Miss Lavinia Nebbs or Miss Elizabeth Ramsell (the woman whose body Lavinia finds in the Ravine), who insist on going outside despite rumors of the Lonely One, risk death.
In terms of narrative time and the importance of the male characters, the novel focuses on the masculine world. That focus is shown most strongly in the portrayal of the Lonely One. When Tom and his mother go to the Ravine to search for Doug, she mentions that the Lonely One is around and that nobody is safe, although the Lonely One apparently kills only women. Lavinia Nebbs rejects the idea that the threat of the Lonely One should stop her from attending the movies, but she soon finds the body of his latest victim and is menaced herself. She kills an intruder in her house, but the boys’ reaction to her act is disappointment. In one of the few times Tom joins Doug and Charlie, the three boys mourn the disappearance of the Lonely One, whose absence will turn their town into “vanilla junket.” Only when Tom convinces them that the man killed is just a tramp, on the grounds that the real Lonely One wouldn’t look like a normal man, do the boys return to their gleeful excitement over a serial killer menacing their town.
In a novel so concerned with the idea of death and its effect on human beings, a serial killer is thought of and enjoyed like a scary but thrilling movie. While the boys say they don’t really wish Lavinia Nebbs had died in her house, the deaths of the women the Lonely One killed do not seem to be as real as the other deaths in the book, although Doug is affected by his near exposure to the Lonely One (he was in the Ravine at about the same time Elizabeth Ramsell was killed). In the terms of a gender reading, Dandelion Wine does an excellent job of showing the initiation and maturation of a man in a traditional patriarchal culture, but its theme is not universally applicable to everyone, especially to women.
Source: Robin Anne Reid, “Dandelion Wine (1957),” in Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 2000, pp. 63–72.
Marvin E. Mengeling
In the following essay, Mengeling describes Dandelion Wine as a novel about a “decisive type of initiation” of a young man into adulthood using three winemaking scenes as a structural device to “measure the growth of certain major characters.”
Ray Bradbury happens to be one of America’s major prose writers. Yet his works have been abysmally neglected by critics. In the “Introduction” to The Vintage Bradbury (Vintage Books, 1965), Gilbert Highet writes: “He [Bradbury] has been misunderstood. He has been underestimated. He will gain a wider and more thoughtful public than he had at first; and his work will last.” Certain to last are his two best books, The Martian Chronicles, interrelated stories about man’s colonization of Mars, and Dandelion Wine, the story of one boy’s summer growth toward self-knowledge and maturity in the Midwest of 1928. Of Dandelion Wine, Robert O. Bowen wrote in The Saturday Review (September 7, 1957): “No other writer since Mark Twain has caught the vitality and innocence of small-town American youth with as fine and mature a perception as Ray Bradbury’s.” This high praise is justified. Yet, there is practically no serious criticism of Bradbury’s work, especially of Dandelion Wine. Truly, as Gilbert Highet remarked, Ray Bradbury has been underestimated. It is hoped that this introduction to one of his best books will begin to make Bradbury more understood, and perhaps through better understanding will come the higher estimation his work so much deserves.
First, I will discuss the major themes and ideas in Dandelion Wine. Second, I will consider misconception or two which have plagued Bradbury and which have led to his works being both misunderstood and underestimated. Third, I will discuss the matter of sources, and finally, there will be some analysis of Bradbury’s style and literary techniques.
In intricately tracing out the first main steps of initiation for twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, Ray Bradbury joins Dandelion Wine to a long and proud tradition in American literature. From the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin down through works by Charles Brockden Brown, Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, and John Knowles, the theme of initiation has been one of the very strongest currents in American literature. Mordecai Marcus, in his article “What Is an Initiation Story” (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Winter 1960), states that there are basically three types of stories of youthful initiation: the tentative, the uncompleted, and the decisive. The “tentative” initiations lead “only to the threshold of maturity and understanding but do not definitely cross it.” Such stories emphasize the shocks involved in maturing and the initiates are usually quite young. “Uncompleted” initiations take the protagonist over the threshold of maturity, but leave him struggling uncertainly with the many problems involved in such a process. The “decisive” rites of passage are largely concerned with “self-discovery” and end with the main character fully mature and fully understanding of himself and his role in the world. Dandelion Wine, we will see, involves a decisive type of initiation to the extent that Douglas Spaulding, by book’s end, is firmly embarked toward maturity and had made some important discoveries about himself.
The year is 1928, the last golden vintage year before the coming of the Great Crash, and the place is Green Town, Illinois, Bradbury’s fictionalized version of Waukegan, Illinois. The tale begins as Doug awakens in the Victorian tower of his grandparents’ house on the morning or the first day of summer, and it ends exactly three months later with Doug falling asleep in the same tower of the same house on the evening of summer’s final day. The metaphor changes from a magician’s fairy tale tower in the book’s beginning to a more realistic tower at the end, for in three short months much of Douglas Spaulding has ceased to be a boy. And like Huck Finn and Nick Adams before him, he almost learns too much too quickly.
In the first half of the book, Doug discovers the “revelations” of life; what life is, the fact that he is alive, and how his life relates to the world around. The second half of the book largely concerns Doug’s learning the balancing “revelations” of death; what death is, how it affects the world around him, and his coming to grips with the harsh realization that he too will one day die. Most important, though, he learns that all things, life and death, nature and man, move in cycles to which there is no foreseeable end.
Doug’s primary initiation experience into a conscious sense of life takes place on summer’s first day, “the first real time of freedom and living.” His father takes Doug and Doug’s brother Tom to the woods—“the very center of the quiet forest”—and Doug knew that somehow “this day was going to be different.” Ostensibly, they have come to pick the first ripe fruits, the grapes and berries of the woods. Doug and Tom move in the “shadow” of a father who seems “very tall.” That Bradbury is using the forest allegorically here, signifying the forest of life through which each of us must find his way, comes clear later in the story when Doug thinks, “Whatever you want … you got to make your own way. During the night now, let’s find the path through the forest.” Also, here in the forest scene, as in the scenes of wine making, Bradbury uses religious images to suggest the profound seriousness of these “rites of passage,” as well as their ritualistic nature. Douglas is being initiated into some of the adult mysteries; a secular type of confirmation is taking place. Doug, awaiting a kind of mystic visitation or Pentecost which will bring a new knowledge and sense of life, participates in a quasi blood rite involving fox grapes: “Douglas, lost and empty, fell to his knees. He saw his fingers sink through green shadow and come forth stained with such color that it seemed he had somehow cut the forest and delved his hand in the open wound.” Soon Douglas is ready for visitation: “Now, with the great Thing rushing near, falling down in the clear air above him, he could only nod, eyes shut.” And then it hits. Douglas Spaulding awakens to a new world; he begins to see into the spiritual essence of things in a way reminiscent of the younger Emerson’s Nature: “Douglas opened one eye. And everything, absolutely everything, was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him… . I’m alive, he thought.” The journey of new discoveries and revelations is now begun. The forest scene ends with Doug appropriately leading his father and brother out of the woods.
But balancing off the life revelations, the exhilarating sense of being a part of some greater whole, are the revelations of fear, loneliness, and death. The major metaphor of death in Dandelion Wine is the ravine, which splits Green Town in two. It is on the edge of the ravine, the edge of the dark wilderness, that Tom Spaulding comes to realize “life’s loneliness,” that he “must accept being alone and work on from there.” But Doug, as yet, shows no fear, and runs giggling and laughing through the nighttime ravine with his friends. Fear does not begin for Doug until section 21 when he learns that a little part of the world he thought so permanent is starting to fall away. Life’s perfect “roundness” is beginning to shatter. He had thought that things “were at hand and would remain”; that things “would go on this way forever”; that life was “complete.” But then he learns that his best friend, the admired and seemingly nonpareil John Huff is moving away, and for the first time Doug sees fear and uncertainty in one he had not thought capable of it; and for the first time real fear also comes to Douglas Spaulding. That evening, his desire to play “statues,” his insistence on being “it,” shows his still childish intuition to stop time, to achieve a stasis and thereby keep all things as they are now in his present. But all games have an end.
In section 16 Doug and Tom refuse to believe that old people were really ever young, but in section 18, after having met Colonel Freeleigh, Doug realizes that young people do grow old. He is not quite ready to admit that growing old is inevitably followed by death, but then, in section 25 Doug finds the heart-stopped body of the old Colonel. The short section 26 acts as postscript and gives Doug’s reactions to having found his first corpse. The scene playfully begins with Doug pretending to have been shot by Tom; he clutches his heart and melodramatically keels over. But he soon gets up and walks away because Colonel Freeleigh has shown him that real death is not a game from which one can easily rise up. Doug is starting to lose his taste for childhood make-believe.
In section 28 ancient Miss Loomis dies a natural death, but Doug gets most of the Loomis story secondhand from his older friend, Bill Forester, and so the impact on him is not as great. Still, section 29 finds Doug pondering ever more about death and concluding that “happy endings” are only in the movies. In section 30 we have a scene involving the ravine and a periodic, psychopathic killer known only as The Lonely One. In this section Doug has his first real experience with violent death, seeing the body of Elizabeth Ramsell, in all its strangled grotesqueness, just as it was left by The Lonely One in the ravine. Doug is only capable of a “bleating sound” as he runs wildly off into the darkness. Doug is beginning to react to the death and violence all about him in much the same way Huck Finn once reacted; death and violence are starting to bother him, soon they will make him sick, and eventually they will almost take from him his will to live.
The death of Elizabeth Ramsell is quickly followed in this avalanche of obituaries by the natural death, in section 32, of Great Grandmother. As Doug sees the first death to touch his immediate family, he is forced to the difficult realization that he too one day will have to die. Transience, decay, death, he now realizes all apply, not simply to others, but to himself. It is more than difficult for him to put this down in writing in his “Journal of Rites and Revelations,” but the truth cannot now be escaped. He must make his “summing up,” and the total arrived at is this: “IF TROLLEYS AND RUNABOUTS AND FRIENDS AND NEAR FRIENDS CAN GO AWAY FOR A WHILE OR GO AWAY FOR EVER, OR RUST, OR FALL APART OR DIE, AND IF PEOPLE CAN BE MURDERED, AND IF SOMEONE LIKE GREAT GRANDMA, WHO WAS GOING TO LIVE FOR EVER, CAN DIE … IF ALL OF THIS IS TRUE … THEN … I DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOME DAY … MUST … But he cannot yet record the inevitable final word.
It is in section 37 that Doug loses his desire to live, for apparently he has seen too much real death, and it raises problems in his mind that he is still too young to resolve alone. In an archetypal sense it is his necessary descent into the underworld of death before the ultimate rebirth. “It’s been a tough summer,” Tom tells the junkman, Mr. Jonas, “Lots of things have happened to Doug.” Tom is too young to recognize the real roots of Doug’s troubles, but he has enough brotherly empathy to know that Doug has troubles for sure. Doug seemingly has decided to die, and what he needs now is someone to give him the desire to live. Mr. Jonas is a junkman who has had much experience in redeeming the world’s throwaways, and whose name is reminiscent of Jonah, a Biblical personage who had much experience in solving large problems of the spirit. Truly, here is “no ordinary junkman.” Mr. Jonas is a “rabbi in the wilderness” who “could not stand waste” and who has a “tendency toward preaching and descanting knowledge.” As Doug slips into a mysterious sickness, he is visited by a phantasmagoric fever dream. And as the cyclical cicadas scream out time’s quick passage in the background he sees a passing caravan of those summer people and things that for him have already come and gone: the trolley, John Huff, the Green Machine, Colonel Freeleigh, Mr. Auffmann, Great Grandma. It is a fever dream of transience, of time’s eternal river moving, and now it is Doug’s decision whether or not he will join the troupe and pass away.
It is Mr. Jonas who comes at night to Doug where he sleeps beneath the apple tree of knowledge, and leaves for his friend a bottle of “Green Dusk for Dreaming Brand Pure Northern Air.” It is a symbolic bottle, a catalyst which helps pull together, and balance out all the pieces of new knowledge Doug has been picking up. In dreamstate Doug breathes in the will to live. The fever breaks and the pure rains come, and Doug, Bradbury writes in section 39, “had decided to live.” He is happy now, but in a more mature way, for he has found at last his place in what Hawthorne once called “the magnetic chain of humanity,” that is, his necessary relationship to others, and how they can live through him and he through them. Mr. Jonas had provided the catalyst to an ultimate answer; what one does with the knowledge, the “revelations,” once they have been found: “Pass it on somehow, he thought, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on. That was the only way.”
It becomes rather clear at this point that Mr. Jonas, above all else, has been parading in the symbolic and archetypal guise of the Wise Old Man of fairy tales and dreams. In his essay “The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales,” Carl Jung writes that “the frequency with which the spirit type appears as an old man is about the same in fairy tries as in dreams. The old man always appears when the hero is in a hopeless situation from which only profound reflection or a lucky idea—in other words, a spiritual function or an endopsychic automatism ot some kind—can extricate him. But since, for internal and external reasons, the hero cannot accomplish this himself, the knowledge needed to compensate the deficiency comes in the form of a personified thought, i.e., in the shape of this sagacious and helpful old man.” Jung goes on to say that “often the old man in fairy tales … gives the necessary magical talisman, the unexpected and improbable power to succeed, which is one of the peculiarities of the unified personality in good or bad alike” (Jung, pp. 75–76). It is the “Green Dusk for Dreaming” that acts in Dandelion Wine as a magical talisman, and because Mr. Jonas comes to Doug while he is sleeping (Jonas says, “Sometimes the things you hear in your sleep are more important, you listen better, it gets through”), it is necessary to quote one more bit from Jung: “The old man thus represents knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as goodwill and readiness to help, which makes his ‘spiritual’ character sufficiently plain. Since the archetype is an autonomous content of the unconscious, the fairy tale, which usually makes concrete the archetypes, can cause the old man to appear in a dream in much the same way as happens in modern dreams” (Jung, p. 77). All this is not to suggest that Bradbury has been writing a fairy tale, but rather to acknowledge that he recognizes many of the psychic problems connected with growth toward a unified Self, and that in Dandelion Wine he artistically makes use of the archetypal figures connected with such problems and such growth.
In section 39 Doug shows his new knowledge and passes on help to someone in need. Grandmother has made the error of voluntarily giving in to the foolish ways and notions of busybody Aunt Rose. Aunt Rose is the snake in Grandma’s happy kitchen whispering sweet discontents into Grandma’s ear: “There you are, Grandma, now you got everything where you can find it. Now you can see!” But instead, Grandma is “bewildered” and “stunned.” She had not been satisfied with all her happiness, she had been led to covet more, and ends by almost losing all: “She got up and wandered out into her neatly-ordered, labelled kitchen, her hands moving futilely before her.” It is now that Doug, knowing the problem, “began to move.” He restores the kitchen to its unique pre-Rose state, its old unorganized state, and burns Grandma’s new cookbook and hides her new rose-colored glasses for “seeing.” And Grandma, after Douglas has shown her a course of action all the new glasses and Aunt Rose could not, “cried happily.” “Junkman,” Doug thinks, “Mr. Jonas, wherever you are, you’re thanked, you’re paid back. I passed it on, I sure did, I think I passed it on.”
The climatic kitchen scene involving Doug, Grandma, and Aunt Rose, leads to consideration of another of Bradbury’s major themes in Dandelion Wine, his distrust of too much technology and mechanization, coupled closely with a distrust of planned, modern life styles which leave little room for individuality, and perhaps no room for greatness. Time after time this long summer Doug has seen person after person fail who attempted to gain happiness out of mere mechanization or over-organization, rather than from love, human relationships, and respect for individual differences. He saw Mr. Auffmann’s happiness machine bring sorrow. He saw the electric trolley of Mr. Tridden give way to a carbon-monoxide bus in the name of progress. He saw Miss Fern and Miss Roberta try to buy happiness in their Green Machine, and he saw them fail. And he saw that the Tarot Witch in the town Arcade was really only wheels and cogs after all. He has learned that it is people that matter, just as Leo Auffmann at last realized this: “You want to see the real Happiness Machine? The one they patented a couple thousand years ago, it still runs, not good all the time, no! but it runs. It’s been here all along.” And as Doug, Tom, and Grandpa look into Leo Auffman’s front window they see the “real” happiness machine, Leo’s wife and children. Things, hybrids, inanimate objects, can give small, transient joys, but the great and lasting happiness can only come from love between people. The machines stop, break down, rust out; but in their codes and rituals and descendants, people do live on.
It would be wrong to think, though, that Ray Bradbury is simply indicting machines, technology, and organization. He is not. Gilbert Highet comes close to Bradbury’s true feelings concerning men and machines when he writes, “Technology he scarcely admires and scarcely uses. If it occupies his mind at all, it is not as a convenience or a source of extra muscle-power, but as a possible extension of the abilities of the human spirit.” The major error of many of the characters in Dandelion Wine is that they look wrongly to the machine to replace human values rather than to help preserve and extend them. Inherently, machines are neither good nor bad. Simply, we must run the machines, and we must force them to be leading tools in helping us to realize and extend the horizons of the human spirit.
There is a misconception that many readers have after finishing this book: the belief that Ray Bradbury is a sentimentalist about the past. This misconception most probably stems from the fact that Bradbury, mainly through his rich imagery, can so powerfully create a sense of the past. He so expertly gives us the “feel” of those times—the moon-colored ice cream, the straw hats, the porch swings, and the electric trolley of lemon color and orange—that many think any past which can be so deeply felt must be a past about which one is sentimental. But Bradbury has said, “A man cannot possibly speak futures unless he has a strong sense of the past… . Our exciting, awesome voyage into space, to the moon and Mars beyond, makes this the greatest age in all of man’s history.” Ray Bradbury, then, does not advocate a return trip down memory lane for reasons of sentiment, to moon over the loss of some imagined golden age, but so that we have a firmer perspective for our necessary move into a golden future, in a step by often agonizing step toward maturity. It is Grandpa in Dandelion Wine who makes the point most emphatically. At book’s end he explains to the boys the real beauty of dandelion wine: “Better than putting things in the attic you never use again. This way, you get to live the summer over for a minute or two here or there along the way through the winter, and when the bottles are empty the summer’s gone for good and no regrets and no sentimental trash lying about for you to stumble over forty years from now. Clean, smokeless, efficient, that’s dandelion wine.”
Dandelion Wine contains allusions to many authors. Among others, there are references to Plato, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, Whittier, and Poe. Of these, Melville (especially Moby Dick) is the most pervasive in terms of influencing Bradbury’s imagery and philosophy. Also of seeming influence, though there are no direct allusions to them, are Walt Whitman (especially the pre-Civil War Whitman), Mark Twain, and possibly Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The general structure of the book seems influenced by both Whitman and Hawthorne. As is often the case in Whitman’s poetry, Bradbury is singing the journey of spiritual discovery; the discovery of the “miraculous” and “mysterious” nature of even the most common people, objects, and events. His poetic prose attempts to reawaken our sense of wonder, attempts to open our senses to both ourselves and the universe about us. In “Song of Myself” Whitman chooses “leaves of grass” as his controlling metaphor to represent the essential spiritual and mysterious nature of even the most common, natural thing. Bradbury uses as his controlling metaphor the common but “noble” dandelion, whose natural and pure wine can lead one to the “miracle” of “renewal.” As does “Song of Myself,” Dandelion Wine moves through cycles or life and death, from innocence toward maturity, and ends by poetically singing of them all and with knowledge that all the seemingly chaotic portions of life and history are really part of some grand plan, some master pattern. As Douglas Spaulding comes to the end of his summer journey, Bradbury writes:
June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head. Now, a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past. And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare no more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear.
And pattern there has been; the new knowledge of life always balanced against and made sweeter by death, the knowledge, as this quotation makes clear, of the cyclical essence of all things; that out of winter death there will always come “greening spring.”
Bradbury, however, uses a structural device in addition to the Whitmanesque journey motif, a device to give balance and symmetry to what might otherwise seem a rather loose-leafed jaunt indeed. Just as Nathaniel Hawthorne used three scaffold scenes in The Scarlet Letter to give balance and symmetry to the whole, Bradbury uses his three scenes of wine making to impose an additional structural element. Grandpa and the two boys make dandelion wine at the beginning, middle, and end of the book; the June, July, and August crops. Also, as do the Hawthorne scaffold scenes, the three wine scenes allow us to better measure the growth of certain major characters.
In terms of philosophy, two of the book’s sections are strongly reminiscent of chapters in Melville’s Moby Dick. For example, section 32 has echoes of “Queequeg in His Coffin.” In this section Great Grandma decides that it is time for her to die, and so she does. Calmly she prepares her death—“such a simple act.” In explaining to Tom why she has chosen this time to die, she draws us closely to the reasons of Queequeg: “Tom … in the Southern Seas there’s a day in each man’s life when he knows it’s time to shake hands with all his friends and say good-by and sail away, and he does, and it’s natural—it’s just his time. That’s how it is today… . I’m leaving while I’m still happy and still entertained.” The fancy of both Melville and Bradbury seems to be that people can will to live and will to die. Great Grandma decides to die, and does. Queequeg and Doug Spaulding, after first deciding to die, decide finally to live instead. If it were possible for Queequeg to have known Doug’s Great Grandma he surely would have approved of her death preparations, “for it was not unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior, stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to the starry archipelagoes; for not only do they believe that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way.”
Section 14 in Dandelion Wine is quite suggestive of “The Mat-Maker” chapter in Moby Dick, and strongly suggests that Bradbury agrees with Melville-Ishmael’s ideas about the relative places of necessity, freewill, and chance in this complicated world of ours. It also suggests possible agreement with the Melvillian vision of the light and dark, the good and the evil, in the fabric of all things.
I will not end my discussion of possible sources without mentioning that there is a distinct sense of Mark Twain permeating this book. But Dandelion Wine has much more of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in it than it does The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The world of Green Town, Illinois, perhaps seems idyllic and romanticized at first, as does the Hannibal, Missouri, of Tom Sawyer, and yet, peering a bit closer, we find in Green Town a great deal of suffering, loneliness, and death, so much so, in fact, that close to the book’s end Doug Spaulding, just as Huck before him, loses his desire to live. Here is the same ambivalence of memory—both the good and bad recalled—that makes Huckleberry Finn a more mature and realistic statement than Tom Sawyer. Also, both Huck Finn and Dandelion Wine are concerned with the strangely sexless initiations of boys about the same age who learn so much about life and death in the short space of a few months that they threaten to drop out of the game, but who finally regain health and approach psychological maturity by achieving a strong sense of human sympathy and responsibility.
It is Ray Bradbury’s style that remains his most distinguishing characteristic. It is the Bradbury style which is unmistakable which is his alone. Gilbert Highet writes that his style is “a curious mixture of poetry and colloquialism.” Robert O. Bowen talks of his “clean colloquial rhythms and rich metaphor.” Undoubtedly it is his images and metaphors, and the way they are combined, which function as the outstanding single feature of his style. Bradbury is already famous for those stylized, concentrated passages of images which often appeal to the reader both concretely and abstractly. A passage from the first page of Dandelion Wine is typical: “A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoar-frosted ice-house door. He would bake happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.” In a short space Bradbury has appealed rather distinctly to our senses of sight, taste, and touch; and unless it is possible to imagine thousands of baking chickens without imagining the delicious smell of them, then Bradbury has also appealed to a fourth sense as well. But notice too, the concrete-abstract nature of two of these images, a combination which tends to place an aura of the “miraculous” and “uncommon” around what we ordinarily think of as rather unmiraculous and ordinary objects; the “midnight plums” and the “clothing” of trees, rivers, and bushes. It is the concrete-abstract combination and the exceptional concentration that is the chief mark of Bradbury’s imagistic style. But Bradbury’s style is a curious mixture in other respects too. For example, although the book is narrated from the third person omniscient point of view, and although the imagery is generally of a brilliant and stylized nature, there is inter-spliced within its fabric the youthful hyperboles and emphatic repetitions that one would expect if the story were coming from the first person point of view of an unsophisticated, twelve-year-old boy. The reference to “ten thousand chickens” in the quote above is a typical example of much hyperbole that appears in the book. And to describe a night as “dark dark dark,” or the ravine as “black and black, black,” is typical of the kind or repetition for emphasis that we ordinarily hear from children, or from adults with much of their childhood still in them. This mixture of the youthful and the highly artful, the innocent and the experienced, fits well in a book that emphasizes the cyclical nature of life; that every child is the father of man, that the young man can learn from the old, and the old can learn from the young. Here, style contributes much to meaning.
Finally to be noted is that Bradbury mixes both minor and major metaphors. For example, there is the major metaphor of the ravine as some deadly, evilly ravenous jungle beast. There is the metaphor of Colonel Freeleigh as a human time machine. Another of the book’s major metaphors, carried throughout, is that of the town as ship and the northern Illinois prairie as ocean—probably more of the Melville influence. Melville, who once made a trip across northern Illinois to Galena, often wrote of the vast ocean as a kind of gigantic prairie. Bradbury reverses this metaphor; he talks about the gigantic prairie as a kind of ocean, and of the towns and cities as microcosm boats and ship: “The town was … only a large ship,” he writes. At times he is afraid the “town would capsize, go down and leave not a stir in the clover and weeds.” Grandpa stands on the “porch like a captain surveying the vast unmotioned calms of a season dead ahead.” And sometimes the “winds dived and passed in the green depths, like ghost whales, unseen.” In Melville’s works, the ship as microcosm is one of the most basic archetypal symbols used, as is the journey to sea, to the primal beginnings, to discover the essential secrets of life and death. So it is with Dandelion Wine. Ship archetypes and metaphors of the sea quite significantly underscore the spiritual and psychological journey of Doug Spaulding, even though in concrete fact he sets foot on no real gangplank and breathes a thousand miles from the sea.
The last major metaphor of any importance, actually an archetype, is that of the river, which flows through most sections of the book. Considering the initiation aspects of the story, the river archetype is especially appropriate in Dandelion Wine due to its universal symbolic meanings of death and rebirth, of the transition of the life cycle from one phase to another, and of the steady flowing of time into an eternal future. There is, for example, section 7 in which Douglas listens to the twilight voices of the grown-ups on the porch and after supper: “Douglas sprawled back on the dry porch planks, completely contented and reassured by these voices, which would speak on through eternity, flow in a stream of murmurings over his body, over his closed eyelids, into his drowsy ears, for all time … the voices chanted … and moved on into the coming years.” And then there is section 20, in which Doug and his friends take the final ride on the trolley of Mr. Tridden: “He ricocheted the brass handle, the trolley groaned and swung round an endless green curve, and all the time in the world held still, as if only the children and Mr. Tridden and his miraculous machine were riding an endless river, away.” And there is section 37, in which Doug, during his fever dream hears the “frail but hearty voice” of now dead Great Grandma singing: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river … river … river … Yes, we’ll gather at the river… . That flows by the throne of God.” Yes, even as in Huck Finn, the river archetype flows through the background to remind us constantly of the process taking place, the process of growth, the process of initiation, a process which has no foreseeable end as the spirit of man expands.
Source: Marvin E. Mengeling, “Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine: Themes, Sources, and Style,” in English Journal, Vol. 60, No. 7, October 1971, pp. 877–87.
Bradbury, Ray, Dandelion Wine, William Morrow, 2001.
———, “Just This Side of Byzantium: An Introduction,” in Dandelion Wine, William Morrow, 2001, pp. vii–xiv.
Diskin, Lahna, “Bradbury on Children,” in Ray Bradbury, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001, p. 76, originally published in Ray Bradbury, edited by Martin Henry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, Taplinger Publishing, 1980, pp. 127–55.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., Prentice Hall, 1996, p. 304.
Knight, Damon, “When I Was in Kneepants: Ray Bradbury,” in In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, Advent Publishers, 1956, pp. 108–13.
Mengeling, Marvin E., “Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine: Themes, Sources, and Style,” in English Journal, Vol. 60, No. 7, October 1971, pp. 877, 882.
———, Red Planet, Flaming Phoenix, Green Town: Some Early Bradbury Revisited, Authorhouse, 2002, p. 154.
Reid, Robin Anne, Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 72.
Rosenman, John B., “The Heaven and Hell Archetype in Faulkner’s ‘That Evening Sun’ and Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine,” in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1978, p. 12.
Slusser, George Edgar, “Ray Bradbury,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2, American Novelists Since World War II, First Series, edited by Jeffrey Helterman, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 60–65.
Zamora, Lois, “Magical Romance/Magical Realism: Ghosts in U.S. and Latin American Fiction,” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 499–501.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Ray Bradbury, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
While most of the essays included in this collection are reprints, the collection as a whole gives students a broad survey of Bradbury criticism.
Bradbury, Ray, “Memories Shape the Voice,” in The Voice of the Narrator in Children’s Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Cary D. Schmidt, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 132–38.
In this essential article, Bradbury discusses how he wrote Dandelion Wine using his own memories. This essay, titled “Just This Side of Byzantium: An Introduction,” also appears in the 2001 William Morrow edition of Dandelion Wine.
Johnson, Wayne L., Ray Bradbury, Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Johnson provides an interesting chapter on Bradbury’s Green Town stories.
Mogen, David, Ray Bradbury, Twayne, 1986.
Mogen’s book offers both a thorough introduction to Bradbury and a work-by-work analysis of Bradbury’s major fiction.