Dandelion Wine | Study Guide

Ray Bradbury

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Dandelion Wine | Introduction : Just This Side of Byzantium | Summary

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Summary

Ray Bradbury states that this book was a surprise to him, something he learned to embrace as a writer. Before appreciating the nature of surprises, however, he thought he "could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence." In his early 20s he began a process by which he would get out of bed in the morning and write down any words that were in his head. Bradbury would attempt to find words to describe his "personal nightmares, fears of night, and time from my childhood" and shape stories from those. This book, then, is "a gathering of dandelions from all those years." For Bradbury, the words are catalysts to "open the memories" of his life and "see what they ... offer."

From the age of 24 to 36 Bradbury recalled memories of his grandparents' home nearly every day "hoping to contact the older person I became to remind him of his past, his life, his people, his joy, and his drenching sorrows." It was a kind of game he played with himself—to see how much he could remember. One memory that stuck with him was walking through the ravine at night with his brother, scaring each other and playing jokes. Mining these memories yielded surprising insights for Bradbury, and he was "startled with truths leaped out of bushes like quail before a gunshot." In order to find these truths, he learned that he must let his senses and memories reveal truth. Bradbury reveals how Dandelion Wine is in many ways the story of "the boy-hid-in-the-man playing in the fields of the Lord on the green grass of other Augusts." It is a story about beginning to grow up and the sensation of "darkness waiting under the trees."

Bradbury is amused by a critic who notes that the book paints the fictional Green Town, based on Waukegan, Illinois, as beautiful rather than ugly and depressing, with its rail yards and docks. For Bradbury, however, the town, as his boyhood home, was beautiful to him—a child with poetic imagination. He notes that "ugliness is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about." As a young boy, he merely found the town fascinating. As a grown man, he still considers the town to be special—because he was born there and lived there.

Bradbury includes an original poem about the importance of Waukegan, which he compares to the mythical Byzantium. The poem's speaker tells of how he comes not from Byzantium, "but from another time and place / Whose race was simple, tried and true." For the speaker, Waukegan holds just as much mythology and nostalgia "as any Yeats found to be true." These references place the poem in conversation with the Romantic poets who wrote about these kinds of places and the magic they held. Yet, Bradbury admits that Waukegan is mostly special because he was born there and it was the setting for his life. The speaker of the poem contrasts "mythic dread" with "Midwestern bread" and paints imagery of an idyllic, bygone world. He mentions the wisdom of his grandfather and the care of his grandmother and the rest of his family gathered on the porch with aunts "as wise as Delphic maids." Although their fates are "mediocre," the resulting memories, for the speaker, add up to a kind of mythical Byzantium of the past.

Bradbury relays how some of the characters and settings in the novel are based on real people from his childhood, though he has changed certain details. He returns to the ravine as an adult with his daughters and finds it as deep, dark, and mysterious as ever. For Bradbury, writing the novel is a "celebration ... of death as well as life, dark as well as light, old as well as young." One of his last memories of his grandfather takes place on the night of Fourth of July, when they filled a fire balloon and watched it drift over the houses, "as fragile, as wondrous, as vulnerable, as lovely as life itself." As a child, Bradbury knew there would never be another night like this. Yet, because Bradbury chooses to write a novel based on these memories, the dandelion wine they made remains in the cellar, and his family still sits on the porch in the dark because he immortalizes them through story.

Analysis

Ray Bradbury includes an introduction to the novel to explain its origin, the process of writing it, and its reception. He learned at a young age to let a book or story unfold on its own, to allow it to be written and flourish rather than force it into something else. He also makes the first reference to dandelions, which are part of the book's title. Dandelions are a weed, but for the novel's protagonist they contain a kind of magic that can be turned into wine, bottled in summer for drinking in the depths of winter. Describing the novel, Bradbury says, "what you have here is a gathering of dandelions from all those years," a collection of memories from childhood. Dandelion Wine is about one boy's experiences of the summer of 1928, a fictionalized autobiographical account. It seems a revelation to Bradbury that he "was gathering images all my life, storing them away, and forgetting them." By mining these images and memories, he was able to write a novel.

Bradbury freely admits that Green Town is based on his childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois, which he also compares to Byzantium. Byzantium was an ancient Greek colony known to history as a mysterious empire. Its mythology was immortalized in a poem by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), to which Bradbury alludes in his own poem, included in the introduction. The reference implies that like Byzantium, the era of Bradbury's childhood depicted in the novel is long over and lost to time, "with all the happiness that means, with all the sadness that these names imply."

Bradbury includes the poem to highlight for the reader that although Waukegan, Illinois, is a mythological place for him in his memory, it is likely that any place where one grows up and experiences childhood will take on this nostalgic, mythic quality. Bradbury strives to place Waukegan—and therefore Green Town—in the same context as the kinds of places that Romantic poets such as Yeats wrote about. Places like Byzantium are considered idyllic, belonging to a past that no longer exists. Yet, Bradbury also recognizes that Waukegan is special to him because he was born there and grew up there. The speaker of the poem places the mundane alongside the mythical, with "Midwestern bread" topped with "mythic dread," and "old gods' bright marmalade." His grandfather takes on the status of a myth, and the aunts and uncles on the porch at night are "as wise as Delphic maids." To a child—and through the memories of childhood—the realm of adults harbors a kind of unknown, mythical quality. The speaker of the poem also makes reference to their "mediocre" fates, acknowledging that even if these people are not known outside of their town, their lives still have a fated quality, despite their mundaneness.

Bradbury also touches upon the themes he explores as a result of his memory excavation—death versus life, dark versus light, old versus young, and joy versus terror. He points out that he specifically centers the novel around a boy who is coming of age from childhood to adulthood. He acknowledges that this can be a time when the safety and certainty of childhood is slowly left behind as one realizes that the world harbors darkness, uncertainty, and mortality. Yet for Bradbury, both sides of the equation are to be examined and celebrated, because each requires an understanding of the other. His aim is to use him memories to immortalize these important people, places, and realizations from his own childhood.

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