By James E. Person, Jr.
The river, great symbol of life, is also the great symbol of death, for it is the symbol of samsara, of time. . . . Rivers are irreversible. Clocks are reversible. “You can’t go home again” does not mean that you can’t turn the clock back (because you can) but that you can’t turn the river back. This is true not only of our last exit from home, our final death, but also of a thousand little deaths before it. To be born, we must die to the womb, never to return. To be weaned, we must die to the breast, never to return (though we seek a thousand substitutes). To go to school, we must die to the all-embracing security of the home. To raise a family, we must die to the centrality of the family we came from. To move to a new home, a new job, or a new city, we must die to our old ones. And when we are old and death carries away our relatives, family, and friends, nothing replaces them sometimes except our own loneliness. The supremely lonely act is to die. When we die, we consummate the secret loneliness we inherited at birth. We part from everything–gradually in life, finally in death. All living is parting; all living is dying.1–Peter Kreeft, from Love is Stronger Than Death.
* * * * * Describing the plaintive lives of small-town characters during the final years of gaslight America, Winesburg, Ohio is in many ways thematically similar to another collection of bittersweet stories, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Both books describe Midwestern town life and are based upon the respective authors’ firsthand observations. Sherwood Anderson based his setting upon Clyde, Ohio, one of the towns in which he lived during his boyhood. Born nearly two generations later, Bradbury crafted Green Town, the setting of Dandelion Wine, upon his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Beyond this, the similarities between the two works is not at all speculative or accidental. For in 1944, 24-year-old Ray Bradbury, then a contributor of horror stories and detective fiction to pulp magazines, jotted a note to himself that read, “Do book about people on Mars”; now he needed a framework and benchmark for style and tone for this ambitious work, and he found it in the work of a fellow Midwesterner. “It was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio that set me free,” writes Bradbury in his preface to a new (1997) edition of The Martian Chronicles. He adds:
Sometime in my twenty-fourth year, I was stunned by [Winesburg’s] dozen characters living their lives on half-lit porches and in sunless attics of that always autumn town. “Oh, Lord,” I cried. “If I would write a book half as fine as this, but set it on Mars, how incredible that would be!”2
Elsewhere in the preface he writes:
Will you find traces of Sherwood Anderson here [in The Martian Chronicles]? No. His stunning influence had long since dissolved into my ganglion. You might see a few apparitions of Winesburg, Ohio in my other book-of-stories-pretending-to-be-a-novel, Dandelion Wine. But there are no mirror images. Anderson’s grotesques were gargoyles off the town roofs; mine are mostly collie dogs, old maids lost in soda fountains, and a boy supersensitive to dead trolley cars, lost chums, and Civil War Colonels drowned in time or drunk on remembrance.3 Readers of Dandelion Wine and Winesburg would perhaps agree that Bradbury’s remarks are not surprising. The following is offered as an introductory comparative essay that will explore such issues as style, world view, and other elements in Dandelion Wine and Winesburg, with points of agreement and of divergence discovered and examined. Overarching all, it will be seen, is the key unifying theme of both works: the authors’ belief that all living is parting; all living is dying, with both Dandelion Wine and Winesburg evoking masterfully and touchingly what Peter Kreeft has termed “the secret loneliness we inherited at birth.”
Readers of The Winesburg Eagle are well familiar with the career of Anderson and the story behind his seminal work; perhaps less so with Bradbury and his work. Best known as a science-fiction writer, the latter is also misperceived as a talented optimist, given to infusing his short stories and novels with a latent sense of traditional Judaeo-Christian ethics. While a sense of wonder and evidence of a moral imagination pervade his work, evidence of his latent Christian humanism, Bradbury is under no illusions as to the reality of human depravity and death, with his horror fiction and the novel Fahrenheit 451 being especially vivid in this respect. In a revealing letter to Russell Kirk, Bradbury once wrote that every person has “a private keep somewhere in the upper part of the head where, from time to time, of midnights, the beast can be heard raving. To control that, to the end of life, to stay contemplative, sane, good-humored, is our entire work, in the midst of cities that tempt us to inhumanity, and passions that threaten to drive through the skin with invisible spikes.”4
This reference to the raving beast indicates a view of the human condition in which something akin to the doctrine of original sin is operative. (Anderson himself believed less in sin than in downturns in luck or chance, which he depicted in such short stories as “Hands,” the tale of a gentle schoolteacher’s downfall, and “I’m a Fool”–from the collection Horses and Men–which recounts a likable stableboy’s unexpected humiliation.) Bradbury describes even his relatively sunny work Dandelion Wine as a “celebration . . . of death as well as life, dark as well as light, old as well as young, smart and dumb combined, sheer joy as well as complete terror. . . .”5 Indeed there are recurrent hints and outright accounts of fear and impending loss scattered throughout this account of one summer, the summer of 1928, in the life of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding.
Any comparison of the two works must focus inevitably upon its two central characters, George Willard and Douglas. Like George in Winesburg, Douglas is a product of his hometown and very much involved with the everyday goings-on among the townspeople. As would be expected of a twelve-year-old in a middle-class town, Douglas has a certain gosh-golly enthusiasm toward life–an enthusiasm absent from large sections of Winesburg–which is expressed in conversations with his younger brother, Tom, and with his neighborhood friends. (Explaining to Tom his plan to keep track of the truths he learns over the summer, he says, “Any time this next three months you see something done over and over, tell me. Think about it, and tell me that. Come Labor Day, we’ll add up the summer and see what we got!”) As the summer progresses, his coltish view of the world is tempered by the realities of the losses he experiences.
Both George and Douglas are at once active participants in town life and listeners to the opinions and life stories of the townspeople. Where George, the older of the two at age eighteen, experiences sexual initiation with Louise Trunnion (in “Nobody Knows”), attempts to fight with the bartender Ed Handby for the possession of Belle Carpenter (in “An Awakening”), and hears the stories of Wing Biddlebaum (in “Hands”), among others, Douglas takes the final ride on the Green Town trolley on its final day of service before its replacement by bus service, plays the games Kick-the-can and Statues with his friends in the evening, helps his grandfather make dandelion wine, and listens to tales told by Colonel Freeleigh (a Civil War veteran) and old Miss Helen Loomis. (In each book, veterans of the Civil War are still among the living, though fading and dying out, with Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” and “Godliness” concerning veterans of that conflict, while Colonel Freeleigh appears in two stories in Dandelion Wine.) Douglas, being very much a boy of his era, is a bit too young to be interested in girls yet, while George, on the verge of adulthood, wants very much to woo the banker’s daughter, Helen White (in “Sophistication,” especially) and strike out into the world to make something of himself.
Of the two boys, George Willard is especially given to talking to himself, an act that isn’t necessarily a sign of craziness, as some people believe. Rather, it’s often a habit exercised by people who believe that they are not listened to, or that the thoughts closest to them cannot be shared with anyone else because there is no sympathetic “other” with whom to share. Among people to whom “the secret loneliness we inherited at birth” is especially vivid, talking to oneself is common. (It is perhaps a common trait of writers, who must constantly rummage in solitude through the wardrobe of the imagination, picking through what to say and in what manner, preparing to hold up to a scornful world their closest thoughts and evidence of their best skill.) Douglas doesn’t talk to himself as much as does George, as he has a younger brother in whom he confides; but, like George, he records his thoughts on paper, spending the summer recording his insights as to the nature of life and his place in it.
What he learns, long before Labor Day, is sobering. Just as poor, half-mad Alice Hindman learns of Winesburg (in “Adventure”), Douglas Spaulding learns that some people must live and die alone, even in Green Town. Even he must die someday, as he records after much reluctant thought and stubborn effort in his notebook. This point marks the dawning of his own sophistication, as it did for George in the story “Sophistication.” There is a wistfulness about this and the other stories of Doug’s summer, as there is in Winesburg, Ohio; for the summer of 1928 in Green Town was a summer of endings and barely comprehended beginnings, of death but no clearly corresponding rebirth, of grief coupled with hope. It was the summer of the last trolley ride, of his great-grandmother’s death, of the deaths of Colonel Freeleigh and Miss Loomis, of the end of the Lonely One’s career as a deadly town mystery, of the end of Douglas’s friendship with his best friend, John Huff. It was a time when even the elderly storefront loafers in downtown Green Town would “savor the very bacteria in their porcelain mouths that would some day stop them cold.” It was the last summer when Douglas’s mind romped like that of a young god, convinced that the world about him was a pleasant treasure house of comfort and adventure among beloved people who will never die. (The novel, in fact, begins with Douglas awakening at dawn on the first day of summer, standing before his bedroom window in the cupola upstairs in his grandparents’ home, and then pretending to “command” all the town’s human activity into motion for the day, one action at a time. Likewise, Dandelion Wine ends with the boy standing in the same cupola “directing” the step-by-step end to all human activity at the end of the evening at summer’s twilight.)
The story of Douglas and his companions, in Dandelion Wine, is narrated in a fairly conventional, omniscient third-person manner, interspersed with interior monologues. The narrative style of Winesburg is similar in some respects, though Anderson’s work more strongly “retains the language, the pace, and one might even say the gestures of a man talking unhurriedly to his friends.”6 Bradbury has called Dandelion Wine, like Winesburg, a “book-of-stories-pretending-to-be-a-novel,” and his words are true, with some qualification. In each work, the stories are interrelated just enough so that there is a thread of thematic continuity and some spill-over in subject matter, though most of them could be published separately as stories in their own right. As to spill-over, consider, for example, the case of the story “The Teacher,” in which the Reverend Curtis Hartman rushes into George Willard’s presence to declare the schoolteacher Kate Swift “an instrument of God bearing a message of truth,” an insight he had discovered as the principal character in an earlier story, “The Strength of God.” In Bradbury, there is a similar case in regard to a serial murderer, a man called “the Lonely One,” who is discussed in several stories throughout the book. (The stories in Bradbury’s book are untitled; therefore I refer to no story titles in discussing Dandelion Wine. Several of these stories, however, have been anthologized in collections over the years, notably the story concerning the death of Douglas’s great-grandmother, “Good-by, Grandma,” and the principal story concerning the Lonely One, “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”)
There are several “lonely ones” in the Winesburg stories, also, though they are not killers. In the story “Loneliness,” for example, Enoch Robinson possesses a sensitive mind unused to the rough-and-tumble of everyday life, and has pared down his circle of intimates to include only psychological projections of understanding beings–and even these have departed. George Willard visits him once, and upon departing hears Enoch’s voice behind his closed door, whimpering and complaining. “I’m alone, all alone here,” said the voice. “It was warm and friendly in my room but now I’m all alone.” Nobody in Dandelion Wine is in Enoch’s state by the novel’s end; but even Douglas’s happy young brother, Tom, knows that there are times of fear and doubt when the human state, even in small-town America, can only be described as “Alone in the universe.”
There were a million small towns like this all over the world. Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder. The reedy playing of minor-key violins was the small towns’ music, with no lights, but many shadows. Oh, the vast swelling loneliness of them. The secret damp ravines of them. Life was a horror lived in them at night, when at all sides sanity, marriage, children, happiness, were threatened by an ogre called Death.7
Grim words, these, coming from Bradbury the “optimist.” But as he has written elsewhere, “I don’t write these stories, they write me. Which causes me to live with a boundless enthusiasm for writing and life that some misinterpret as optimism.”8 Exceptional optimism was never a complaint against Sherwood Anderson; he, after all, was the author of a story whose title, “Out of Nowhere into Nothing,” parodies the opening lines of a well-known “baby poem” by the nineteenth-century Scottish fantasist George MacDonald (“Where did you come from, baby dear? / Out of the Everywhere into here”). Anderson held to a vision that could best be described as bittersweet optimism: a belief that while death marks the end of all human endeavor, and there is nothing of eternal life beyond the grave, life is good and embraceable nonetheless. “One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes,” offers the narrator of “Sophistication.”
In answer to this, and in closing, I must quote a very telling passage from Bradbury’s introduction to Dandelion Wine, written in 1974. The author writes:
A final memory.
You rarely see them these days, though in some countries, I hear, they are still made and filled with warm breath from a small straw fire hung beneath.
But in 1925 Illinois, we still had them, and one of the last memories I have of my grandfather is the last hour of a Fourth of July night forty-eight years ago when Grandpa and I walked out on the lawn and lit a small fire and filled the pear-shaped red-white-and-blue paper balloon with hot air, and held the flickering bright-angel presence in our hands a final moment in front of a porch lined with uncles and aunts and cousins and mothers and fathers, and then, very softly, let the thing that was life and light and mystery go out of our fingers up on the summer air and away over the beginning-to-sleep houses, among the stars, as fragile, as wondrous, as vulnerable, as lovely as life itself.
I see my grandfather there looking up at that strange drifting light, thinking his own still thoughts. I see me, my eyes filled with tears, because it was all over, the night was done, I knew there would never be another night like this.
No one said anything. We all just looked up at the sky and we breathed out and in and we all thought the same things, but nobody said. Someone finally had to say, though, didn’t they? And that one is me.9
This moment of epiphany, a moment “in which time and the timeless intersect” (in T. S. Eliot’s phrase), is common to both Bradbury and Anderson–and indeed the above passage might have been written by Anderson. In the belief system of each, it is the writer who must “say,” for by his recounting the stories and by his spinning new tales, death is for a time held off as the imagination is nourished and the breath of life is affirmed. This is part of what makes life precious, whatever one’s theology or philosophy: entering into communion with understanding others, sharing in their lives and stories while knowing that, like Ray Winters in “The Untold Lie,” we must all in time disappear “into the darkness of the fields.” Properly understood, then, the watchword of both of these literary craftsmen might be the words which form Anderson’s epitaph: “Life, not death, is the great adventure.”10
- 1. Kreeft, “Death as an Enemy,” in Love is Stronger Than Death, Ignatius Books, 1992, pp. 9-10.
- 2. Bradbury, “Green Town, Somewhere on Mars; Mars, Somewhere in Egypt,” in The Martian Chronicles, Avon Books, 1997, p. viii.
- 3. Bradbury, Martian Chronicles, p. x.
- 4. Kirk, “The World of Ray Bradbury,” in Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics, Sherwood Sugden, 1984, p. 118.
- 5. Bradbury, “Just This Side of Byzantium: An Introduction,” in Dandelion Wine, Bantam Books, rev. ed., 1976, p. xii. All allusions to Dandelion Wine refer to this edition.
- 6. Malcolm Cowley, introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, Penguin, 1976, p. 6. All allusions to Winesburg, Ohio refer to this edition.
- 7. Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, 43.
- 8. Bradbury, Quicker Than the Eye, Avon Books, 258.
- 9. Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, xiii.
- 10. For the purposes of this essay, I have found the following readings especially helpful: Walter B. Rideout, “The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio,” Shenandoah 13 (Spring 1962): 20-31; and S. K. Winther, “The Aura of Loneliness in Sherwood Anderson,” Modern Fiction Studies 5 (Summer 1959): 145-52.