Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Tarot Witch

Ray Bradbury (1920–2012)
From Ray Bradbury: Novels & Story Cycles

Close-up of a vintage fortune-teller automaton with an array of Tarot cards before her. Manufacturer unknown. Image from Pinterest/@areagallery; the full cabinet can be seen here. Another machine of this same model recently went on auction.

“It was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio that set me free,” Ray Bradbury recalled in his preface to the 1997 edition of The Martian Chronicles. “Sometime in my twenty-fourth year, I was stunned by its 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!’”

The man who led Bradbury to Winesburg was Henry Kuttner, a prominent science fiction writer who was five years older and who became one of Bradbury’s mentors in the earliest years of his career. In 1944 he urged him to read Anderson’s masterpiece, a story cycle featuring characters living in a fictional Ohio town. Yet, aside from both books’ hybrid framework, the stories of Martian colonists have little in common with the tales of the residents of Winesburg, or as Bradbury put it, “Will you find traces of Sherwood Anderson here? No. His stunning influence had long since dissolved into my ganglion.”

Bradbury instead pointed his readers to the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, featured in a later book: “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 super¬sensitive to dead trolley cars, lost chums, and Civil War Colonels drowned in time or drunk on remembrance.”

Bradbury began work on the book that would become Dandelion Wine around the time he first read Winesburg, Ohio. Initially titled “The Winds of Time,” then “Summer Morning, Summer Night,” his “Illinois novel” drew on his memories of his boyhood in Waukegan, but he was unable to wrestle the various episodes into a sustained narrative. While he was working on the book, however, many of the “Green Town” stories appeared in magazines as varied as Weird Tales, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Reporter, Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. His editor at Doubleday, Walter Bradbury (no relation) became convinced that the novel would ensure his soon-to-be star author’s transition from pulp magazines into the literary mainstream, and he offered him a contract for the book in 1951.

Ray Bradbury was hardly idle during the decade he struggled to write the Green Town novel: he finished The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, as well as three story collections: The Illustrated Man, Golden Apples of the Sun, and The October Country. Sensing an impasse, Walter Bradbury suggested that he assemble a collection of linked stories from his Green Town project and finally, in October 1956, Ray sent Walter the first draft of Dandelion Wine. He continued to revise and expand the manuscript, adding two previously unpublished stories, “Exorcism” and “The Tarot Witch,” before the book went to the typesetters. He also decided to remove the titles of the stories, even of those that had previously appeared in magazines.

In its final form, Dandelion Wine is a far cry from Winesburg, Ohio, but perhaps the most important difference is the nature of its collective portrait of the town’s residents. After Sherwood Anderson published his warts-and-all novel, upstanding citizens from two Ohio towns could barely acknowledge his existence without speaking ill of him: not only his childhood home of Clyde, which was clearly the model for the book, but also the real Winesburg, Ohio, which Anderson didn’t even know existed when he chose the name for his fictional town. Bradbury never had to worry about such a reception in his own hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, which he remembered and reimagined through the prism of fond, aching nostalgia, of the kind that can originate only in the mind of young child. As he wrote in 1974:
I was amused and somewhat astonished at a critic a few years back who wrote an article analyzing Dandelion Wine plus the more realistic works of Sinclair Lewis, wondering how I could have been born and raised in Waukegan, which I renamed Green Town for my novel, and not noticed how ugly the harbor was and how depressing the coal docks and railyards down below the town.

But, of course, I had noticed them and, genetic enchanter that I was, was fascinated by their beauty. Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. Ugliness is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about. . . .
“In other words,” he added, “if your boy is a poet, horse manure can only mean flowers to him; which is, of course, what horse manure has always been about.”

Notes: The bumbling Keystone Kops were featured in a series of slapstick silent films produced by Mack Sennett during the 1910s. Much of San Francisco burned to the ground following the earthquake of April 18, 1906. Many of the Hal Roach comedy shorts and films of the 1920s (including the first Our Gang films) were directed by Charles Joseph Parrott, who often appeared in the comic lead role of Charley Chase. For the “real” Mme. Tarot, Bradbury may have been thinking of Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand, a famous French card reader of the early nineteenth century; various decks of tarot cards evolved from her influence.

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There she sat in her glass coffin, night after night, her body melted by the carnival blaze of summer, frozen in the ghost winds of winter, waiting with her sickle smile and carved, hooked, and wax-pored nose hovering above her pale pink and wrinkled wax hands poised forever above the ancient fanned-out deck of cards. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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