America has lost one of her best novelists and writers of short stories, and perhaps the last chronicler of a world that can no longer be found: the early 20th-century Midwest, a world of small towns and small farms, of hot summer days and bitter winter nights, of swimming holes and traveling shows, of Main Streets and gas lights and front porches. Bits and pieces of that world remained in the smallest of small Midwestern towns for almost 50 years after Bradbury's family left his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, for the last time, settling in Los Angeles, California, in 1934. But all that remains now is what Bradbury, and a few other writers like him, captured in such novels and collections of short stories as Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer.
To those today who still remember his name, Ray Bradbury was, as the New York Times declared in a lackluster obituary, "a master of science fiction whose imaginative and lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America." But while Bradbury worked in a variety of genres—horror, fantasy, and crime stories among them, as well as science fiction—what bound all of his writing together, as his friend Russell Kirk well understood, was the moral imagination. The best elements of his most famous work, The Martian Chronicles, had nothing to do with the future and technology, and everything to do with memory—imagination operating historically. (Bradbury insisted that The Martian Chronicles was not science fiction but fantasy, something that "couldn't happen," while Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction because it could—and, indeed, he believed it had happened, before 1960.)
Bradbury's moral imagination was born, as was Kirk's, in a particular time and a particular place. For almost 70 years, his imagination ran free in the hot Midwestern summer of 1934. Like meter in poetry, the constraints of his past allowed Bradbury to transcend the increasingly chaotic and immoral present.
The Waukegan, Illinois, of 1934 is gone, never to return; yet all is not lost. There are many forces competing for the imagination of a new generation, and most of them look like Mr. Dark. But there was a reason Ray Bradbury had Charles Halloway work in a library, and if you don't know what I am talking about, you need to get a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to your children, before it is too late.
Scott P. Richert is editor at large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Publisher for Our Sunday Visitor. He holds an M.A. in political theory from the Catholic University of America. He has been published in, among others, The Family in America, This World, and Humanitas. He is the Catholicism Expert for About.com.