Ray Bradbury has made quite a career out of nostalgia, and his affectionate respect for the past continues to serve him well in Summer Morning, Summer Night (2008), a collection of short stories unified by the common setting of Green Town, Illinois. Not altogether unlike Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which Bradbury admits influenced the structure, if not the contents, of The Martian Chronicles, this anthology is gentler and more sensitive than Anderson’s gallery of the grotesque tended to be. The characters, however, are often eccentric in their own ways, and most are, like their author, sensitive and understated, even in their eccentricity.
The first story in the collection, “End of Summer,” concerns a sexually repressed schoolteacher, thirty-five-year-old Hattie, who lives with her grandmother, aunt, and cousin, who are equally straight-laced and no-nonsense. Although Hattie fears being found out by one of them, she also defies their narrow, emotionless, sexless lives. She has repressed her own sexuality, but, in this story, she throws caution to the winds. In fact, she has apparently taken some risks even before the story proper commences. She is a voyeur; in this tale, she becomes, also, a seductress. She seems to delight in outraging her family’s stern sense of propriety, even if she does so in secret. It is enough for her, it appears, that she knows that she has violated their taboos.
As the story opens, she lies awake in her room, counting “the long, slow strokes of the high town clock” (9). Judging by her count, it is two o’clock in the morning, and the streets are deserted. She rises from her bed, applies makeup, polishes her fingernails, dabs perfume behind her ears, casts off her “cotton nightgown” in favor of a negligee, and lets down her hair (9). Gazing into her mirror, she is satisfied with the image of herself that meets her gaze:
She saw the long, dark rush of her hair in the mirror as she unknotted the tight schoolteacher’s bun and let it fall loose to her shoulders. Wouldn’t her pupils be surprised. She thought; so long, so black, so glossy. Not bad for a woman of thirty-five (9).Having donned the uniform of a literal lady of the evening, Hattie sneaks past the closed doors of her grandmother, aunt, and cousin, anxious that one or more of them might choose this moment to exit their bedroom, but, despite her nervousness, nevertheless pauses to stick “her tongue out at one door, then at the other two” (10).
Outside, she pauses to enjoy the sensations of the “wet grass,” which is “cool and prickly,” and, after dodging the “patrolman, Mr. Waltzer,” surveys the town from the vantage point of the courthouse rooftop before sneaking from house to house to eavesdrop and spy upon their residents (10).
One of the men upon whom she spies follows her, and she seduces him--or perhaps it is he who seduces her. In the night, when darkness and shadows rule, passions are abroad in the darkness, and it is difficult to say, sometimes, who is the predator and who the prey. It may be that both are seducers, just as both are seduced.
After the assignation, Hattie returns to the house she shares with Grandma, Aunt Maude, and Cousin Jacob, no longer wearing cosmetics, dressed primly, and behaving properly, except for the smile she seems unable to shed, even in the austere presence of her repressive kinsmen, who chastise her for being late to rise and tardy to work. She leaves their company, still smiling as she runs out of the house, the door slamming behind her.
In this story, the monster is not the typical bogeyman, but the strict propriety of the prim and proper family of which Hattie both is and is not a member. A synecdoche of society itself, the rigid demand for conformity and the repression of personal passion of which has a debilitating effect upon the individual human spirit because it represses the fleshly aspects of human existence, Hattie’s family and its unyielding demands for steadfast respectability, at the very cost of one’s soul, suggests that it is inhuman to deny one’s physical appetites.
In demanding that these vital elements of their personalities be repressed, her relatives become more like machines that saintly souls, whereas, because of her covert rebelliousness, which allows her to remain true to herself, including the passions and appetites of her fleshly existence, Hattie shows the monstrosity that hides behind the familial and social demands for sexual repression and emotional rigidity. Ironically, her behavior, which would, no doubt, scandalize her family, as it would her community, is the salvation, rather than the ruination, of her soul. Her actions stand as a silent, even secret, rebuke to the harshness of an overly restrictive and conventional lifestyle. Hattie dares not disturb the universe--or even her own household--but, in private, she finds the sexual release that is denied to her in the public arena of her life, and these nocturnal assignations, brief as they may be, are enough to bring a smile to her lips that does not fade. The private life is all we have, Bradbury suggests, but it is enough when one finds another with a similar attitude and similar needs with whom to share it. Sometimes, heroism is as quiet and as passive-aggressive as the rebellious, but discreet, protagonist of this gentle tale of gallantry and pluck.
This story is itself a synecdoche, as it were, for the entire anthology of which it is the first flower. The other stories are just as delicate, just as beautiful, just as perfumed with the scents of joy and sorrow, reminiscence and lament, magic and wisdom. Most of all, they are instances of poetry, prose poems which assert, each one, in its own way, the enchantments and mysteries of life, as they manifest themselves in things both small enough to go unnoticed by all but the most sensitive and discerning and large enough to shake children and adult alike with laughter or with tears. A slender volume, Summer Morning, Summer Night is as deep and broad as the gray-haired man who, in writing it, packed every page and paragraph with as much Green Haven, Illinois, as would fit. The book shows why Ray Bradbury remains a treasure as much today as he was when he first broached the enchanted wonderland of modern middle America, well over half a century ago.