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Becoming Ray Bradbury

Photograph by Ralph Nelson courtesy of the Ray Bradbury family
Ralph Nelson
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Ray Bradbury has lived his life in two different worlds. Not on faraway planets like the settings of many of his science fiction tales. Bradbury’s life has been divided between his early childhood in Waukegan and his adult life in California. 

A recent biography, Becoming Ray Bradbury, written by Jonathan Eller and published by the University of Illinois Press, emphasizes the importance of that childhood in helping the author find his personal writing style and create some of his best-loved stories. “When he began to write stories from his own experience, his own sense of the passions and fears and hauntings of the typical Midwestern child … that’s when he developed his own voice,” says Eller, the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, where he is also an English professor. 

“I’m lucky that my life was split into two parts,” Bradbury said in an interview series produced for the author’s website. Bradbury was born in Waukegan in 1920 and lived there until he became a teenager. 

Eller says it was Bradbury’s Illinois connection that drew him to the U of I for publication of his biography. “Ray Bradbury is a native son, and that often gets lost. …and he’s very loyal really to both of his homes.”

Bradbury is best known for his novel Fahrenheit 451, a story of a dystopian future where reading is outlawed and firemen burn books. The book is often required reading for high school English classes. A prolific writer, Bradbury has produced hundreds of short stories, poems and essays throughout his career. His contributions to pulp fiction, science fiction, horror and detective magazines led Time magazine to dub him the “Poet of the Pulps” in 1953. Bradbury is also well known for the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, his short story collections and his “fix-up” novels — collections of sometimes previously published short stories tied together with common themes and characters — such as The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury stories have been adapted for radio, stage, movie and television screen, including episodes of the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Bradbury hosted his own show, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, which featured adaptions of his stories. 

Bradbury is cited as a beloved influence by a later generation of science fiction and horror masters, such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. He has won a multitude of writing awards, most recently the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2000, and the National Medal of Arts presented to him by former President George W. Bush in 2004. An asteroid has been named for Bradbury, and in 1971, the Apollo 15 crew named a moon crater the “Dandelion Crater,” for Dandelion Wine, his fix-up novel about fictional Green Town, Illinois, that draws heavily from his Waukegan childhood. 

The depression forced the Bradbury family to leave Illinois so Ray’s father could find work. The family moved to Tucson, Ariz., back to Waukegan and eventually settled in Los Angeles. But the Illinois town would always stay with him, and it was those childhood years that would inspire what both Bradbury and Eller described as the author’s first important work. Eller wrote: “One short narrative sketch from his senior year [in high school] showed the promise of what he could do by writing from lived experience. It was called The Night, and it was built entirely on memories of the ravine that had nearly surrounded his Waukegan home. It’s not surprising that the ravine was the only “character” in this long-lost sketch, for it has long been recognized as one of Bradbury’s most pervasive dark places. As he matured, the ravine continued to fascinate him as a borderland where town and nature struggled to control the landscape — an ambiguous borderland between the rational and irrational, between life and death.” 

Becoming Ray Bradbury
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Becoming Ray Bradbury

“It was a very personal experience, Bradbury said, recalling the story in a 2001 interview. “I wrote it when I was 17 and then wasn’t smart enough to see that I had created an original piece.” 

Waukegan was more than fodder for his stories. It was the place where Bradbury developed his lifelong love of libraries and a desire for immortality that pushed him to become an author. “Bradbury’s rise to authorship began in earnest at the Waukegan Public Library, where he learned to make more logical and articulate connections between the larger-than-life images of his preschool days and the ever-widening realities of the world around him,” Eller writes in Becoming Ray Bradbury

Bradbury’ frequent excursions to the public library, along with movies and radio programs, were one of his main sources of entertainment as a boy. Eller uses a quotation from the Bradbury story Monday Night in Green Town, written for syndication during the American Library Association’s first National Library Week, to illustrate the author’s lyrical love of the public institutions. “‘The library was the great watering place where animals, large and small, came from the night to drink and smile at each other across the green-glass shadowed glades between the book-mountains. So here you were gamboling on spring nights, racing the curled mice-leaves on autumn nights, always to the same Monday place, the same Monday building. You ran, you dawdled, you flew, but you got there. And there was always that special moment when, at the big doors, you paused before you opened them out and went in among all those lives, in among all those whispers of old voices so high and quiet it would take a dog trotting between the stacks to hear them. And trot you did.’”

Because Bradbury did not attend college, and in his younger years often scraped by on what he made selling newspapers and occasional stories to magazines, public libraries were the key to his self-education. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury told the New York Times in 2009. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” It would be with a rented typewriter in the basement of the Powell Library at the University of California Los Angles where he would write his best- known work, Fahrenheit 451

As a child in the library, Bradbury soon began to aspire for immortality among his favorite authors. “It would be the voices of the authors themselves that would come to symbolize literature for Bradbury in a lasting way. Each time he entered the building as a young boy in Waukegan, he saw the authors personified in the masterpieces on the library shelves. Eventually, he came to see the shelves as populations of authors and began to dream of living among them, Bradbury between Mr. [L Frank] Baum and Mr. [Edgar Rice] Burroughs, not far from Miss [Emily] Dickinson, Mr. [Edgar Allen] Poe, Miss [Eudora] Welty, Mr. [Walt] Whitman, an ever-expanding circle of reading loves,” wrote Eller. 

Fahrenheit 451
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Fahrenheit 451

This aspiration for eternal life came from a chance encounter when Bradbury was 12 years old. Eller says Waukegan was a hub for several traveling circuses and carnivals. Young Bradbury was intensely fascinated with these loud, bright magical and exotic incursions into his quiet Midwestern life, and carnivals later became a recurring image in his texts, including Something Wicked This Way Comes. He would often hang around such shows when they came to town. “He would go and try to get free tickets by helping the roustabouts,” Eller said. Bradbury happened to attend a sideshow act where a Mr. Electrico withstood an electric current to amaze the crowd. 

“My future was decided for me when I was 12 years old,” Bradbury said of the event in a 2009 account to science fiction website, tor.com. “He reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity. And he pointed at me and said, ‘Live for Ever!’ And I said: ‘God that’s wonderful. How do you do that?’” 

Bradbury said he returned the next day after attending his uncle’s funeral and Mr. Electrico introduced him to carnival performers, included a tattooed man who helped to inspire his fix-up novel, the Illustrated Man. “The next day I started to write, and I have been writing for 70 years because of that encounter with Mr. Electrico, which said, ‘Live forever!’ And now, I’ve got a chance to do it with my books. There going to be around for the next 10 years, the next 100 years and God knows, maybe on the planet Mars, too.” 

Bradbury fans may recognize the anecdote, as it is an often-told story of the impetus for the author’s career. But Eller wrote in his biography that the tale “remains very real to this day for Bradbury, who has demonstrated throughout his life a strong ability to feed from the power of suggestion in certain situations.” 

Eller says it is this proclivity toward persuasion and hypnosis that helped Bradbury find his voice as a writer. Bradbury spent many of his early years under the wings of several fixtures in the pulp and science-fiction writing community. They offered him writing critiques, reading suggestions and helped him get his stories published in magazines. But his fascination with the world of genre fiction also formed a trap that left him writing formulaic works that were often very derivative of authors he looked up to both from the past and among his contemporaries. Bradbury acknowledges this, saying in a 2001 interview that at the beginning of his career, he had drawn from “all the wrong things instead of paying attention to my own nightmare.” Later in his career, Bradbury would have to resist that temptation and sometimes pressure from editors to make his stories fit into genre conventions. 

Once Bradbury was able to relax and write in an almost trancelike state, inspiration from his own life experiences began to flow. “ He realized it was legitimate just to let your conscious mind well up images,” Eller says. Once those ideas came, Bradbury would write a first draft quickly in a state of mind that he has described as similar to hypnosis. Then the more grueling and focused work would come in the editing process. Bradbury believes so strongly in the power of hypnosis that, according to Eller, he has dental work done while hypnotized and without an anesthetic. 

Eller, who has known Bradbury since the 1980s, focused his book on that period of growth in the author’s life — from his school years to early 30s — when he struggled to define his work and then rather suddenly fell into his niche and found commercial success.  Eller says while the anecdotal stories of Bradbury’s life are well-known, he wanted to tell the “back story.” Eller was working on a project to restore works to the authors’ original visions, before editing, revisions and often multiple publications altered the texts. He says this is an especially interesting task with Bradbury’s works, which have been published time and again. Eller said Bradbury often took a republication of his pieces as a chance to make tweaks. He said Bradbury saw every new collection of his short stories as “another shot” at revision. ‘What people can’t find anymore are those earliest versions.” He says for the project, “[Bradbury] just sort of opened up his world to me.” And he told the author, “‘I would like to tell the story that’s there in your correspondence and in your unpublished papers.’”
In his book, Eller painstakingly traces what Bradbury was reading when and whom he was talking to and sharing his work with. Eller illustrates the connections between the author’s influences and his work and documents all of Bradbury’s early professional struggles. While the book does cover some of Bradbury’s personal life and changing political views, it focuses foremost on Bradbury the author. The book is written in a straight forward and accessible manner, and would make an interesting read for any Bradbury fan seeking to trace the evolution of his writing process through a clear chronology of his early creative life. The biography leaves off at a pivotal time in Bradbury’s career, and Eller says he is already working on a follow up book. 

Those who are not die-hard Bradbury fans, but are interested in exploring the author’s connections to Illinois while also escaping into his very consuming prose, should pick up a copy of Dandelion Wine. The book is the coming-of-age story of Douglas Spaulding, loosely based on Bradbury whose middle name is Douglas. It tells the tale of one summer in which he learns many lessons about life, mortality and his impending entrance into adulthood. The book also includes interesting stories of townspeople who come into contact with the Spaulding family. While Dandelion Wine is set in the 1920s Illinois of Bradbury’s recollection, anyone who grew up in a small town in the Midwest would likely find something to be nostalgic about in the events of Spaulding’s summer. 

Douglas Spaulding makes dandelion wine with his grandfather, and the drink — preserved in bottles in his grandparents’ basement and meted out during the most miserable cold of the winter months — is the central metaphor for those precious childhood summer memories. Bradbury wrote in the forward to Dandelion Wine: “So from the age of twenty-four to thirty-six, hardly a day passed when I didn’t stroll myself across a recollection of my grandparents’ northern Illinois grass, hoping to come across some old half-burnt firecracker, a rusted toy, or a fragment of letter written to myself in some young year hoping to contact the older person I became to remind him of his past, his life, his people, his joys and his drenching sorrows.” 

Eller says that through these remembrances of childhood, Bradbury is able to touch on common feelings shared by all—growing up and a loss of innocence, the budding knowledge of one’s mortality and the fear of death, the nature of feeling separate from others and the need for love and acceptance. “The fundamental hopes and fears that make us human are the closest to childhood,” Eller says. 

Ray Bradbury is 91 years old and still resides in California. He has continued to advocate for public libraries. Until recent years, he was a popular public speaker and often appeared on college campuses. Bradbury wrote a sequel to Dandelion Wine called Farewell Summer, which was published in 2006. He was not available for an interview for this essay. 

Illinois Issues, December 2011

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