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Becoming Ray Bradbury

by Jonathan R. Eller

University of Illinois Press | 2011 | 352 pages | $34.95

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

In 1982 I was a producer on an animated feature that Ray Bradbury was writing the screenplay for. He participated in frequent creative meetings with our artists, and when he came to the studio he would bound into my office (the only way he ever entered), usually wearing a tennis outfit and making a declarative statement before the door had closed behind him. I remember one time it was, “People send me metaphors in the mail! Isn’t that wonderful?”  He got no argument from us. But another time his declaration was, “I spoke at a writer’s conference yesterday. I told them they don’t have to read Saul Bellow!”

I found this disconcerting for two reasons. One, I was at the time reading The Adventures of Augie March, and while I have always found parts of Bellow difficult, I have also found other parts quite wonderful. The other reason was that from my teenage years when I first decided I wanted to become a writer, Ray had been a hero of mine; indeed he was one of three authors (Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming being the other two) whose works, for different reasons, compelled me to become a writer.  I never told Ray this at the time because I had set aside writing to pursue a producing career in animated features, and since we were working together I wanted to keep our relationship purely professional. Nevertheless, as I loved, admired, and looked up to Ray, I suddenly felt like a child caught in the middle of a divorce. Why would one writer I loved try to pull me away from another writer that I, at the very least, liked?

Since that time I have returned to writing and have maintained a close relationship with Ray, who has been extremely supportive and generous to me,  and to many other writers. In all these subsequent years, I have never brought up this Bellow conundrum to Ray, asking for an elaboration that might have allowed me to understand.

Now I don’t have to. Jonathan R. Eller has done me — and many others — the great service of writing Becoming Ray Bradbury, covering Bradbury’s growth as a writer from his birth in 1920 to 1953, the year he left for Ireland to work on the screenplay of Moby Dick for director John Huston.

If you know any thing about Bradbury at all it probably comes from the possibly thousands of articles about, and interviews with him; his lively, exuberant, and inspirational public appearances at libraries, lecture halls, and conferences; and his appearances on television, especially during America’s trips to the moon. They have all combined to give us a picture of a man with a boy’s summer enthusiasm for life, a boy stretched out on the front lawn — spotted here and there with dandelions, of course —  his hands behind his head and his eyes on the stars. It is a wonderful and fine picture, and we love it, and although it is an accurate, to a point, picture of the man, it is an inadequate picture of the writer.

Eller calls his book a “...biography of the mind,” and that is quite apt. Eller does not give us Bradbury the man (we learn little of his personal life, just enough to set scenes), but Bradbury the writer. In great and always fascinating detail, Eller chronicles the journey Bradbury took from his youth to his early middle years that made him, in Eller's estimation, one of the most individualistic, unique, uncompromising, and brilliant — despite certain flaws — writers that America produced in the Twentieth Century.

Eller does this by focusing on five aspects of Bradbury’s emotional and intellectual life, broken down into the five sections of the book. In the first he tells how Bradbury’s mind was shaped while still young, including the powerful influence of the many libraries he haunted, hearing the call from the shelves to jump up and join the books that he loved and to nestle in among Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Baum, Dickinson, Melville, Poe, Welty and Whitman, and become an author like them.

Eller goes on to discuss the mentors and reading influences that helped shape Bradbury’s first professional writings; his interest in the human mind and finding dark things therein, some coming from childhood fears. He describes Bradbury’s attempt to write novels, while going beyond the short stories he was writing for both the pulp magazines where he started and the major market magazines such as Collier’s and Harper’s that he broke into in the 1940’s.

Finally, Eller reveals Bradbury’s determination to write about controversial subjects, including censorship at a time when the Red Scare was scaring other artists. This, of course, is a well-known part of Bradbury’s work, Fahrenheit 451 having become a classic. However, at this time (the late 40s and early 50s), a time before the civil rights movement had become a prominent part of American life, he also wrote a number of stories exploring race relations. Indeed, many of these stories addressing the idiocy of racial hatred and discrimination, were just too controversial to be accepted for publication at the time of their writing, and had to wait decades before seeing print.

Through his informed and well-thought out delineations of these five aspects, Eller makes it clear that Bradbury is a writer without a literary country.  Those who have given Bradbury facile and shallow consideration have dubbed him a science fiction author. This is not really the case, despite the honored place he holds in the hearts of science fiction readers. And despite Bradbury’s high literary qualities, many critics and scholars have not accepted him into the serious literary mainstream.

Eller spends much of the book explaining exactly why this is true, defining the geography that is Bradbury, a land that is outside the borders of all other literary countries, although not a no man’s land, but rather a one man’s land.  This fact was recognized early on by many true science fiction authors who became friends and mentors to the young Bradbury, helping him learn how to craft a story, while encouraging him to always follow his own instincts on what story to tell and how to tell it. As fellow writer Theodore Sturgeon wrote to him in 1948, “Forgive this Dutch-uncle tone, but lissen [sic]: there is only one Bradbury, and like a few [authors] can’t be imitated: you’re an original...One characteristic of a true original is that he does his work his own way.”

Eller reveals to us Bradbury as a child and adolescent constantly falling in love…with books and movies and science fiction pulps and colorful Sunday adventure comics; with ape men and space travelers, hunchbacks and the gleaming towers of futuristic cities, but never, ever with the confines of the classroom.  This boy, who would later become a renowned lecturer, hated to be lectured. Sitting in a classroom with many others was not a comfortable situation within which he could learn. He was not a good student.  But direct engagement of his mind with his loves fired his enthusiasm for life, an enthusiasm that flared even brighter on the day he discovered that someday he would die, as he would chronicle later in Dandelion Wine.

This all happened in his home town of Waukegan, Illinois, and who knows where his loves and enthusiasm would have taken him, if anywhere, if he had stayed there. But in 1934 he moved with his family to Los Angeles, a place of sights and sounds and a diversity of people far different from the sights and sounds and people of his home- town. And of course it was a place with many more libraries.

It was in Los Angeles where Bradbury’s Waukegan enthusiasms grew into L.A. exuberance, making him, by his senior year in high school, near evangelical in his passions for film, radio, reading, and — a measure of his growth — for politics. This exuberance, which in later years would make him so attractive to an audience, made him a rather annoying young man. As science fiction and weird tales and the romance of space flight were part of his enthusiasms, he could have well been considered a nerd and a prototype geek. Fortunately, Bradbury found a group who shared these particular enthusiasms when he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League. 

A dedicated high school writer but with a weak command of syntax and grammar, Bradbury was fortunate to have teachers who were patient and encouraging, pointing him to books about writing, recognizing, perhaps, that he always learned better on his own. This dedication served him well when he joined the LASFL and was soon tapped by Forrest J. Ackerman to help on Imagination!, the chapter’s newsletter (essentially an early fanzine).  His work on Imagination! fed back to his writing in high school, which, in turn, fed back to his work on the newsletter.  And his membership in the LASFL gave him professional contacts and relationships, especially after he attended the first science fiction convention in New York in 1939, which led him to create his own fanzine, Futuria Fantasia, and eventually to making his first professional sale (co-written with fellow LASFL member, Henry Hasse) at the age of twenty-one to Super Science Stories. This first sale led to others and he was soon appearing in several of the science fiction and fantasy pulps.

As thrilling a wonder story as this must have been for Bradbury, there was a problem.  Although he loved writing fiction, he was not really a good student of science, and he never really gave the editors of the Sci-Fi pulps the hard science stories some of them were looking for. And although he had enjoyed reading space operas, especially when he was younger, such stories did not flow from his pen. He also wrote and sold horror stories to Weird Tales, and mystery stories to the dime detective magazines, but he never conformed to the house styles of these various publications either.  The editors would reject many of his stories for that reason, but were also compelled to accept others because they were just too well written to turn down.

Bradbury was becoming, in Eller’s words, a neo-romantic. He loved life enough to always want to be larger than it, to embrace things with a passion; he loved the emotions stirred by the film scores of Miklós Rosa, for example, and he came to adore the Russian romantic composers. Eller makes it clear that this romantic nature of Bradbury’s made it impossible for him to write in any manner other than instinctually.  Bradbury wanted to burst out his words in an essentially improvisational act originating in his mind, flowing down his arms and into his fingertips, which were charged with the task of typing out the results, and letting the creative chips fall where they may.          

This manner of bringing forth the genesis of a story was precious to Bradbury, the essence, he believed, of his creativity, and not to be tampered with.  But it did not lead to the writing of formula stories of standard plots for the pulps, whether Sci-Fi, fantasy, horror or mystery.  This did not mean that he was an irresponsible and unprofessional prima donna, or not a craftsman. He was always a dedicated craftsman, indeed he became notorious among his agent and editors for holding on to a story after it first burst out for many months (sometimes even years), revising and revising , ever trying to make it perfect. But always, I suspect, retaining the first burst of creativity as the base he would not deviate from.  This meant that many of his stories were never finished, and, in Eller’s view, led to certain weaknesses in plot and character development. But it also led to a canon of completely unique works in the American literary landscape.

This nature of Bradbury’s to write only in the manner he wanted to was recognized by other successful, more pure science fiction authors, such as Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, and Leigh Brackett, who all became friends of Bradbury’s. They most generously mentored him with this recognition in mind, and urged him to remain true to himself, to go beyond the confines of genre and to submit to the mainstream, slick periodicals. They tutored him in American and English literature and broadened his scope of reading, all of which excited Bradbury.  He found a kindred spirit in Thomas Wolfe and Look Homeward Angel, and an artistic role model in Howard Roark in The Fountainhead.

He found himself straddling two worlds: that of the pulps and genre writing, and that of serious, mainstream literature. He wanted to boost up the reputation of the former, and he wanted recognition in the latter.  He tried his hand at being a “modernist” writer, writing about the crisis-of-values with a more cynical outlook than his nature would allow, but it was no good, and the modernist books he started went unfinished.

Bradbury had to be himself; he would not compromise that, even if it led to certain flaws, despite a desire for perfection. But it was perfection in his type of storytelling. Stories that started with a burst of creative energy often could not maintain that energy to become long-form works. If to be taken seriously in the mainstream literary world one had to write, or attempt to write, the Great American Novel, then Bradbury was at a disadvantage.

It was only, Eller reports, after Bradbury had decided that one need not write the Great American Novel, one simply needed to write in the truest way he knew how, that he eventually did write novels, two of which, Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked this Way Comes many now consider classics.

Bradbury may always be most appreciated, when he is appreciated, for his short stories, many of which are fantastical in one way or another and not the “serious” realism of mainstream, modernist, literature. This simple fact has led those who revere him to either misname him a science fiction writer, or to honor him by calling him a master storyteller; and those who do not respect him, to curse him with the label of “genre writer.’ But what is truly to be treasured in Bradbury’s work is his style, whether in short or long works; his way of providing paragraphs that are loved individually as prose poems; his language that takes flight; his wide range of subject matter covering the effects on human hearts and minds, and their fears and loves. He also addresses the anxiety of waiting for a future that may be, as his friend Walt Disney promoted, big, bright and beautiful, but also may have an unforeseen diminishment of our human creativity as the wonders of technology replace the wonder of life. These are attributes that all should be able to value.

To be not just worthy to nestle among others on the library shelves, but more than worthy; to be considered a serious writer, has always been Bradbury’s goal. However, in telling this story of the birth and first maturation of Bradbury the writer, Eller makes it clear that Bradbury never would have been able to compromise to reach that goal; he had to go his own way.  If that meant he had to shun the realism that the deciders of literary merit in the Twentieth Century seemed to prefer, then so be it.

One day he came bounding into my office for another creative meeting, My then assistant, now wife, Amanda, who has always had a slyly wicked wit, looked up at him and said, “Oh, Ray, I was talking to Saul Bellow the other day and he had very nice things to say about you.”

Ray’s face fell and he was momentarily taken aback.  But once he saw the subtle glint in Amanda’s eye, he broke out into his hearty, exuberant laugh. Evidence enough for me that Bradbury, who has always been extremely dedicated and serious about his work, has nonetheless maintained a realistic enough sense of humor not to take himself seriously.

Eller’s fine and important book, though, allows the rest of us to. For that I am seriously grateful.

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