He wrote story after story about space travel, but he never got a driver’s license and didn’t drive a car.
He lacked the money to go to college, but he possessed the will to get himself an education. As he later said, “I spent three days a week for ten years educating myself in the public library.”
In his stories, he predicted the invention of technologies like video surveillance, widescreen televisions, automated houses, cellphones, and EarPods, yet he was also a severe critic of our dependence on machines. Near the end of his life, he said: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.”
He loved books and, in his work, celebrated authors like Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson, yet he also warned of a decline in reading and literacy. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he said. “Just get people to stop reading them.”
And unlike many of his literary contemporaries, he found much to love in America and Americans. “Americans are far more remarkable than we give ourselves credit for,” he once stated. “We’ve been so busy damning ourselves for years. We’ve done it all, and yet we don’t take credit for it.”
Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) wrote novels, hundreds of short stories, plays, poems, screenplays, operas, and essays. Some of these became motion pictures, and some of his own stories he adapted for the television series “The Ray Bradbury Theater.” He helped develop Disney’s Epcot Center and was acquainted with many Hollywood luminaries.
For these accomplishments, Bradbury received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize citation honoring his “prolific and deeply influential” achievements. Because of stories like “The Martian Chronicles,” the Apollo 15 crew named a crater on the moon Dandelion after his novel “Dandelion Wine,” and an asteroid won the name 9766 Bradbury in his honor.
Passion, Gusto, and Stability
Several factors account for Bradbury’s enormous output and popularity with readers. The first is the innocence of his imagination. By this I mean that in many ways the man never left behind his boyhood in Waukegan, Illinois. Though he moved to Los Angeles at age 14 and remained a lifelong resident of that city, it was in Waukegan that he fell in love with storytelling, with writers like the creator of Tarzan and the John Carter of Mars books, Edgar Rice Burroughs. And Bradbury developed as well the passions that appear in so many of his stories: Hollywood and the movies, dinosaurs, Buck Rogers, and Halloween. To pay homage to his boyhood and the town, he willed his extensive collection of books to the Waukegan Public Library.
In addition, Bradbury also thought—and said so many times—that writing should be fun. Back in the age of Neanderthal technology, I heard an interview on an audio cassette with Bradbury. I don’t remember the interviewer’s name—he struck me as a supercilious man—but I still remember the excitement in Bradbury’s voice when he said that if writing’s not fun, then why do it? I’d never heard a writer say that before, and it deeply impressed me. In “Zen in the Art of Writing,” Bradbury also remarks, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”
Finally, despite his many adventures—his time in Ireland with director John Huston when they were filming “Moby Dick,” his visits to movie sets and science fiction and fantasy conventions, and his work with Disney World—Bradbury otherwise led a life of routine and writing. He was married for 56 years to his beloved Marguerite McClure, or Maggie, without the marital brawls that plague so many such unions.
Such stability enhances production and creativity.
An Enemy of Oppression
Today, many Americans from across the political spectrum are dismayed by political correctness and its sidekick, cancel culture.
Ray Bradbury was a longtime outspoken opponent of attempts to repress speech and block the free flow of ideas. “Fahrenheit 451,” his popular novel about a fireman in the future whose job is to burn books and thereby destroy the ideas and history of the past, was published in 1953 and remains in print today. The central theme of the novel is censorship and mind control, as may be seen in these lines: “If you don’t want a house built, hide the wood and nails. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”
In the “Coda” in my copy of “Fahrenheit 451,” which is a 50th-anniversary edition, Bradbury denounces all the ways some readers have objected to his stories: not enough women, mention of God, dislike for his depictions of minorities. He writes:
“For it is a mad world, and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.”
Red, White, and Blue
We may read Bradbury and overlook just how deeply American his writing is. In “The Martian Chronicles,” for example, he tells the story of human beings leaving Earth to settle on the Red Planet. But the story also reverberates with the English, French, and others emigrating from Europe to found colonies in America. In fact, I once used this novel, which is a collection of stories, to kick off a class in American history when I was a teacher.
His exuberant coming-of-age novel, “Dandelion Wine,” inspired by his Waukegan boyhood, depicts life in the fictional town of Green Hill, Illinois, in the 1920s. Like Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” Bradbury’s story may idealize American life, but the setting and the outlook of the characters—12-year-old Doug Spaulding and his family and friends—are quintessentially American.
Like many other Americans of his time, Bradbury was at heart an optimist, in love with his work and the world around him, and he often became dismayed or angry when his fellow citizens, especially the media, the academics, and other critics, forgot the greatness of this country.
In his 1998 article “The Affluence of Despair: America Through the Looking Glass,” which can be found in his collection of essays “Bradbury Speaks,” he takes to task those anti-American commentators “whose lips spew not diamonds and emeralds, but spiders, frogs, and toads; each time they open their mouths, they spoil the ecology.”
He then points out that we have helped ruin ourselves by listening to these “confessors of our dark souls” and concludes with these words:
“We have condemned ourselves. Now we must save ourselves. No one else can. Shut off the set. Write your local TV news-people. Tell them to go to hell. Take a shower. Go sit on the lawn with friends.”
Good advice in 1998. Even more apropos in 2021.
A Magic Moment
When he was 12 years old, Ray Bradbury sprinted through the streets of Waukegan to a carnival, where a Mr. Electrico was performing. Here is his account of what happened that day:
“I ran so hard I tasted iron, and my heart exploded as I arrived at the sideshow where I stared openmouthed at Mr. Electrico. A towering hawk-nosed figure with a fiery stare that put out your eyes, he spoke in tones I felt proclaimed God’s truth. With a flourish of his black cape, he ensconced himself in a wondrous electric chair, and an assistant threw a switch and proclaimed, ‘Here go ten million volts of pure fire, ten million volts of electricity into the flesh of Mr. Electrico!’
“As the current surged through his body, his white hair billowed into a bright halo, his body seemed to glow and incandescent fire danced at his fingertips. I watched mesmerized as he picked up a silver sword, leaned down and with it touched me on both shoulders, then the tip of my nose. The electricity surged through me, making my hair stand on end. He shouted, ‘Live forever!’”
The next day, Bradbury returned to the carnival, tracked down Mr. Electrico, and asked him what he’d meant by “Live forever!” They talked for several hours about deep matters—Mr. Electrico, as it turned out, was a former Presbyterian minister—and in that conversation Bradbury learned that the carnival actor was telling him that life was sacred “and must be lived to the fullest. Each day, each hour was precious.”
From that moment on, Bradbury began writing. Over the next many decades, he made the most of his time.
And while he himself did not live forever, Bradbury lives on in the words he left behind.