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Hail and (Not Yet) Farewell: On Ray Bradbury, Near His 90th Birthday -- The Moline Public Library’s Fahrenheit 451 “Big Read” Campaign PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 05:35

(Author's note: This article was originally published in September 2010, but it serves as a fitting review of the career of Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5, 2012.)

"But of course he was going away, there was nothing else to do, the time was up, the clock had run out, and he was going very far away indeed."

Sam Weller, Ray Bradbury, and Black Francis in June. Photo by Nathan Kirkman.Unless one believes that Mr. Electrico's command to Ray Bradbury should be taken literally, the famed author will likely not be on this planet to celebrate his 100th birthday.

For those unfamiliar with the Bradbury mythology, Mr. Electrico was a carnival magician Bradbury saw in 1932, when he was 12. Sam Weller describes the event in his 2005 biography The Bradbury Chronicles: "Mr. Electrico then approached the bespectacled, wide-eyed boy in the front row. Taking the [electrified] sword, he tapped Ray on each shoulder, then on the brow, and finally on the tip of his nose and cried, 'Live forever!'"

"Why did he say that?" Bradbury said to Weller. "I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. Just weeks after Mr. Electrico said this to me, I started writing every day. I never stopped."

Immortality, of course, already belongs to Bradbury. His 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published in 1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) as a mid-20th Century cautionary-tale classic imagining a future full of numbing technology and invasive government. (See the sidebar "Pleasure to Burn -- Reading Fahrenheit 451.")

The book is the subject of the Moline Public Library's Quad Cities-wide "Big Read" campaign, which begins September 27 with a keynote lecture by Weller and closes on October 31 -- Bradbury's favorite holiday. (For a list of Big Read events, see the sidebar "Fahrenheit 451 -- Area Book Discussions, Panel Discussions, and Film Screenings.") But while Fahrenheit 451 is undoubtedly Bradbury's lasting long-form work, Weller noted in an interview last week that the book isn't typical of the author.

"It's not characteristic," Weller said. Bradbury wrote short stories with a similar warning tone -- most famously "The Veldt," the chilling tale of an immersive virtual-reality playroom that's a bit too authentic -- "but I don't think it's indicative of the entirety of everything he's created." Fahrenheit 451 is "more singular," he said.

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And while Bradbury is venerated for his use of the fantastic, Weller argues that the author must also be remembered for the works set in his childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois -- the Green Town of Dandelion Wine and the dark-carnival novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. "He is intrinsic to the literary fabric of the heartland," Weller said. "He's one of our great Midwest writers. He tells a small-town story like almost no other writer can do."

Bradbury turned 90 on August 22, and while this might look like a premature obituary, it isn't intended as one; the nine-decade milestone is a great opportunity to celebrate Bradbury while he can still enjoy it. (As Weller will tell you, Bradbury loves the limelight.) And his legacy is much greater than Fahrenheit 451.

The Illustrated Man

"The pictures were moving, each in its turn, each for a brief minute or two. There in the moonlight, with the tiny tinkling thoughts and the distant sea voices, each little drama was enacted. Whether it took an hour or three hours for the dramas to finish, it would be hard to say. I only know that I lay fascinated and did not move while the stars wheeled in the sky."

To venerate Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451 is akin to reducing the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia to his paintings; it gives too much weight to a secondary pursuit and ignores the primary contribution.

Fahrenheit 451 is a novel by a writer whose attention span didn't allow for many of them. It's science fiction by a guy who insists (correctly) that his primary genre is fantasy. The serious, dark tone is in opposition to the infectious enthusiasm of much of his work. ("The Veldt," despite its earnest and genuine technological concerns, operates first as a wicked tale, and one can almost see the smile on its author's face as the parents are devoured in a manufactured African landscape.)

Furthermore, Bradbury's extra-print activities help illuminate that his fears about audio-visual entertainment as anesthesia haven't precluded him from participating in them. Television (writing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his own The Ray Bradbury Theater, assisting Rod Serling with his conception of The Twilight Zone), movies (writing the screenplay for John Huston's adaptation of Moby-Dick), and the stage (his own Pandemonium Theatre Company) represent a significant portion of his output, and he even helped design and write the Spaceship Earth attraction for Walt Disney World's Epcot.

Ray Bradbury in 1950. Photo courtesy Sam Weller.But the simplest way to discount the importance of Fahrenheit 451 to Bradbury's oeuvre is to spend some time with his short stories. Most of us were introduced to Bradbury in grade or middle school with "The Veldt" or "All Summer in a Day" (the one about the girl locked in the closet), and from there many of us devoured him. And while some of his books can be read as cohesive wholes -- most notably The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine -- they are fundamentally story collections.

Weller recommends a handful of Bradbury stories when he speaks at high schools, and while he mixes them up sometimes, he offered five starting points in our interview: "The Veldt," "All Summer in a Day," "The Lake," "The Sound of Summer Running," and "The Foghorn." At -- the Web site for his new book of Bradbury interviews -- Weller is listing his 25 favorite Bradbury stories, beginning with "The Veldt."

Yet to truly appreciate Bradbury's breadth and depth as a writer, you need more immersion, and there are two excellent anthologies: The Stories of Ray Bradbury, originally published in 1980, collects 100 of his best stories, and 2003's Bradbury Stories adds another hundred -- with no duplication.

One can also get a sense of Bradbury's legacy through his influence. Weller fills The Bradbury Chronicles with epigraphs suggesting that contemporary popular culture would look a lot different without Ray Bradbury -- the author's own butterfly effect (a concept he explored in his 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder"). From Kiss' Ace Frehley to Apple's Steve Wozniak to authors Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin, Bradbury's impact has been wide and profound.

Gaiman, in an essay published earlier this year, was particularly eloquent: "I can imagine all sorts of worlds and places, but I cannot imagine one without Ray Bradbury. Not Bradbury the man ... but Bradbury the builder of dreams. The man who took an idea of the American Midwest and made it magical and tangible, who took his own childhood and all the people and things in it and used it to shape the world. The man who gave us a future to fear, one without stories, without books. The man who invented Halloween in its modern incarnation."

And while Bradbury is still known (to his chagrin) as a science-fiction writer, recognition as a "serious" author has been building over the past decade. He received a Pulitzer Prize special citation (in 2007) "for his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy," the National Medal of Arts (in 2004), and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (in 2000).

There's a good reason that respect has been slow to come. By his own admission, Bradbury is a writer for children. As Weller said, Bradbury -- like Edgar Allan Poe -- appeals to younger readers because of story conceits that are "fantastic and memorable and mythological."

Bradbury's great gift to the world is that he hooks young people with his fantasy, horror, science fiction, and nostalgia, often turning them into readers and thinkers and dreamers. In that way, he might be the best weapon against the world he portrays in Fahrenheit 451.

Weller acknowledged that most people who are Bradbury fans as teens eventually outgrow him. But he said that there is often a second period of revelation. "When you do go back and revisit him as an adult reader, you discover an entire new landscape," he said. "You discover all those literary things ... that you may not have been aware of when you were 11. ...

"What makes Ray Bradbury very singular is that around when he was in his early 20s, he really stopped reading the writing of his peers. He stopped reading pulp fiction and science fiction and fantasy, and he started reading Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, heavily immersed himself in Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne. And he started really studying literary writers. Deeply. But he kept his love of genre. That's what's made him such a great writer. No doubt he's a genre writer, but he brings all the conventions of what he studied in literature over to genre."

Adult readers, for example, might notice Bradbury's use of point of view. The Stories of Ray Bradbury begins with "The Night," an audacious choice because it addresses the reader as "you." And "There Will Come Soft Rains" is a story whose only character is a house.

"The guy was very experimental and cutting-edge on a literary level," Weller said. As an adult, "you not only reconnect with your inner child as a reader, but you discover a whole new horizon of literary technique in his work."

That will, hopefully, be one of the legacies of the Big Read: old fans coming back to discover that Bradbury is more than a writer for kids.

That's also been the impact of Weller's biography. He said that many people have come to him and said, "Thank you for making me want to go back and read Ray Bradbury."

He added: "I feel like I did my job. I've made people interested in him again."