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Becoming Ray Bradbury
By JONATHAN R. ELLER
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2011 Jonathan R. Eller
All right reserved.
Introduction Throughout his early career, Ray Bradbury was torn between two impulses—on one hand, a mounting obsession with perfection as he revised the stories that seemed to well up continuously from his subconscious mind, and on the other hand, an unflagging aversion to the advice of such genre colleagues as Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, and Theodore Sturgeon, who urged him to write without fear, to learn by writing, even if the result was not always the intended masterpiece.
Bradbury eventually came to understand that writing when the Muse is muted did not necessarily involve slanting to the genre or slick markets—a proposition that he loathed throughout his career. But his ability to generate impressive story drafts in a matter of hours would often play out against uncertainty as he moved through the more rational process of revising a story, or as he attempted to sustain longer forms of fiction. Bradbury's greatest nightmare was manifest in Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, a book that he purchased with his precious few book-buying dollars on the very day in 1946 that he proposed to his future wife, Marguerite McClure:
... the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece ... no other task is of any true consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having made the admission, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, for they will not acknowledge that it is their present way of life which prevents them from ever creating anything different or better.
It would have been little consolation to know that a few years later Christopher Isherwood, one of the first Modernist intellectual writers to personally and publicly encourage Bradbury, was privately tormented by this same passage during a very difficult period in his own writing. Within this extended aphorism Connolly had captured the essential anxiety that Bradbury found himself facing every time he brought the more logical process of revision to bear on any of his unconsciously inspired story drafts. The fear of producing less than perfect fictions, equal to (and perhaps greater than) his fear of not finishing at all, was a constant companion, and it colored the way he presented himself to the public, his agents and editors, and his fellow writers.
During these years he also began to develop, at least in his speaking notes, a negative view of the intellectual authors who were intent on making strong distinctions between serious and popular literature, intent on defining and then aspiring to create the mirage known as the great American novel. During the first decade of his career, he would also find himself at odds with critics who were intent on defining the ways that he could navigate the margins between popular culture and the higher literary world.
Becoming Ray Bradbury explores the origins of his wariness of intellectual writing, and his conviction that intuitive things are the real truths. These origins reveal why his greatest contributions to American literature remain his unique style and his abiding creative focus on the basic emotions that define our humanity. As early as 1948, his private writing notes reveal a strong conviction that "the fiction writer is, first and foremost, an emotionalist." Four years later, in his introduction to Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, he made his case publically, through a favorite metaphor: "I have had nothing but my emotions to go on ... I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific man can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker."
He offered a similar viewpoint on the foundational importance of style—understood as emotional truth—during a late 1960s interview with Los Angeles television host John Stanley: "Style isn't worthwhile unless it's absolute truth. They're synonymous. If you tell the truth you automatically have a style. What you're trying to do is bring out all your truths at various levels. Your fear of the dark, your dread of violence, your hostility of one thing, your love of another." These are, of course, truths told by indirection through the mask of fiction; as Bradbury observed in "Death Warmed Over," a short but significant 1968 essay on writing, "Fact without interpretation is but a glimpse of the elephant's bone yard."
In their very brevity, all of these observations accurately reflect the fundamental underpinnings of his writing as it matured through the early 1940s: a highly emotional and metaphor-rich style, and an almost visceral resistance to the editorial pressures of the publishing world. For Bradbury, these imperatives are where truth and style intersect to generate a consistent ability to be faithful to one's own convictions as a writer. Even when revision failed to refine an emotional blaze of creativity into a fully realized work of fiction—and this has happened often throughout his career—his core convictions provided the strength to move on to new ideas.
Bradbury's very vocal distrust of intellectual authorship would always be controversial, and in the long run his intuitive bursts of creativity limited his ability to develop complex characters or to range into any sustained ironic forms of realism. Too much emphasis on the emotions may certainly mar a longer work, but in the context of a short story it could be invigorating. In the long run, his emphasis on personal style as truth marked him as a strong short-story writer. The remarkable and often dark fantasies at the heart of his creativity transcended genre barriers as he attempted to understand the ambiguities of life and death and the paradoxes of the human soul. National and international literary honors have come more frequently in his twilight years, and in spite of the variety of these honors the award juries all speak with one voice in acclaiming his significance as a modern truth seeker.
Becoming Ray Bradbury reveals Bradbury's emotional world as it matured through his explorations of cinema and art, his interactions with agents and editors, his reading discoveries, and the invaluable reading suggestions of older writers. Ever the keen observer, Bradbury devoured these lessons and tried to create some sort of order out of the stressful years of economic depression, world war, ideological polarization, dizzying technological progress, and the dangerous game of nuclear brinksmanship that paralleled his development from youthful amateur into a master storyteller. The subjective impact of these discoveries on the emerging and maturing writer gives a greater depth of experience to the more public armature of his professional achievements; the process of recovering and telling these discoveries becomes a biography of the mind—the story of the emerging sense of authorship at the heart of Bradbury's emotional and creative core.
The five major divisions of this book reflect Bradbury's emotional and intellectual world through the first thirty-three years of his life. "Awakenings" focuses on the influences and life-shaping experiences up to his twenty-first birthday, when his first professional sale reached the street-corner newsstand where he still made only ten dollars a week, accumulated one penny at a time as he sold each three-cent newspaper for a one-cent profit. "The Road to Autumn's House" illuminates the complex sequence of influences and reading discoveries behind Bradbury's quantum leap in talent during World War II. There were few witnesses to Bradbury's emerging style, for he pulled back from most of his friends and wrote full-time to make his living from the genre pulps. His remarkable transition into a mature storyteller represents the first major period of his writing life—the summer of 1941 through the summer of 1944.
"The Fear of Death Is Death" examines Bradbury's growing interest in the human mind and the human condition in the years leading up to his fateful encounter with life and death in Mexico. He soon became more than a genre writer who occasionally broke into major market magazines, but the transition was not an easy one; the spring 1947 publication of his first story collection, Dark Carnival, masked his increasingly complex private relationships with other genre writers and his growing obsession with perfection. "The Tyranny of Words" documents Bradbury's private failures in his first attempts at Modernist novel-length fiction during the late 1940s, his frustrating encounters with the major trade publishing houses, and his earliest unpublished reflections on the nature of authorship and the challenges of editing the work of other writers. Even his sudden 1950-51 success with The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man masked his continuing reliance on the short-story form to fashion book-length fiction, but he had managed nonetheless to find his own way around the Modernist crisis-of-values.
"The Last Night of the World" explores the sources of Bradbury's very conscious decisions to write controversial fictions and to voice controversial political statements at a time when his career was expanding very successfully into television, film, and radio adaptation. His defense of authorship extended beyond the political fears of the early 1950s; privately, his mistrust of Hollywood studio executives, his disgust with the world of New York publishers, and his anxiety over the proliferation of Cold War nuclear arsenals surfaced in his correspondence well before the summer of 1953 and the burst of creative energy that transformed his novella "The Fireman" into Fahrenheit 451. And here, for now, the story of a writer ends. In September 1953 Bradbury left for Europe and an extended screenwriting assignment for John Huston's production of Moby Dick; nine months later, a very different author would return.
Since I am mainly concerned in this volume with Bradbury's sources of personal truth, much of it previously undiscovered, I should say something of my own sources, and how they are weighed as "truth." Although his professional career began in 1941 and has extended through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Ray Bradbury has never written an autobiography; his extensive 1961 interview for the UCLA Oral History program remains his closest approach to this form, punctuated eight years later by less structured but more conversational interview sessions between Bradbury and his longtime agent, Don Congdon. Neither of these projects was published, although the UCLA interview is accessible to researchers. Only a handful of specialized author studies were published in subsequent decades, even as Bradbury's midcentury popularity as a unique and innovative prose stylist spread into many forms of media adaptation and international literary recognition. The first book-length study from a university press did not appear until 2004, and the only authorized biography reached print a year later.
Becoming Ray Bradbury synthesizes much of this scattered information and delves further into Bradbury's narrative worlds from the evidence that survives in the public record of his book introductions, interviews, and essays on writing. But by far the largest part of the story emerges from the vast body of unpublished materials—his correspondence; his elusive, cryptic, and rare attempts at writing diary-like comments on his early years; his equally rare but often insightful notes on writing; early drafts of his stories and story fragments; and more than a decade of private interviews. It's instructive to compare Bradbury's narrative world to that of Sherwood Anderson, a writer that Bradbury read and admired in his early twenties. In A Story Teller's Story, Anderson had presented himself as a composite American Man of Letters, self-made by the American experience and self-assured by the process of telling his own story in midlife, at the height of his popularity as a writer.
Bradbury, born nearly a half-century after Anderson, had similarly impoverished Midwestern roots, but he began writing at a much earlier age and with far less experience with life. The story that emerges through his memories, and through the fragmentary but highly revealing manuscript record of his teens and twenties, is more of an American bildungsroman, full of youthful anxieties, self-conscious attempts to emulate the writers he loved, rapid success in the genre pulps, and a broadening experience in life and literature that led to the development of a unique stylistic talent. Through his thirty-third year, the threads of his deeply intertwined life and career came together through determined effort, naive stubbornness, pure coincidence, great good fortune, and the oversight of friends and mentors who recognized the potential talent in this young writer.
Anyone seeking to write a literary biography of Ray Bradbury has to deal with the problem of the thousands of anecdotes relating to his life and times. His life comes to us surrounded by (or, perhaps, embedded within) a very public body of anecdote. In my view, anecdotes, which are often expressed in interviews, are problematic, because they tend to blur, not so much the dates, but sometimes the sequence of events. These anecdotes in turn become part of the established history of his career during his decades as a highly in-demand subject of interviews and presentations. The interviews are treasures, of course. But Bradbury's strong sense of suggestion often readjusts the time lines to emphasize the wonder of it. Anecdote becomes a teaching point for others interested in an author's growth to maturity, but it's also a reminder to himself of the debt he owes to fortune, hard work, and the desire to be true to his ideas even when pressured to slant his creativity.
However, as history, the anecdote is still of great value. Shorn of its embellishments, it can provide a useful way to uncover the process of Bradbury's evolution as a writer and cultural figure. The anecdote can be "recalibrated" (or in many cases, borne out) by the historical and biographical markers—the correspondence, the recovered order of his manuscripts, unpublished essays, and the few precious (and sporadic) diary notes he made at long intervals during his high school and young adult years. His writing career can also be illuminated by establishing the chronology of his encounters with the works of authors, artists, illustrators, playwrights, and filmmakers who stimulated his imagination throughout the first three decades of his life. Once again, the surviving but largely unexamined biographical markers reveal the full extent of these cultural influences, and do so with a far deeper impact than his more generalized spoken anecdotes have ever revealed. In the end, we may learn more about his writing process—a very personal and largely inaccessible aspect of his emerging creativity—and we may come to understand the "truth" of the many masks he assumes as he becomes Ray Bradbury.
Excerpted from Becoming Ray Bradbury by JONATHAN R. ELLER Copyright © 2011 by Jonathan R. Eller. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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