Metaphor Machine, Manufacture and Maintenance
Becoming Ray Bradbury
by Jonathan R. Eller
University of Illinois Press, 2011
When Sam Weller published the first authorized biography of Ray Bradbury, that was how he dedicated it, and he wrote to fulfill the wish. His 2005 The Bradbury Chronicles was a shrine built to immortalize the writer’s legend as it exists in the minds of those who love him. “Like many in my generation,” it begins, “I am a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Intergalactic, Time-traveling, Paleontology, Mummies, Martians, Jack-o’-Lanterns, Carnivals, and Foghorn-coveting Ray Bradbury fan club.” Working mainly from years of correspondence and visits with Bradbury, Weller did less to unearth new information than he did to collect in one place and standardize the hundreds of anecdotes Bradbury has been telling about his life for the past six decades. If an uncritically overenthusiastic book, it was also an entertaining one.
“For Donn Albright
the world of Ray Bradbury”
That’s the dedication of Jonathan Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury, the world’s second shot at a Bradbury biography, and all the difference between the two books is evident therein. Where Weller is anecdotal, Eller is resolutely devoted to textual evidence: one way to understand this rather difficult book is as a highlights tour of Bradbury’s vast and dispersed archives.
Since Weller is a journalist and Eller an academic, this divergence of method isn’t surprising. But as one might guess from the word “Guardian,” Eller also assigns himself a completely different task. For Weller, Bradbury has already “taken his place in the pantheon occupied by the ghosts of literature past, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, Poe,” and he thinks it is his duty to prove to a general audience that Bradbury is “much, much more than simply a science fiction author.” But nobody really doubts that. Although the covers of his Bantam paperbacks used to trumpet him “The World’s Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer,” Bradbury was never comfortable with the category, and from the first his stories have eschewed anything identifiable as science in favor of weird tales, schematic “what-if”s, and sorties into the secrets of childhood, private memory and emotion. He has helped his admirers to see not the future, but their own buried pasts. “I have had nothing but my emotions to go on,” he wrote in 1952. “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.”
Unsurprisingly, the readers least inclined to Bradbury have always been those most devoted to science fiction. The charges were summed up and confirmed by Damon Knight in his genre-making 1956 collection of criticism, In Search of Wonder: “Although [Bradbury] has a large following among science fiction readers, there is at least an equally large contingent of people who cannot stomach his work at all; they say he has no respect for the medium; that he does not even trouble to make his scientific double-talk convincing; that – worst crime of all – he fears and distrusts science. All of which is true… To Bradbury, as to most people, radar and rocket ships and atomic power are big, frightening, meaningless names.” Half a century later, one still hears the exact same opinions expressed about the 91-year-old author of beloved techno-jeremiads like Fahrenheit 451. Against them, Eller positions himself as another of Bradbury’s “guardians,” and avoiding Weller’s elegiac tone, he sets about a more difficult and surely a more interesting task than his predecessor’s: to demonstrate how Bradbury is a science fiction author, and to suggest what this might mean for science fiction.
Perhaps nobody is better qualified for the job. A co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Eller is also co-author with William Touponce of Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. That was a scholarly treatment of the entire Bradbury oeuvre instead of a biography, but its aim was the same: to refurbish, at once and together, both Bradbury and science fiction. Noting that “Science Fiction Studies, the most aggressively theoretical journal in the field, has never published a major article on Bradbury,” the book went on to argue that “For Bradbury, science fiction could never be a closed monologic system of thought. For him, science fiction was the apotheosis of continuous change and intellectual freedom.” Becoming Ray Bradbury extends this argument into a narrative of the writer’s first 33 years, up until the publication in 1953 of Fahrenheit 451. As Eller describes it:
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.
Anyone looking for the story of Bradbury’s life should stick with Weller’s book, where they will find all the customary decorations of biography, curious if ultimately irrelevant to literature, like the fact that the Bradbury family once considered a move to Roswell, New Mexico (before the aliens did), or that the writer went twenty-five years without eating hardly anything not prepared by his mother. There’s none of that here. Eller is polemically committed to documentary evidence, and he explains in his introduction that he has chosen largely to forgo the cheap interests of anecdote:
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.
With all respect to its publisher, a better label than “biography” for Becoming Ray Bradbury might be something like “narrated bibliography”: the bulk of it concerns what Bradbury was writing and reading, and when. Serious students of Bradbury will be grateful to have so much chronology nailed down, but it certainly makes for less immediately entertaining reading than Weller. It also results in some bewildering omissions. Readers of Weller, for instance, will learn that during his 1945 trip to Mexico, Bradbury happened to end up across a breakfast table from a drunk John Steinbeck. Bradbury was a huge admirer and recalls his conversation with Steinbeck as the high point of the trip. In his book, Eller both notes the influence of The Grapes of Wrath on Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and devotes an entire chapter to the journey in Mexico, but, presumably because no autograph scrawled on a napkin exists to prove the fact, doesn’t even mention the encounter.
Another of Eller’s worrisome habits is rushing through the events he does relate: he briefly mentions Bradbury’s decision to become a writer after a “life changing encounter with the sideshow electrocution act of Mr. Electro,” but that’s all he says. (It’s a great story of mentorship as told in Weller’s book: it was Mr. Electro who urged the young writer to LIVE FOREVER.) Eller explains in his introduction that he sent early drafts of the book to Bradbury, and often its intended audience seems to be Bradbury alone: why bore the writer with the details of stories he has been telling for years?
Greater than such sins of omission, though, may be Eller’s lack of consistency. Here and there, he will admit a bit gleaned only from an interview (as he does on his first page, describing a sideshow exhibit of bottled fetuses the teenage Bradbury saw in Santa Monica), defending the exception by noting that the story “rings true in its essentials.” All it really rings, of course, is in resonance with Eller’s arguments.
It is the arguments, not the stories, that matter here – the basic argument being that the genre of science fiction allowed a Romantic talent to flourish in a Modernist period. Eller admits his subject’s shortcomings from the second page: “his intuitive bursts of creativity limited his ability to develop complex characters or to range into any sustained ironic forms of realism.” Despite Bradbury’s early interest in Steinbeck and other contemporary masters, he was fundamentally barred from their plane by this limitation. It was science fiction writers “Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Sturgeon, who urged him to write without fear, to learn by writing, even if the result was not always the intended masterpiece.” Following their advice, he worked his way through science fiction, out of science fiction: “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.” Now, “his greatest contributions to American literature remain his unique style and his abiding creative focus on the basic emotions that define our humanity,” and he is best read as following in the Romantic line of Wordsworth, Melville and Yeats.
This is all convincing enough, but the more interesting corollary that emerges from Eller’s efforts with Bradbury concerns American fiction in general: that twentieth-century science fiction served as a conduit for energies and impulses more readily associated with the nineteenth century. Eller lets Bradbury say it himself: “I’m a metaphor machine. In the nineteenth century, we had… Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe… And they spoke in tongues, they told stories, they told tales, they told metaphors. They had this ability – I have that.” While Steinbeck toiled at his Dustbowl Zola, the book suggests, Bradbury worked a more native plot: the Romance.
The essentially American quality of science fiction at mid-century was self-evident for an Englishman like Kingsley Amis, who in childhood encountered a bin at Woolworth’s simply labelled YANK MAGAZINES; all the covers inside depicted “many-eyed and -tentacled monsters.” Indeed, Bradbury’s first high-literary recognition came from the British, who were more ready to take science fiction seriously, not just as a sub-culture, but as a phenomenon appropriate to the broader American culture that engendered it, as they were with jazz. Amis loved both, and in New Maps of Hell called Bradbury “the Louis Armstrong of science fiction… in that he is the only practitioner well known by name to those who know nothing whatever about his field.” That recognition was largely the result of a career-making review of The Martian Chronicles by Christopher Isherwood in Tomorrow, and other transatlantic fans of Bradbury included W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Stephen Spender, C.S. Lewis, Angus Wilson, J.B. Priestly, and W. Somerset Maugham. But if Bradbury transcended his subculture to become a figure of international stature, he did it the same way Armstrong did: by becoming, through that very subculture, as rapaciously and comprehensively American as he could. (The Martians of the Chronicles make a similar effort.)
The one story Eller’s book does tell with aplomb is that of the young people, often only teenagers, who comprised this subculture. By tracing the various “fanzines” Bradbury wrote, edited, founded, and even illustrated for, the conventions he attended, and the “prozines” he and all his friends aspired to, Eller draws a vivid picture of what must have been the most energetic scene in American letters of any period. The sci-fi addicts of the late ‘30s and ‘40s gazed toward the coming Atomic Age like so many little Whitmans gazing over America from Brooklyn Ferry, absolutely determined not to let so much future go unsung. For this story, Eller’s textual focus gives him a clear advantage over Weller. Among other revelations gleaned from the pulpy residue of the time is the importance of the Technocracy movement for these young writers, who came of age during the Depression.
Among all the masks briefly worn in the process of becoming Ray Bradbury, probably none was less characteristic than that of technocrat, but thanks to Eller we see how he wore it, at age nineteen: “We can have the magnificent civilization of science-fiction dreams in twenty-five years once the Technate comes in.” It wasn’t long before the Bradbury we know from Fahrenheit 451 reasserted himself: “I went to hear Howard Scott, who was head of Technocracy, at the Shriner auditorium, and when I saw all those men I knew, in gray suits, saluting him, it reminded me of Russia, Germany, Italy – it’s always the same.”
A second revelation about these largely unschooled scribblers is the degree to which they depended upon how-to books for literary instruction. Eller makes a strong case for the fact that, alongside Poe and Wolfe (and Ayn Rand), some of Bradbury’s most profound influences included books with titles like Becoming a Writer, How to Write a Play, and Characters Make Your Story. His Editor’s Note to his first edition of the mimeographed newsletter Imagination! promised stories “done in first rate English. Our punctuation may be bad at times, but we guarantee the nearest thing to perfect English coming out of the LA league.” To this end he depended on reference books like Hartrampf’s Vocabulary, from which he remembers plotting stories simply by juxtaposing interesting adjectives. Friends eventually had to stage a kind of intervention against that volume, since he was beginning to write like a confused, disinterred H.P. Lovecraft.
Naive in politics and callow in letters as they may have been, the prevailing effect of Becoming Ray Bradbury is to remind us of how important young sci-fi amateurs like Bradbury were for the texture of mid-century American literature. Following Bradbury as he grows out his anxious, turbulent time with the pulps and into the glossies, past The Illustrated Man and into the socially responsible period of Fahrenheit 451, sometimes feels like tracing a devolution. As he wrote to August Derleth in 1950, “I have been so busy humanizing the science fiction story the last few years that I have forgotten the stars, and that’s a hell of a thing to forget.” The distance he had strayed is obvious in a comically misconceived project he pitched to Harper’s:
Bradbury proposed that a target group of contemporary writers be asked to write stories ‘concerning the first trip to Mars, the colonization of Mars by Earth people, or any aspect of later life on Mars, once colonized. What would [Evelyn] Waugh people do on Mars? How would Welty people react? Suppose Capote landed there? How different the reaction of Robert Lowry and John Collier, Margaret Shedd and John Hersey, Steinbeck and E.B. White.’ He christened the project ‘The Martian Chronicles. Edited by Ray Bradbury.’ In the same letter, he proposed The Martian Poems… Bradbury envisioned contributions by Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Fearing, Stephen Spender, E. E. Cummings, Walter de La Mare, and others.
Once that hyperbolically insecure grasp at respectability was abandoned and Bradbury accepted the responsibility of writing the whole thing himself, of course, it became his masterpiece.
Becoming Ray Bradbury leaves its subject just as he is about to cross the Atlantic to adapt the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. We are told that “nine months later, a very different author would return,” and the University of Illinois Press confirms that Eller has produced a manuscript for a sequel. It is difficult to imagine what that book will look like. At 33, Bradbury’s major phase was already behind him, and as Eller notes, he would increasingly divert his attention from his prose writing to work in radio, TV, and film, “fashioning his final masks as an oral storyteller and as a very popular media interview subject [and beginning] to draw the facts of his life into the world of his fictions.” Eller’s textual method works rather well on Bradbury’s ink-stained youth, but it seems likely to be ill-fitted to a time when he was shifting his output into other media, and his authorial identity had already emerged from its chrysalis of encasing influences.
If it is a challenge I am not completely confident Eller can meet, it is because he has not even adequately met it here. For of course there was never a time when Bradbury didn’t “draw the facts of his life into the world of his fictions”: Eller’s basic argument depends upon a characterization of Bradbury as a neo-romantic minting fiction from the emotional ore of his childhood. Since his method precludes any substantial consideration of this undocumented material, his narrative is forced to grow in shallow soil. Eller brings a huge amount of archival material to light, assembles it on the framework of a few convincing arguments, and draws a memorable picture of Bradbury’s literary milieu. But to all the card-carrying fan club members Bradbury has won by becoming America’s greatest living writer of fairy tales, this biography will seem peculiarly unsuited to its subject. It approaches the sort of careful, ambitious scholarly work any important writer deserves, but Eller’s debilitating ambiguities evidence the continuing difficulty of definitively establishing Bradbury as an important writer – of making good on the command of Mr. Electro.
Nicholas Nardini is a building superintendent in Cambridge, MA, where he is also pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Harvard University.