Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan Eller, and: Ray Bradbury Unbound by Jonathan Eller
The title of Jonathan Eller’s first volume of his extensive biographical treatment of Ray Bradbury is well chosen because Eller carefully documents Bradbury’s struggle to affirm his own identity as a writer. The book covers Bradbury’s childhood in the American Midwest (Waukegan, Illinois), his attempts to publish his stories, his marriage to his wife Maggie, and his emergence as a mainstream author in the early 1950s. Eller also provides a wealth of background information to enable the reader to understand Bradbury’s struggles as a fledgling writer. Of special interest is the rich [End Page 84] and rewarding relationships Bradbury developed with friends to whom he turned for advice and help with his stories. One special person was Don Congdon, a literary agent who encouraged Bradbury and helped him break free of the limitations of a reputation gained through publishing in pulp and genre magazines. His fellow midwesterners August Derleth and Robert Bloch also aided Bradbury with his early writing. Eller reveals that he was influenced by writers such Bertrand Russell, Lewis Mumford, and the Nebraskan Loren Eisley and books such as Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers. Bradbury’s famous Fahrenheit 451 was influenced by Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (not, as it would seem, by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Bradbury’s wife Maggie also made suggestions to expand his reading. All of this assistance was crucial because Bradbury did not attend college, but educated himself through a program of wide reading in public libraries.
Bradbury’s books Dark Carnival, The Martian Chronicles, and Golden Apples of the Sun brought Bradbury into the mainstream of American writers in the early 1950s and his fame grew. Christopher Isherwood was also instrumental in making Bradbury well known in England. Beyond books, Bradbury made a name for himself in radio and early television and was drawn to movies as an outlet for his work. Since Bradbury had been labeled as a writer of science fiction, detective fiction, and horror fantasy, all considered minor genres, Don Congdon and others urged him to connect with the “modernity” of the 1950s. Since modernity at that time meant Realism, a genre that did not appeal to Bradbury, the young writer struggled.
As a result of these conditions, according to Eller, Bradbury took a different path. First, he accepted himself as a fantasist, and he used science fiction as a loose framework for some of his stories. Next, he sought to reaffirm the child’s sense of wonder and fascination for the mysterious: the fear of death and the terror of the darkness that he had first experienced in a ravine near his home in Waukegan, Illinois, and the feeling of isolation that is an essential truth of the human condition. To this mixture, Bradbury added two potent problems of modernity: the atomic bomb and the growing threat of totalitarianism. In defining himself as a fantasist, Bradbury affirmed his Romantic temperament and, symbolically, his locus amoenus in Waukegan, Illinois. Although Bradbury’s characters traveled around the world and beyond, the sense of his midwestern home was always a driving force in his writing.
The second volume of Eller’s biography begins with a lengthy, detailed account of what Bradbury frequently called the turning point in his career: [End Page 85] the opportunity to work for the famous screenwriter and film director John Huston by writing the film script for Moby Dick. Bradbury idolized Huston and deliberately refused to meet the great film director until he had published a significant body of work. Huston selected Bradbury because of Ray’s story “The Fog Horn,” which had appeared earlier in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “The Beast from 40,000 Fathoms.” To work on the film, Bradbury moved his family to Ireland, a move that opened up the exciting experience of travel. Bradbury, however, paid a high psychological price for his work with the demanding Huston.
After completing the script for Moby Dick, the Bradbury family visited Italy, where Ray formed a friendship with Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian and scholar. Berenson inspired Bradbury to explore the rich world of art. After leaving Italy, the Bradburys visited France, and Ray fell in love with that country. Bradbury was becoming “unbound,” free to explore other interests such as playwriting, lecturing, editing, as well as beginning to offer his thoughts on creativity in interviews and articles about writing. He spent a summer in England, working with Sir Carol Reed to convert the story “And the Rock Cried Out” into a play. Also, Bradbury’s interest in films enabled him to meet Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester.
By the mid-1950s Don Congdon and Walter Bradbury (no relation to Ray) were concerned that Bradbury had not published many short stories and were also urging him to complete the “Illinois novel” which Bradbury had promised to write back in the late 1940s. Bradbury procrastinated and struggled with this project, but the Illinois-based novel was finally published in 1957 under the title Dandelion Wine. The novel was not well received in England because of what Eller calls a disdain for “American nostalgia,” and Bradbury was generally disappointed with the critical reaction from abroad. But Bradbury was undeterred. In the 1960s, he published the major novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, set in Greentown, Illinois, which was Bradbury’s name for his hometown of Waukegan. Many of Bradbury’s other stories similarly reference Illinois and confirm Bradbury’s continued identification with the American Midwest.
During the 1960s, Bradbury’s literary success gave him a large platform and he became a nationally known speaker and a spokesman and popularizer of the space race, which culminated in the Moon Landing in 1969. The last part of Bradbury Unbound explains Bradbury’s experiences with televising his stories and his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling. It also explains Bradbury’s attempt to transform The Martian Chronicles into a film. [End Page 86] Eller’s notes at the end of both books reveal that his study is based on an access to a wide body of knowledge about Bradbury: interviews, letters, travels, and influences. No brief review could possibly do justice to Eller’s excellence in examining with clarity, insight, and authority the growth of Bradbury from a struggling young writer to a respected and loved mainstream writer in the 1970s. Given Eller’s access to so much rich material, a reader might ask hopefully, “Will there soon be a third volume?”