Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
The Nonagenarian Whiz Kid
Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.
7 June 2012

When I learned that Ray Bradbury had died at 91 after a long illness, I recalled the first time I met him. It was a typical party in L.A., everybody talking, nobody listening. We hit it off because I was the only attendee who didn’t ask him what he was working on. The host had informed me that Ray did an uncanny impression of John Huston, with whom he had written the screenplay for Moby Dick. So that’s what I asked Ray about. He complied and the mimicry was as advertised; I did my imitation of James Mason and we were off and running.

But not driving, and not flying. I was astounded to learn, over the next several lunches and dinners, that the Los Angeleno had never learned to operate a car, and that the writer of so many intergalactic tales had never been on an airplane. For all the wildness of his imagination, Ray was still, at heart, a toothy, wide-eyed kid from Waukegan, Illinois.

“Every single day I say ‘gee whiz’ about something,” he told me. “I wish everybody did. I guess I just never lost my sense of wonder. Never even misplaced it.” He agreed with every word of Chesterton’s line, “Personally, I know of nothing that is not a miracle.” It had been like that from the beginning. A sickly, indoor sort of child, he found refuge in the Waukegan library, devouring the books of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote a great deal more than the adventures of Tarzan. Indeed, Ray was so taken with Burroughs’s The Warlord of Mars that at the age of 12, he wrote a sequel.

The same year, 1932, he had a life-altering experience. At a local carnival, Ray was approached by an entertainer who billed himself as Mr. Electrico. The man touched the boy with his electric sword and shouted, “Live forever!” Recalled Ray, “I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of that encounter. Somehow, Mr. Electrico gave me a future. I’ve written every single morning of my life since that day.”

When Bradbury’s father, a telephone lineman, moved to Los Angeles in search of work, Ray stepped up his rate of literary production. He disdained college altogether, holing up in libraries and churning out stories he hoped to sell to magazines. His collection of rejection slips grew almost as numerous as his output—until the epochal day he sent a short story to Mademoiselle. “Homecoming” concerned the emotions of a lonely boy whose relatives are all witches and warlocks. A reverse Harry Potter, the kid has become an outsider because he lacks the family’s supernatural powers. One alert young editor thought the tale worthy of publication: Truman Capote, it turned out, was not only a fine writer, but also a terrific talent scout. “Homecoming” won an O. Henry Award as one of the best American short stories of the year.

Ray’s career took off soon afterward. Sci-fi and general-interest magazines accepted his tales. Later, they appeared in bestselling anthologies—The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dark Carnival, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and many others. These enabled him to marry Margaret McClure, whom he met (of course) in a bookstore. The couple settled into a comfortable home, raised four daughters, and enjoyed the royalties that now arrived with regularity.

Still, Ray was viewed as a minor talent until the appearance of Farenheit 451 in 1953. The dystopian novel followed the adventures of a fireman whose job is to burn books (which ignite at the temperature of the title) and who begins to question his assignment. The book became a staple in classrooms, won acclaim from reviewers, and was faithfully adapted for the screen by François Truffaut.

Later, Ray was asked about his desire for the praise of critics and intellectuals. Yes, he confessed, he had once wanted their kudos. “But not any more. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. . . . I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me, either.”

This was only one of his many evolutions. Through several presidential administrations, Ray proclaimed his liberalism, and even went so far as to run a full-page “open letter” in Variety after Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election. He warned Republicans: “Every attempt you make to identify the Democratic Party as the ‘left-wing’ or ‘subversive’ party, I will attack with all my heart and soul.”

But he became disenchanted with Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam war, loudly disliked Bill Clinton, and was galled by Barack Obama’s NASA cutbacks. Instead, Ray told the Los Angeles Times, the president “should be announcing that we should go back to the moon.” And he never forgave the left-wing documentarian Michael Moore for his anti-George Bush film, Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore ducked the author at every turn until Ray went on TV to holler, “Give me my title back!” The plagiarist finally replied. It was too late, he claimed, to change any part of his movie. Ray had a measure of revenge two weeks after Bush was reelected, when the president awarded him the National Medal of Arts for his “commitment to the freedom of the individual.”

It was one of many awards Ray received over his long life, ranging from a salute from the Pulitzer committee to a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. None of them went to his head. Young writers who asked for advice received the same kind of Midwest aphorisms he had uttered from the beginning: “Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.” “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Gee whiz, Ray Bradbury will be missed.

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