Written by Sam Weller
Published by Harper Collins
It’s hard to pinpoint my first exposure to Ray Bradbury. I was going to say it was when my mother was teaching Something Wicked This Way Comes or Martian Chronicles – two of her favorite books – to junior high students in Dallas. After reading Sam Weller’s new biography of Bradbury, it made me recall every Christmastime at my elementary school in Duncanville, Texas, when we were shown The Electric Grandmother, a 1982 adaptation of Bradbury’s classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “I Sing the Body Electric,” which he later wrote as a short story. An incredibly moving story about life and death, the story – while science fiction – is such a human tale that it is the best the genre has to offer, utilizing fantasy to better effect than telling a similarly-themed story might have without going there.
That’s Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and a man I’ve had the privilege to meet – albeit briefly – a few times, including one time where I was able to tell him about my mother being a huge fan and proponent of him, teaching his works to kids. He boisterously replied, “Well, she should!” Being something of a fanboy (no…me?), I have his autograph on a bunch of stuff including a rare-as-hell copy of “Weird Tales” from 1945 featuring his short story, “The Tombstone.” Not the best Bradbury work, but one that came during an absolute creative explosion in his writing. I’ve read almost all his stuff through the years, but still knew very little about the man beyond the famous stories – his friendship with Ray Harryhausen, the fact that Rod Serling ripped him (and many other authors) off on “Twilight Zone,” the fact that Dandelion Wine is the story of his childhood, etc. There hadn’t been a comprehensive biography, really, of Bradbury until now.
There are many ways to approach a literary biography. Henry Hart, in his incendiary, but beautifully researched bio of Deliverance/To the White Sea author James Dickey, The World As a Lie, goes in-depth into exposing every lie and bit of self-aggrandizement that Dickey ever spoke or published – a deep look into the psyche of the ultimate “self-made” man living in the shadow of the literary canon. The Bradbury Chronicles isn’t that. Similar to one of the greatest literary bios in recent years, Peter Parker’s Isherwood, Bradbury is written by a man who became very close to Bradbury and was able to get more access than anyone prior. Though it’s still one of the most compelling literary bios I’ve read recently, it’s more due to the amazing life of Bradbury himself (and continues to do so a few miles from where I’m typing this – a resident of the San Fernando Valley) than Weller’s ability to get inside Bradbury’s head.
Born on August 22, 1920, Bradbury’s life began in the prosperous years just before the Depression. The son of a man whose wanderlust and fortune-seeking took his family all around the western states, Bradbury’s childhood seems to be exactly what you’d expect. A bookish lad who became easily obsessed with “Buck Rogers” and film. With a free-thinking aunt who exposed him to the world at large, Ray’s imagination was nurtured from a young age. It wasn’t long before he decided that he wanted to become a famous writer, something he told many people, even as a child. When one job brought the Bradbury family to Los Angeles, the last puzzle piece fell into place for young Ray and it wasn’t long before he had published his first poem, had had a short sketch used on the “Burns and Allen” radio show and had joined the first science fiction club in L.A., a place where he met Robert Heinlein for the first time, but also the great Forrest J. Ackerman who ended up publishing Bradbury’s first short story in a fan magazine he created. Bradbury, who obviously has a fantastic memory, tells many stories of this time including one of the most fascinating, about the first science fiction convention in New York City.
A digression: You know how everybody dresses up at conventions? Xena, Imperial stormtroopers, Klingons, etc.? Guess who was the first? Forry Ackerman. Apparently, at the very first sci-fi convention, Forry and his girlfriend just showed up in futuristic “spaceman” costumes similar to those in the film Things to Come. Ackerman just figured it was the thing to do and no one would begrudge him. At the next convention the following year, a bunch of people “dressed up.”
And here we are. That made me smile just a little brighter at a photo I have taken of me and Forry at the Saturn Awards a few years ago.
The most fascinating parts of the book follow from there – the writing of Martian Chronicles (meant to emulate Sherwood Anderson’s classic, Winesburg, Ohio), the relentless fury with which Bradbury would write (a short story a week!) and publish, the writing and ensuing fame around Fahrenheit 451, and so on. I’ve often wondered whether or not we’re losing a lot of talents these days as short story outlets have been marginalized, but then look at people like Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis in the comic book world and think, “Ah, that’s where the new Bradbury’s are.” The story is extraordinary. Bradbury, through hard work, pluck and imagination, turned the science fiction world upside-down and actually broke through to legitimate success as a respected author, finding audiences in the mainstream that, perhaps, just wouldn’t happen these days.
Being in Hollywood – a place that embraces/embraced literary talent for their name-value such as Faulkner or Huxley – Bradbury soon found himself in the movie world, leading up to his most famous collaboration, working with John Huston on the Gregory Peck-starring Moby Dick.
When I read the book Green Shadows, White Whale, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with Bradbury’s decision on how to recollect his time with Huston. So much has been famously written about working with the notoriously volatile director, from Lillian Ross’s amazing Picture about the making of The Red Badge of Courage (a must-read for any future filmmakers) to Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart about the making of The African Queen (a book eventually made into a movie by Clint Eastwood that, decades-earlier, had been adapted for film by Bradbury!), that the thought of Bradbury adding another book to the canon was more than welcome. Bradbury’s Green Shadows was more lyrical and fable-like, not the warts-and-all salacious book that, say, William Shatner would have gleefully produced. In Bradbury Chronicles, we get far more details from an outside source just how terrible the working relationship was. Bradbury enjoyed working on many projects at once to stave off boredom and keep fresh, but going to Ireland to adapt Moby with Huston drove him into a deep depression as the process was so grueling. It is, really, what kept Bradbury out of doing any more works-for-hire as a screenwriter (he was offered Anatomy of a Murder among other things – can you imagine?).
Now, if The Bradbury Chronicles had kept up at this pace, I would be able to recommend it more highly, but after Bradbury’s success is secure and we get into the sixties (and Bradbury starts to work with NASA, design features for the New York City World’s Fair, writes Something Wicked This Way Comes, etc.), the text becomes episodic and seems rushed. Through Bradbury’s childhood, we’re treated to in-depth and insightful analyses of the making of Ray’s psyche, but then entire decades are given short shrift later on. Much is said about Ray’s budding sexuality as a young man, particularly in regard to a cousin he fell much in love with, but then two different affairs he had much later as a married man are mentioned in the space of a few paragraphs. His relationship with his wife and children is explored wholeheartedly early on, but then – as the man aged – it becomes more of a timeline, all of which serves to make the book feel uneven in the second half.
Maybe this was the goal or maybe the author figured people wouldn’t be as interested in the stuff unrelated to the most famous of the books or perhaps, the author’s choices were guided out of respect to Bradbury. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the first half of the book, the second half just kind of felt like a hurry-up and I’d wished it was much longer and filled with information the way the first half was. The acknowledgements begin on page 333, you can’t help but wonder what the 600-700 page version would’ve felt like.
On the whole, Bradbury Chronicles isn’t going to change the world and is hardly the last word on Bradbury, but will likely be one of the biggest resources utilized by the next guy who writes the Isherwood-level look at the author. I always wonder about biographies where the author is/was close to the subject. Over this last Christmas, I read Hilary Spurling’s The Girl From the Fiction Department about Sonia Orwell, the much-maligned second wife of George Orwell who was the inspiration for “Julia” in 1984, one of the most compelling of Orwell’s characters from his fiction work. The book worked well until, towards the end, the author injected herself in the book, talking about her meetings with Sonia towards the end of her life. It stopped the book colder than Ted Danson and I’m still frustrated about it.
Not to say Bradbury Chronicles suffers to that degree, but knowing that the author spent a lot of time with Bradbury and got close enough to him to cover certain aspects of his life in such depth (Sam Weller is one of the three Samuel’s’ Bradbury dedicated his 2003 collection Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales alongside his grandfather and grandson), but then gave such short shrift to other parts made me long for the final word on Bradbury. Years from now, assuredly, somebody will indeed turn a less rosy-eyed look at this astounding author and how his life so impacted his fiction in many extraordinarily personal ways.
Discuss in our forums!