Jonathan R. Eller’s “Becoming Ray Bradbury,” reviewed by Michael Dirda

August 17, 2011

Yes, “Becoming Ray Bradbury” is published by a university press, yet it isn’t at all academic. Every page is packed with fascinating material about one of this country’s most beloved writers, still with us in his 90s. If you’re a Bradbury fan, at the very least you’ll want to read it — and then, more likely than not, you’ll end up buying your own copy anyway.

Jonathan R. Eller knows his subject’s early life and literary career inside out, which is just what you’d expect from the co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. This book isn’t, however, a full biography; it only traces Bradbury’s career up to 1953, when its subject is all of 33. This is when the young writer set sail for Europe, where he would help develop the screenplay for John Huston’s “Moby Dick.”

By then Ray Bradbury had already come a long way from the teenager who sold newspapers on a Los Angeles street corner, relied on the public library for most of the books he read and produced a fanzine called Futuria Fantasia. Because science fiction fandom resembles an extended family, its members often squabbling but indissolubly connected by a deep bond, early on Bradbury benefited from the mentorship of such masters of pulp fiction as Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett. Brackett, in particular, not only dissected the young writer’s juvenilia but also provided an early link to Hollywood. (As a young woman, Brackett worked with William Faulkner on the screenplay for “The Big Sleep”; nearly 40 years later, she worked with George Lucas on “The Empire Strikes Back.”)

By his early 20s, Bradbury began to be published in magazines like Weird Tales, Astounding, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as several detective pulps. When at the typewriter, he would work as if possessed, whether by the Muse or by what Kipling called an inner Daemon, generally drafting a story in a single session. And what stories these were! Between 1941 and 1953, Bradbury produced such classics as “The Fog Horn,”“The Small Assassin,” “Zero Hour,” “The Veldt,” “The Pedestrian,” “The Next in Line” and “The Last Night of the World,” as well as “A Sound of Thunder,” the most iconic of modern time-travel tales. (That’s the one about the guy who kills a butterfly-like creature back in the age of dinosaurs and when he returns to the present discovers that he has changed history — for the worse, the much, much worse.)

By the middle 1940s, Bradbury had also broken into such upscale magazines as Collier’s, Mademoiselle, Charm and even the New Yorker. His style — richly metaphoric, and often lyrical or wistful in tone — had quickly separated him from that of the usual action-oriented pulp fictioneer. From the beginning, Bradbury was distinctly a prose-poet, lyricizing his own fears and yearnings, as obsessed with childhood as Wordsworth. Before long, the young author’s work began to be reprinted in annual anthologies of the year’s best short fiction. His admirers rapidly grew to include such literary eminences as Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden.

Most dramatically, though, from 1947 to 1953, Bradbury brought out all but one or two of his best books. In “Dark Carnival” — issued by the revered weird-tales press Arkham House — he gathered many of his eeriest early tales. His second book, “The Martian Chronicles,” cobbled together a number of short pieces to produce a whole far greater than its parts. In that melancholy classic, successive waves of invaders from Earth gradually wipe out the red planet’s ancient and delicate civilization. This was followed by two more collections: “The Illustrated Man” — in which a carny’s animate tattoos give rise to the book’s various stories — and “The Golden Apples of the Sun” — showcasing the art of Joe Mugnaini, whose illustrations were to become inextricably identified with Bradbury’s fiction.

To cap all this activity, in 1953, the industrious young writer, after much difficulty, managed to expand his novella “The Fireman” into a short novel. “It was a pleasure to burn” — so begins “Fahrenheit 451,” which stands with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” among the most haunting visions of a dystopian future. Because of the book (and films based on it), almost everyone knows that 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which book paper ignites. It is the job of Bradbury’s troubled hero, the fireman Montag, to trace and destroy every book in the world. But then one day. . . .

During these same miracle years, Bradbury worked hard, but unsuccessfully, to transform a number of his Green Town short stories — about idyllic Midwestern summers and ominous traveling shows and childhood adventures — into what he was then calling “the Illinois novel.” While they wouldn’t yet gel into “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” the foundational narratives — like “The Black Ferris” — were already written.

Such fecundity is astonishing and probably couldn’t be maintained. By the mid-1950s, Bradbury began to slow down, his once geyserlike production of new stories reduced to a trickle. Perhaps he was distracted by film, radio and stage work, or by the creation of Ray Bradbury as a brand name, or because he deliberately distanced himself from the mainstream of fantasy and science fiction. In later years Bradbury did produce several good books, but detective novels such as “Death Is a Lonely Business” (1985) possessed little of the early magic. In partial compensation, worldly honors have been abundant, capped recently by a special Pulitzer Prize.

Eller’s book is grounded in biography, but it seeks especially to illuminate Bradbury’s intellectual and artistic evolution, focusing on the books he read and the teachers, agents and editors with whom he worked. For instance, Christopher Morley’s now unjustly forgotten fantasy “Thunder on the Left” adumbrates many of the elements of Bradbury’s Green Town stories, and “Winesburg, Ohio” may have given the author of “The Martian Chronicles” the model for a novel made up of separate but thematically linked short narratives.

Above all, though, Eller stresses that Bradbury’s distinctive oeuvre grew out of his intense desire for perfection and a refusal to slant his work to any particular magazine or market. Almost from the first, the young author tried to persuade Doubleday to remove their usual science fiction logo from his books.

In his later years, Bradbury seems to have acquiesced in allowing publishers to refer to him as “the greatest living science fiction writer,” but, in truth, he isn’t and probably never was. Like J.G. Ballard, another visionary who doesn’t quite fit comfortably in any genre, Bradbury actually writes about “inner space,” about loneliness and troubled hearts and our deep-seated fear of otherness. In that regard, he is simply what he always wanted to be: a great storyteller, sometimes even a mythmaker, a true American classic.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

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