October 21, 2013 by Reader's Connection
From Steve Bridge at the Irvington Library:
When I was about 13 and just at the very beginning of my science fiction reading, I found in my public library a copy of R is for Rocket, a collection of Ray Bradbury short stories which Bradbury had assembled to be particularly interesting and accessible for older children and teens. The second story in that book, “The Foghorn,” completely captivated me. I had never read anything like it before. That began a lifelong enjoyment of Bradbury’s writing. Prime for me have been The Martian Chronicles, the collection I Sing the Body Electric, and especially Dandelion Wine.
I have read Dandelion Wine at least 6 times and it is, like all great literature, a different book every time I read it. The sequel, Farewell Summer, was finally completed and published in 2006. These two books are not science fiction. They are primarily realistic novels about the conflict between youth and age, about the desire to be both grown-up and forever young. There is the “flavor” of fantasy about them, but you can read them completely as about growing up in a small Midwestern town.
Several years ago I read The Bradbury Chronicles by Sam Weller, which was the first full biography of Bradbury. Weller knew Bradbury personally and had Bradbury’s cooperation in writing the book, so there is a lot of autobiography in it, through a series of interviews. It’s terrific, one of the best biographies of any kind I have read. Bradbury was not just a fine writer, he was an interesting man, who remembered his childhood in detail, and who had examined his own life. If you want to know what Bradbury the man was like, this is the book. Even if you haven’t read a lot of Bradbury, you might enjoy this just as a great example of a fine biography. Weller deserves a lot of credit for this and he earned every one of the fine reviews the book collected.
Now we have an entirely different but also excellent biography, Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan Eller, a professor at IUPUI, and the Director of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. This is the first of three volumes of a “literary biography” of Bradbury, which will be an essential permanent text for future students of Bradbury and of the science fiction/fantasy field which Bradbury is (sort of) a part of. He never considered himself to be a science fiction writer at all. Eller makes a strong point that Bradbury was the first American writer to expand beyond the previous pulp fiction limitations placed on the early SF writers.
Eller’s focus in this first volume is on Bradbury’s sources and influences, along with his friendships with Ed Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, and Catherine L. Moore, who were his early writing mentors. Since Eller has three volumes to work with (Volume 2 has been submitted to the publisher and Volume 3 is underway), he can get into details about Bradbury’s reading, education, and mentoring that Weller did not have time for. (On the other hand, Weller spent more time describing Bradbury’s family and childhood in the Midwest.)
You might guess that a discussion of favorite authors and sources of inspiration would be dry, but Eller makes it fascinating. He has a lively writing style, and his own long friendship with Bradbury gives him plenty of entertaining stories and refreshing insight. We learn about Bradbury’s inspiration gained by reading well-known authors like Katherine Anne Porter, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and dozens of others. But I also learned about authors I had only vaguely known. One of the biggest influences on *Fahrenheit 451* was the post-WWII novel, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. Another major influence was Ayn Rand’s first giant novel, The Fountainhead, where Bradbury learned to write what he wanted and not to take societal restrictions into account. (Many of his best stories were not published for decades, because they dealt with questions of racism, censorship, and morality which the magazines of the time would not touch.)
I was recently fortunate to be part of a small group of library staff members to visit with Professor Eller at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies. Eller and his assistants were obviously very excited about their work and full of interesting stories (especially to a librarian!) about different editions of Bradbury’s stories and books. Bradbury was a near-compulsive about revising stories, and some stories have been printed in 7 or 8 different versions. The Center is working on a complete collection of the original versions of his stories with textual notes.
So far they have finished The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, Volume 1: 1938-1943. They have several more volumes to go. If you have the opportunity to meet Professor Eller at a science fiction or literary convention, he is both a really nice guy and a fascinating trove of knowledge. (He reads a lot of other science fiction, too, so he’s not limited to Bradbury stories).
The Center is on-line at: http://iat.iupui.edu/bradburycenter/
Now I have to back through Eller’s book and make a list of several other books besides Koestler’s novel that I want to track down. And I want to re-read several Bradbury books and get to ones I have never read. And I’m excitedly awaiting Eller’s second part of the biography set, where I will find more books I want to read.
Maybe that is part of the appeal of Dandelion Wine for me – I need to stay young forever so I can read all of the books I haven’t gotten to yet!
So – read Sam Weller’s biography first for the whole life of Ray Bradbury. And then if you really want to study Bradbury the writer, dig into Eller’s books. Bradbury’s long-term literary reputation is well-served by these two outstanding biographers.