On August 22, 1920, Ray Bradbury was born. He is most often remembered as an author of fantasy stories and novels, but he also wrote science fiction and mystery stories, poetry, and screenplays.
Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He spent much of his childhood in the Waukegan public library, where he was inspired by writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs to begin writing his own stories.
The Bradbury family moved to Los Angeles when Ray was 14. He attended Los Angeles High School, in the mid-Wilshire area, but he was fascinated by Hollywood. He spent his spare time roller-skating around town, hoping to run into celebrities. He ran into at least one, meeting George Burns shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. Burns had a popular radio show at the time, and Bradbury pitched him a joke for the show; Burns liked it enough to pay Bradbury for it, making him a paid writer at 14.
At 16, Bradbury discovered the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, and began attending their regular meetings. He took Jules Verne and H. G. Wells as early models for his own science fiction stories and was particularly drawn to Verne’s depiction of moral behavior as the key to surviving in an increasingly complex world. When he met Robert A. Heinlein in 1938, Bradbury was very impressed; Heinlein “wrote humanistic science fiction,” Bradbury later remembered, “which influenced me to dare to be human instead of mechanical.”
People often identify Bradbury as a science fiction writer, and much of his earliest work is in that genre, but he didn’t care for the label. He often pointed out that he didn’t read much science fiction after his early 20s, and that he took more inspiration from Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Wolfe. When asked about the lyricism of his own writing, he said that it came “from reading so much poetry.”
Shortly after finishing high school, Bradbury had his first story published in a Los Angeles fanzine. Fanzines were a significant part of the early science fiction world, and Bradbury published four issues of his own zine, Futuria Fantasia.
Poor eyesight kept Bradbury out of the military during World War II, leaving him more time to develop his craft. His first paid publication came in 1941 when he placed a story in Super Science Stories, and he had enough early success that he had become a full-time writer by age 24. He published his first collection of stories, Dark Carnival, in 1947; it received generally strong reviews.
Bradbury was trying to get the second volume of stories published in 1949, but every publisher he approached told him they were looking for novels. He met at Doubleday with editor Walter Bradbury (no relation), who asked if his existing stories about the first human colony on Mars could be tied together into a novel; Walter even suggested a name: The Martian Chronicles. Ray wrote an outline for the connective material overnight, and Walter bought what was now a novel the next day.
The novel was a great success, in part because of another lucky accident. Bradbury happened to meet Christopher Isherwood in a bookstore shortly after the book was published. He gave Isherwood a copy, and Isherwood’s glowing review of The Martian Chronicles helped bring the book to the attention of readers who might otherwise have ignored it. The book was so popular that Broadway composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wanted to turn it into a musical. Bradbury declined, but did approve an operatic version several decades later.
In 1953, Bradbury published his first novel that was originally written as a novel. By now, the story of the writing of Fahrenheit 451 is literary legend. Bradbury wrote the first draft in nine days at UCLA’s Powell Library, where typewriters could be rented for ten cents an hour. That first draft was 25,000 words long; when Bradbury’s publisher asked for a novel-length work, he went back to the library for nine more days and doubled the story’s length.
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a future where “firemen” are tasked with burning books that have been banned by the government. Bradbury was inspired by having seen the German government burning books during World War II, and by his childhood frustration at being unable to find popular science fiction books in public libraries. He hoped that the novel would be “a preventer of futures, not a predictor of them.”
Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine was a coming-of-age story, written in a mostly realistic style with only hints of fantasy. Like The Martian Chronicles, it was made up mostly of previously written stories linked by some new material. It was set in “Greentown,” a fictionalized version of Waukegan, as was his next novel, 1962’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a mix of horror and fantasy about two boys tempted by the promises of an evil carnival master.
By now, Bradbury was also working regularly in Hollywood, writing for film and television. He wrote the original story (though not the screenplay) for 1953’s It Came from Outer Space, one of the earliest 3-D movies; and collaborated with director John Huston on the screenplay for a 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick. And his 1962 teleplay for The Twilight Zone story “I Sing the Body Electric” was one of the show’s most admired episodes.
In 1967, Bradbury wrote a screenplay for an animated film to be made by director Chuck Jones. The Halloween Tree was a fantasy in which a group of friends discovers the origins of Halloween. Jones never made the movie, but Bradbury reworked it as a novel, published in 1972. When the story finally was filmed, as an animated TV-movie in 1993, Bradbury won an Emmy Award for his screenplay.
The 1980s found Bradbury writing mostly detective fiction. Death Is a Lonely Business was the first of three crime novels in which the unnamed narrator/detective is a writer who appears to be a fictionalized version of Bradbury himself; it was later followed by A Graveyard for Lunatics and Let’s All Kill Constance.
Bradbury also worked on adaptations of his stories into other media during this era. National Public Radio’s Bradbury 13 was an anthology series in which 13 of his stories were made into radio plays. And between 1985 and 1992, 65 episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater were made for HBO (later seasons for USA), all based on Bradbury stories, and all with new screenplays written by Bradbury.
Bradbury’s final novels all found him, in one way or another, returning to earlier work. Green Shadows, White Whale was a fictionalized account of working with John Huston in the 1950s.
From the Dust Returned was another novel built around previously written stories; these were about a family of ghosts and monsters. The family bore some resemblance to Charles Addams’s Addams Family characters; the two authors had at one point considered collaborating on a separate project and were such good friends that Addams drew the original cover art for the novel.
And Bradbury’s last novel, Farewell Summer, was a sequel to Dandelion Wine, published 49 years after that novel. It had, in fact, originally been meant to be part of the earlier book, but Bradbury’s publisher insisted that Dandelion Wine needed to be shortened.
Ray Bradbury died on June 5, 2012, after a long illness. He is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, beneath a headstone that reads “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” His personal papers were left to the Waukegan Public Library.
Tributes began pouring in. The landing spot of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was named Bradbury Landing. Closer to home, the intersection of 5th and Flower, outside the Central Library, was designated by Los Angeles as “Ray Bradbury Square;” and in 2013, our Palms-Rancho Park branch was dedicated in Bradbury’s honor.
Bradbury had long been a supporter of public libraries and often commented on their importance to his life. “Libraries raised me,” he said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money...I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for ten years.”
Of course, with a career as illustrious as Bradbury’s, the honors had begun well before his death. He had already received lifetime achievement awards from the World Fantasy Awards, in 1977, the Horror Writers of America, and the Science Fiction Writers of America, both in 1989. He was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1999 and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002. And in 2007, he received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury in recognition of “his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career.”
Sam Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles and Jonathan R. Eller’s Ray Bradbury Unbound are biographies; Eller focuses mostly on the later part of Bradbury’s career. Several interviews with Bradbury are gathered in Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview, and he is one of several authors interviewed in Chatting Science Fiction, an audio collection of radio interviews.
Also This Week
Aug 18, 1750
Antonio Salieri was born. Salieri was an influential composer of opera in the late 18th century, and in the last half of his life, one of the most important teachers of his era. His music largely faded from the repertoire after his death, but interest was revived after the 1979 play, and the 1984 film, Amadeus, which presented a fictionalized, and almost entirely false, portrait of the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart. Some of his operas are available for streaming at Freegal or Hoopla: Les Danaïdes; La scuola de’ gelosi; La fiera di Venezia.
Aug 22, 1970
Giada De Laurentiis was born. De Laurentiis had several years of experience as a professional chef when she began hosting television cooking shows in 2003, but was initially so awkward on camera that the Food Network was accused of hiring a model instead of a chef. She learned quickly and has won several Daytime Emmy Awards for her various programs. Several of De Laurentiis’s cookbooks are available at Overdrive.
Aug 23, 1977
The VHS, short for Video Home System, cassette player was introduced in the United States. After a brief battle with the Betamax format, VHS became the dominant form of home video recording and viewing. The demise of VHS began in 1997 with the introduction of the DVD, and the last VHS players were manufactured in 2016. The documentary Rewind This! looks at the cultural and historical impact of VHS and the home video revolution in the 1980s and 1990s.
August 20 is World Mosquito Day
The date is a commemoration of Ronald Ross’s 1897 discovery that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. We have since discovered that mosquitoes transmit many other diseases, and it is estimated that 700,000 people die each year because of mosquitoes. Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito offers a history of “our deadliest predator.”