How Ray Bradbury became a literary icon

A new book explores the acclaimed sci-fi writer's rise to fame -- and how he helped make a genre cool

Topics: Biography, Nonfiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Books,

How Ray Bradbury became a literary icon

These days, when it’s common to see adults engrossed in Harry Potter on the subway, and the edgiest shows on HBO are about vampires and dragons, it’s hard to believe there was once a time when sci-fi and fantasy fiction were confined to a cultural ghetto. But in his new study, “Becoming Ray Bradbury” (Illinois), Jonathan R. Eller shows that being a sci-fi writer in pre-World War II America was thoroughly unglamorous — less a career than a dubious kind of hobby. Ray Bradbury himself was an undistinguished high school senior when he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League in 1937, and in the years that followed he seemed likely to remain in that amateur realm: sending his stories to mimeographed fanzines, scraping together bus fare to attend annual conventions. The highest glory available was to publish in “prozines” with names like Astonishing Stories and Thrilling Wonder, which actually paid their contributors — sometimes as much as a penny a word.

Barnes & Noble ReviewAs Eller shows, Bradbury cherished a secret sense that he was marked out for something greater. “I believe there was always one core of belief in me that burned from the time I was twelve on: I want to be different, to be different from everybody else … It is only that hard core of wanting to be different that separates the true artist, I believe, from the man who writes merely as a means of livelihood.” Eller’s book is an academic study, charting Bradbury’s early career in thorough, at times numbing detail, up to the publication of the three books that made him famous: “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man” and “Fahrenheit 451,” which appeared in rapid sequence in the early 1950s.

But it is easy to imagine a novelist turning the young Bradbury into a character like Jude Fawley, in Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”: a gifted man, cut off by poverty and provincialism from the sources of high culture, struggling to make his way into the literary world where he belongs. What allowed Bradbury to succeed where Jude failed was partly luck; for one thing, his bad eyesight spared him from the draft, allowing him to spend the World War II years practicing his craft.

Above all, it was sci-fi itself that functioned as Bradbury’s means of self-education. From the pulps and “weirds,” he found his way to middlebrow writers like Somerset Maugham — “a man of straight common sense,” in Bradbury’s admiring words, whose work taught him, “don’t listen to your friends, don’t be political, don’t be psychological, be yourself.” In fact, it was exactly their political and psychological themes that made Bradbury’s sci-fi stories appeal to readers like Christopher Isherwood, an early champion of his work. In “The Martian Chronicles,” Bradbury imagines the human settlement of Mars as a replay of European colonialism, complete with the extermination of the natives; “Fahrenheit 451,” with its vision of a future where all books are burned, was inspired by Arthur Koestler’s anti-Communist classic “Darkness at Noon.”

Still, Bradbury remained painfully sensitive to condescension from highbrows. At a party in New York in 1951, he was excited to meet some of Balanchine’s dancers, until “[s]omeone said, ‘You’re writing what? This Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon stuff. You’re a science fiction writer.’ Well, you know, it was embarrassing and I tried to keep my temper and be good-humored with them but they wouldn’t have that; they just kept moving in on me. It was this kind of snobbism you see that I’ve had to put up with a good part of my life.” It must be a sweet vindication for Bradbury, now in his 92nd year, to see how completely sci-fi has conquered its doubters.

Adam Kirsch is a writer living in New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>