Roughly a decade before he created the Christmastime television movie The Homecoming and the long-running series it inspired, The Waltons, Earl Hamner was a successful novelist and writer of scripts for live television in New York. In 1961, as a recent transplant to Southern California, he wanted to break into the world of writing for taped television programs but couldn’t seem to get his foot in the door anywhere.
He consulted a short list of contacts who might help him in his job search and came across the name of Ray Bradbury: scriptwriter for John Huston’s Moby Dick, and author of such minor classics as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine as well as numerous well-respected short stories. Would this giant be willing to offer a helpful tip or two to the new arrival?
Taking a chance, he telephoned Bradbury, who said he would be glad to help.
The two met at the MGM commissary, just down the street from Bradbury’s house. During a friendly chat over lunch, Bradbury encouraged Hamner to submit script ideas to the producers of a quirky, fairly new television show called The Twilight Zone. Hamner took this advice, and the eight scripts he crafted for Rod Serling’s program launched his new career. He has been warmly grateful to Bradbury ever since.
Over the many years of his career, Bradbury has inspired loyalty and affection from many who have known him and are familiar with his works. Even those who have never met Bradbury — who turns 90 on August 22 — have been touched to the depths of their being by his stories and novels, sometimes to their dismay.
I remember a dorm-room bull session during my long-ago college years, when a know-it-all from down the hall sneered, “Ray Bradbury? Come on! Who reads him any more?”
“After all,” the lofty young sophisticate explained, “his stories are all filled with . . . ethics and things.”
What “things”? Well, the average reader might find that Bradbury’s fiction exhibits such characteristics as lively writing, intelligent plotting, a sense of wonder, evidence of a cartwheeling imagination, and other such “things” deemed hopelessly unfashionable by his self-anointed betters.
As for ethics, they are elemental in Bradbury’s fiction and screenplays, and even in his horror stories (every devotee of ghostly fiction should read his collection of early stories titled The October Country). Moral truths appear not in obvious nuggets, like raisins in a raisin cake, but blended among the basic ingredients. They bespeak Bradbury’s beliefs that human beings are more than the flies of summer — they are in fact made for knowing beauty, truth, and eternity — and that each movement toward political centralization, materialism, sham intellectualism, and needless destruction of the natural environment endangers all that makes life fulfilling and worthwhile, rendering man little more than a trousered ape.
Bradbury long ago made it known that he is no champion of utilitarianism, applied science as a panacea, gadgetry, literature that strikes a mighty blow for progressive causes, or death to the unwanted and unproductive. Long identified as a prophet who foresaw the coming of flat-screen televisions, ATMs, and televised police chases, avidly watched, Bradbury is — to the surprise of many — a despiser of the Internet and e-reader devices, a believer that technology can easily be as much a destroyer as a benefit, and a man who didn’t take an airplane flight until his late ’60s. As he has told many people, he doesn’t even consider himself a science-fiction writer, but a writer of myths, metaphors, and fantasies.
While he is a great advocate for NASA and space travel, his greatest fictional works address the recurrent theme of much of the modern age’s more significant literature: the separation of spirit and imagination from technological achievement and the dangers that attend this divorce. He asks, How much that is homely, lovable, beautiful, and irreplaceably precious will you cast aside for the sake of ease and self-fulfillment? How much wonder will people willfully drain from their lives in the cause of expediency? Such literature can be filled with much gloom in other hands, but Bradbury remains a poet of affirmation.
“The thing that drives me most often is an immense gratitude that I was given this one chance to live, to be alive the one time round in a miraculous experience that never ceases to be glorious and dismaying,” he wrote to his friend Russell Kirk many years ago. He added: “I accept the whole damn thing. It is neither all beautiful nor all terrible, but a wash of multitudinous despairs and exhilarations about which we know nothing. Our history is so small, our experience so limited, our science so inadequate, our theologies so crammed in mere matchboxes, that we know we stand on the outer edge of a beginning and our greatest history lies before us, frightening and lovely, much darkness and much light.”
Where William Faulkner famously wrote that the past is never dead, as it isn’t even past yet, Bradbury would perhaps add that only in the past lies the matrix of mores that make life worthwhile, whether in a spaceship headed to the farthest reaches of the universe, or in quiet Green Town, Ill., modeled after the small Midwestern city where he was born.
To Bradbury, the world of his boyhood in Waukegan must seem sometimes like a pleasant memory of a half-forgotten dream. Despite its flaws (common to any small town or city), it was a world of quiet talks with friends and family members on the front porch in summertime, with dandelion wine for refreshment. And on the Fourth of July, fire balloons: those small baskets of burning light that mount aloft through miles of quietness into the night sky and blend with the stars before disappearing, while grandparents, parents, and cousins stand and watch.
How far we have come since then, as we make our way through the early 21st century with the disquieting sense that something valuable has been lost over the years since the fire balloons disappeared.
It was in Waukegan that young Ray Bradbury took in a circus sideshow featuring “Mr. Electrico,” a mysterious worker of wonders with an electric wand. At one point near the conclusion of his performance, he called for the children in the audience to come forward. Glowing with electricity, the magician then faced the assembled children and gently touched them one at a time with his magic wand, shouting a hair-raising blessing upon each of them in turn. As he touched the young future author with the wand he commanded, “Live forever!” Somehow, the boy knew he might do just that.
The years passed, and now, at age 90, Bradbury has done a lot of living; the details are described in Sam Weller’s superb biography, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (2005). Bradbury learned long ago that amidst the joy, there is also evil in the world and in the hearts of men. In a letter, he once wrote that each one of us has “a private keep somewhere in the upper part of the head where, from time to time, of midnights, the beast can be heard raving. To control that, to the end of life, to stay contemplative, sane, good-humored, is our entire work, in the midst of cities that tempt us to inhumanity, and passions that threaten to drive through the skin with invisible spikes.”
Despite his reputation in some quarters as an apple-cheeked optimist, Bradbury knows, in Solzhenitsyn’s often-quoted phrase, that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
Selfishness, greed, senseless environmental destruction, violent fear of the unfamiliar, and the shadow of death are as part of Bradbury’s stories as are their wonder, adventure, and love of life. In an article originally published in National Review and reprinted in his book Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk recounts the true story of a librarian’s reaction to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s depiction of a future in which books are feared and burned.
The librarian received a copy by mistake, read it, and was duly offended by it. The book was . . . disturbing. According to Kirk, she fired off a letter of furious protest to the wholesaler: How dare they send such a disturbing book! “I took it right out in back and burned it,” she crowed proudly. From which Kirk concludes, “The future is already here.”
That was in 1969. Today, when America’s best and brightest increasingly assume that their fellow citizens have somehow evolved to a point beyond freedom and dignity (in B. F. Skinner’s hateful phrase) and as a result need to have everyday decisions made for them by an enlightened elite, it may be that Bradbury’s little book is needed now more than ever. “Ethics and things” are at the unseen core of this work, to which an informative companion piece might be C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
In late 2005, Earl Hamner and I visited Bradbury at his dandelion-colored house in Los Angeles. Sitting in his toy- and book-strewn den in a wheelchair, wearing tennis shorts but a neat shirt, tie, and cardigan, Bradbury greeted us like old friends, though it was my first face-to-face meeting with him. For a full hour he spoke of his love of writing — “You’ve got to embrace the thing you love, and never let it go! Follow the love of your life!” he said — as well as his passion for monster movies and comics, his thoughts on the long-delayed cinematic remake of Fahrenheit 451 (which he pronounces “Fahrenheit Four-Five-One”), how he came to create the novel’s chief character (the fireman Montag), his excited plans to see Peter Jackson’s then-unreleased remake of King Kong, and many other matters.
All too soon it was time to take our leave. Hamner, ever the gracious Virginia gentleman, shook hands with Bradbury and quietly expressed his thanks again for that long-ago piece of advice. As Bradbury turned to me, I shook his hand and said quietly, “Ray Bradbury, live forever!” Tears sprang into his eyes — he is a man who cries for joy at every kindness — and his mouth moved soundlessly for a moment, searching for words. Quickly he raised my hand to his lips and gave it a quick kiss. “God bless you, Jim,” he said. “God bless you — and I wish the same for you!”
As we walked away from the Bradbury house, I thought about what the man’s works have meant to me and many other readers since we first encountered them. What remains for those who haven’t read Bradbury for some time are memorable books worth rereading and a collage of unforgettable images: the canals of Mars filled with fragrant wine, a gun that fires deadly bees, a man covered with animated tattoos, a cocky gun-slinging bully sitting down in a barber chair for his final shave at the hands of a barber he’s threatened once too often, a spaceship harvesting a small fragment of the sun, a frightened old woman racing home through the midnight streets of Green Town and groping for the light switch in a darkened room in which a stranger awaits, and an adolescent boy fearing for the life of his humble, decent father amid the autumn twilight in a small Midwestern town.
And Bradbury continues working, churning out one short story per week, as he has since the mid-1930s: a 90-year-old man beavering away with the enthusiasm and imagination of a teenager. It’s what he loves: life and literature. Follow the love of your life.
“Literature of escape,” Bradbury’s work is sometimes called with a sneer. But then, as Tolkien once observed, who other than jailers are fearfully preoccupied with escape? Kirk wrote that the ideologue, in particular, denounces “escape” because he is a prisoner of his own political obsessions, and misery loves company.
“Bradbury’s stories,” Kirk wrote, “are not an escape from reality; they are windows looking upon enduring reality” — the reality of normative truth glimpsed through wonder. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Bradbury deserves the nation’s appreciation as one of its most accomplished and imaginative writers, a national treasure.
– James E. Person Jr. is a longtime book reviewer and the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow(Cumberland House Books).