Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.
On June 5, we lost not only one of our finest writers but a true American storyteller and one of the last of the book people. For Ray Bradbury, who passed away at the age of 91, was, like the remnant that Montag joins at the end of Fahrenheit 451, a book person, a walking book who retained and recited the story of an older America that can be carried on in memory only by those who emulate the master.
As a boy, Ray Bradbury began “time traveling” (as Douglas Spaulding called it in Dandelion Wine), committing to memory the stories told by his grandfather on warm summer evenings in his native Waukegan, Illinois, a town he never really left, reproduced as “Green Town” in his stories. Young Ray memorized his favorite fantasy stories as well, reciting them to all who would listen, later dismissing the notion that he was a science-fiction writer, calling himself a spinner of fables, fantasy, and myth. Bradbury was less an author than a bard, a storyteller like an ancient poet, his books oral history in mythic form. And the myths he spun were truer than the literal truth, as all myths worthy of the name are. His Green Town was quintessentially American, capturing something about that America and her people that could not be encapsulated in formal history. The Waukegan of memory was transformed into the Green Town of fantasy (Dark Carnival; Something Wicked This Way Comes) and of myth (Dandelion Wine).
Bradbury described the process of writing as one of “surprise,” an exercise in word association and memory: “First I rummaged my mind for words that could describe my personal nightmares, fears of night from my childhood . . . Then I took a long look at the green apple trees and the old house I was born in and the house next door where lived my grandparents, and all the lawns of the summers I grew up in, and I began to find words for all that . . . ”
Bradbury never lost his sense of wonder, and it showed in every story, whether set in Green Town or along the canals of Mars. In spinning his tales, he wove together his grand theme of remembrance of things past with warnings about the future, for the three principal thematic strands in his stories are memory (and the dangers of its loss), wonder (and the deadening of imagination and the human spirit without it), and warning (that modern technology blunted both memory and the sense of wonder). For despite—or maybe because of—his fascination with rockets, space travel, and all the imagined possibilities of mid-20th-century America, Bradbury foresaw a damaged future, anticipating not only the impact of television, but the sterile electronically wired and bookless world of iPods, cellphones, interactive video games, and “reality” TV. As Bradbury himself said, he did not write to predict the future, but to prevent it.
In Bradbury’s stories, a wired culture is no culture at all, but a commercial enterprise that deadens the faculty of retention, making the wired-in recipients of the electronic product, with their degraded attention spans and addiction to constant stimulation, more malleable and less free. The flip side of technological totalitarianism is smothering bureaucracy, and, as related in some of his stories (especially The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451), the philistine mind-set of an aggressive egalitarian ideology, the jackboot masked by a smiley-face decal, approved by the majority.
In his 1953 short story “The Murderer,” for instance, the title character is judged insane by the powers that be for committing the unthinkable crime of destroying technology. A psychiatrist is assigned to treat the patient’s illness. He visits the self-styled “murderer’s” cell, where Albert Brock destroys the analyst’s “wrist radio,” then begins his “therapy” with the story of his first “murders”—the telephone, then the television, and the interoffice communication system, as his “solitary revolution” to “deliver man from certain ‘conveniences’” continues. His next “murder” is on a mass scale, as Brock uses a “portable diathermy machine” to short-circuit the electronic devices of a bus full of commuters, bringing on “pandemonium, riot, and chaos,” as the people are de-wired. Brock is tuning out, as it were, by gleefully wrecking the electronic hum around him, driven to action as he is driven to distraction by an all-encompassing electronic tyranny—one, he is reminded, that is accepted by the majority and is, therefore, good.
Fahrenheit 451 is not so much a story about censorship imposed from above, but book burning (and willful destruction of memory) endorsed from below by a shallow majority that pacifies itself with the equivalent of reality TV and prescription medications. As Paul A. Trout wrote in the April 1994 issue of Chronicles, in Bradbury’s novel aggrieved minorities, abetted by a passive or an indifferent majority, have pressed for the destruction of books, as the state strives to make everyone “happy”: “The people,” wrote Trout, “got what they wanted: a happy-faced culture in which nobody would have their exquisitely sensitive feelings offended by idea or word.” Bradbury, in his reflection on Trout’s article (printed in that same issue), concluded that “I did not, 40 years ago, predict. I observed tendencies or wrote doubts. Today, there is no fear of book burners, only nonteachers and nonreaders, which means no need of books and so no burning.” Books, and our heritage, are being “burned” by the technological world we have embraced (as well as degraded and altered by the aggrieved minorities Bradbury foresaw). We are not so much the firemen of Fahrenheit 451 as the coarse space troopers of The Martian Chronicles, trashing the accumulated wisdom of an ancient civilization—in effect, paving over paradise to build a parking lot.
Ray Bradbury is gone, leaving behind a treasure trove of wisdom, remembrance, and warning that a remnant, the book people of tomorrow, can carry into the future. He was a self-educated writer who loved his craft, pounding out stories on a ten cent per half hour typewriter in a library basement; a latter-day Edgar Allen Poe, lover of strange tales; and creator of some very memorable literary characters. In Mr. Dark, he pointed to the existence of a malevolent force in the universe, of temptation and sin, and in Will Holloway, his father, Charles, and Jim Nightshade, the possibility of redemption. And we should remember him for writing beautifully:
The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of that new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal.
This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.