With the publication of Bradbury Beyond Apollo (University of Illinois Press), Jonathan R. Eller has completed his three-volume self-designated “biography of a mind” of the author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, and hundreds of published short stories. Eller began with Becoming Ray Bradbury in 2011, followed that up with Ray Bradbury Unbound in 2014, and it has been six long years for this conclusion to reach us. Although the book’s publication date of August 22, 2020, the centenary of Bradbury’s birth, is so appropriate, it is easy to forgive Eller.
The obvious question then is, was it worth the wait? I suppose each reader must answer that for themselves, but it was for me. I greatly admired the first volume for Eller’s insight into Bradbury’s early years and his growth as an artist of narrative prose, the experiences, influences, loves, needs, relationships, fears, and passions that shaped and matured the mind giving birth to Bradbury’s unique creativity. In the second volume Eller detailed Bradbury’s creative world widening out to include film, theater, fine art and architecture, and the future of space exploration by man and machine. Eller’s documenting these activities, what they meant to Bradbury and how they affected him, confirmed a suspicion I have always held that Bradbury’s love and involvement in these areas might have diminished his time, energy, and efforts in practicing his true art of narrative prose. Bradbury Beyond Apollo continues from the second volume beginning after the first manned moon landing in 1969. Eller goes on to cover Bradbury’s essential—and valued—participation in what Eller calls “The Great Tale of space exploration.” Not as a scientist or engineer, of course, but as a visionary. The book concludes with Bradbury’s death in 2012 at ninety-one, more than a decade after a debilitating stroke, and some severe, if not total, loss of hearing and vision. It also chronicles Bradbury’s writing life as one of, again, eschewing a full concentration on new prose works for efforts to see his work metamorphosed into films, plays, and large scale theme-park-like presentations. Many of these efforts were unfulfilled or unsatisfactory.
I have a particular affection for this third volume, as it includes the years I knew Bradbury as a colleague and friend from 1977 to the end of his life. Indeed, I come in as a minor character in Bradbury’s story when Eller writes about our work together on a film project (unfulfilled and unsatisfactory for us both) in 1982-83. And my organizing of a series of city-wide events celebrating Bradbury’s 90th birthday in 2010, Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles. But affection is not assessment, and in assessing this volume, I was struck not only by Eller’s compassionate if still objective eye on Bradbury but by just how fine a writer Eller is himself.
Despite Eller being an academic, despite being Chancellor's Professor of English; Director, Center for Ray Bradbury Studies; Senior Textual Editor, Institute for American Thought; General Editor, Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury; General Editor, The New Ray Bradbury Review; and ConsultingTextual Editor, Works of George Santayana (whew!) at Indiana University School of Liberal Arts—and despite a university press publishing the three volumes—none of the three read like academic texts. Nor do they read like a “popular biography” which might concentrate more on Bradbury the flesh and blood man, giving an exterior view of his activities both literary and personal. Rather, as I mentioned above, Eller writes with compassion in clear and often engrossing prose of the interior, creative mind of Bradbury, tracking him, in the three volumes, from young enthusiast for things of wonder—Mars, space adventures, literary treasures in a library, movies, music, and the spires of futuristic cities depicted in sci-fi illustrations—to his late in life energetic fashioning of new story collections combining stories past and recent, and the writing of possibly a new sub-genre: three autobiographical mystery novels exploring his early writing life.
Why a compassionate eye? Because Eller has a deep understanding of the artist that Bradbury’s mind shaped, an artist with the inability to follow the standard, the form, the pattern, the rules, and the expected from the only venues for his writing early on—pulp magazines. (Or the integrity not to, assuming there is a difference). This led to a lifetime of creating unique works of prose poetry, using words like a sculptor might use clay to shape into stories what his imaginative instincts improvised. And, later, his ventures into the non-prose form of dramatic writing for both film and stage using this same method. This invariably led to conflicts with magazine editors, film, television, and theater producers and directors, and other collaborators necessary to take his work from his mind to some tangible form. The more distant from the prose Bradbury authored alone, the more authority the collaborators had, and the more frustrating, possibly infuriating, it could be for Bradbury when they were not—so to speak—on the same page with him. It is in the telling of these collaborations and Bradbury’s disappointments that Eller writes with compassion.
Is compassion warranted? After all, didn’t Bradbury know the job(s) was dangerous when he took it? He certainly didn’t when, in 1953, he took the Moby Dick screenwriting assignment from director John Huston, who he hero-worshiped. But shouldn’t the following six decades of many experiences in collaboration—starting with Huston’s bully tactics—have, “wised him up”? Possibly. But Bradbury, as an artist, did not operate from mature wisdom, but from youthful, passionate loves.
Eller writes, “In his mind it all came down to love, really; Bradbury paid the price of fame as all writers of magnitude must, but the effects were tempered by the simple admonition of literary love, a love that did not distinguish between the popular and the literary: ‘So I always wanted to be on the shelves, with my loves,’ he would later reflect in private conversation. ‘That’s different than being famous, isn’t it? I wanted to share the library dark with them. I wanted to go look up on the shelf and see the titles with their golden eyes—the numerals, the golden numerals, spelling my name with theirs. But that’s not fame, that’s love.’”
If Bradbury’s love had stayed with just the literary, he would have saved himself a lot of pain and frustration. But his capacity for passion was too big for just one manifestation of creativity. And so, just as he wanted to share library shelf space with writers he admired—from Verne, Wells, and Burroughs to Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fritzgerald—when given the opportunity he naturally wanted to share creative space with actors, filmmakers, musicians, fine artists and illustrators, architects, and even the space explorers he admired. And I’m sure he was pleased when they were pleased to share that space with him. Don’t we all want to be admired by people we admire?
Because of his own unique genius as a writer, easily recognized by other creative artists, Bradbury was able to share creative and intellectual space with the likes of, in alphabetical order, Buzz Aldrin, Bernard Berenson, George Cukor, Walt Disney, Kirk Douglas, Jose Feliciano, Federico Fellini, Mel Gibson, Jerry Goldsmith, Kathrine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Alfred Hitchcock, Gene Kelly, Charles Laughton, Joe Mantegna, Jason Robards, Carl Sagan, Lalo Schifrin, and Orson Welles, among others.
If Bradbury had not been consumed with these other passions and loves, what other fine works of narrative prose might he have written? Would there have been hundreds of more short stories? Would this master of the short story have conquered the long narrative form of the novel, which is almost universally acknowledged as not his strongest art? (And yet Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most read and influential novels of the 20th-Century). Who knows? Possibly Bradbury had said all he really wanted to say in prose, published and unpublished, by 1970. Possibly taking this output and adapting them to other forms he loved was what was going to fuel his creative fires from that point onward. But that meant collaborating, taking on creative partners. The thing about prose artists—not just workers in the field, but artists—is that, except in very rare instances, it is a lonely, individual art form. Such an artist is the sole author, thus the authority, and anyone who is truly good at it usually is most comfortable being rather autocratic in that authority.
It is not that Bradbury didn’t want to collaborate, it just was not, I believe, a natural fit for him, as much as he might have wanted it to be. Given that, his frustrations are understandable. Certainly, Eller understands them and rightly conveys his compassion for the man. Not that there weren’t some rewarding collaborations, such as The Ray Bradbury Theater on cable. But these were ones where Bradbury retained a large measure of the authority.
Eller also understands that for a man like Bradbury, a man of passions and loves, despite the frustrations, great joy can be experienced in pursuing them. Anyone who knew Bradbury knows he was a man of great joy. Anyone who saw him lecture knew he could effortlessly communicate, even transfer that joy to the audience, big or small—truly his most successful art after narrative prose—which must have heightened Bradbury’s own joy.
So as much as I and Bradbury’s legion of devoted readers of his stories and novels would have liked much more, who the hell would have wanted to deny Ray Bradbury his joys?
Eller’s achievement in Bradbury Beyond Apollo and his two previous volumes will stand for years as the most penetrating view into the creative fire that was Bradbury’s mind and talent. It is a work of clear-eyed scholarship and, it must be said, love. In writing about a man and artist for whom love was all-important, how could one successfully do so otherwise?
Bradbury Beyond Apollo and the first two volumes can be purchased on Amazon and other online bookstores in both print and digital formats.
You will find Eller’s Amazon Author’s Page HERE
You can read my 2011 review of Becoming Ray Bradbury HERE.
You can read my 2014 review of Ray Bradbury Unbound HERE.
You can check out my novels on the MY BOOKS page of this blog, as well as my book of essays, Searching for Ray Bradbury: Writings about the Writer and the Man.