GOLDEN APPLE OF THE SUN
Curiosity, the newly landed Mars rover, took a short drive today on a Martian plain that will forever be known as Bradbury Landing. NASA scientists began the naming ceremony with a recorded recitation of a poem written and read by the esteemed author. Ray Douglas Bradbury would have been 92 today, August 22. He died earlier this summer after a life made rich by the singular powers of his vision and imagination. Poet, playwright, short story and novel writer, essayist, screenwriter, librettist, television writer and host, theatrical producer, and so much more, Bradbury, along with a handful of other writers, will largely be remembered as seminal figures in bringing the science fiction genre mainstream. But Bradbury was not like the others. Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and others usually grounded their stories in hard science, even if only as an excuse to explore their particular views on contemporary social issues. Bradbury made very little pretense to include scientific fact in his stories. That they were often set on distant moons and planets did little to persuade the reader that we were viewing any place other than Planet Earth.
I often celebrated Bradbury's birthday when I was younger. I'm sure my affinity for the Number 22 is, at least in part, Bradbury influenced. Born on the 22nd, Bradbury somehow managed to make sure that his story collections had 22 tales. He even named one omnibus volume Twice 22. So I'm dedicating this entry to him on his birthday. I can't remember when I first encountered Ray's work, but it was love at first sight. As an insecure kid with a passion for the written word, I walked from Ava Drive to Railroad Avenue to the center of Syosset to the tiny library embedded between stationery stores and bakeries almost daily. At one juncture near the back began the fiction shelves, and on the top shelf in the second column were the late "B" authors--Bradbury included. Most of his works were there, but the one that especially captured my imagination was The Martian Chronicles. I don't know how many times during my middle school years I trucked that book home with me, but it was a well-thumbed volume by the time I purchased my own copy. Below are photos of the library and the cover of their copy of the novel--not the first edition (which commands a high price on eBay), but the 1958 reprint.
Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio clearly influenced the Waukegan born writer, so The Martian Chronicles is not really a novel but a series of related sketches by theme and tone, much as was Anderson's collection of heartland grotesques. A number of the stories had been already published and were assembled with newer works. Bradbury explored issues such as racism, ageism, and censorship. He had a chilling Twilight Zone-type sketch of Earthlings being lured to their deaths by the siren-like effects of a 1920s small town America transplanted to the Martian surface--one whose inhabitants are all the long-deceased and much-loved friends and relatives of those on the Mars mission. My favorite story, though, was "There Will Come Soft Rains", about a mechanized house that continues to function after the family that lived there has succumbed to the effects of nuclear annihilation. It introduced me to the lovely Sara Teasdale poem, from which the title is taken. I bought a collection of her work when I was a freshman in college; it's still somewhere in my archives.
To Ray, I also owe my first affinity for things Irish, for Moby Dick, for the sublime poetry of William Butler Yeats, and for the work of French film artist Francois Truffaut. What contributions! Ray wrote the screenplay for John Huston's 1956 Moby Dick. He often wrote of the larger-than-life personalities involved in the film (Huston, Orson Welles), and wrote lovingly about the shoot in Erin. Most people who have read only one work by Ray have read his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns, and was Ray's passionate response to censorship anywhere, notably the book burnings perpetrated by Joseph Goebbels. The epigraph of the novel, Juan Ramon Jimenez's dictum: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way," is one I have cited to my students and my children for more than three decades. Ray was never afraid to buck the system or resist the expedient for the sake of the moral.
One of my first exposures to foreign film in the 60s was the Francois Truffaut English-language movie Fahrenheit 451, starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. I was amazed by its futuristic "look", although it was simply because the only monorail or telescreen I had ever seen before was at the World's Fair. Futurama. While the film isn't considered among Truffaut's best, it is still often powerful, and few scenes are as memorable to me as the ones depicting the "Book People", who memorize full texts (Great Expectations, Macbeth) so that their beauties will be retained until they can be transcribed in a future without censorship of ideas (See below--unless you plan to watch the entire film!).
When I was in high school I was asked to be one of two students to contribute title suggestions for English courses. The Martian Chronicles was my recommendation and I am happy to say that it entered the curriculum. Now I teach "The Pedestrian" (the genesis of Fahrenheit 451) and "A Sound of Thunder", both classics of the short story form. And many other of Ray's stories are pretty much part of my DNA: "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl", "The Illustrated Man", "The Foghorn", "All Summer in a Day", "The Veldt", "The Man", and "The Anthem Sprinters", just to name a few.
As a boy, I identified with Douglas Spaulding, the 12-year-old protagonist of Ray's novel Dandelion Wine. I may at one time have attempted to concoct the title brew! I was spooked by his Something Wicked This Way Comes, with its evil carnival themes and its Mr. Dark. That Ray praised Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickens, and Poe might have had a little something to do with my future career. I remember that I got into trouble with my parents at one point in my youth when I stated unequivocally that Ray Bradbury was the biggest influence on my life! They were not impressed. But I wasn't far off. Indeed, the work of Ray Bradbury is more than "a medicine for melancholy"; it is an affirmation of all life. Thanks Ray. Below please find an extended interview with Ray, largely about Fahrenheit. Also find a video of one of my favorite moments from my past. I had waited since JFK's pledge to land a man on the moon for that moment and was thrilled to find Ray appearing on Walter Cronkite on July 20, 1969! Back in the early 60s I made my parents promise that I'd be allowed to stay up and watch the moon landing, no matter what hour! Ray was equally excited. The video was shown by Ray at Comic-Con 2009.