Ray Bradbury circa 1980. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ray Douglas Bradbury started writing at the age of 12. Throughout his life, he liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician and sword performer, Mr. Electrico. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, “Live forever!” Bradbury later said to The Paris Review:
When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.
Bradbury was born in 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois, to Leonard Spaulding Bradbury, a lineman for power and telephone utilities, and Ester Moberg Bradbury, a Swedish immigrant. He had an older brother named Leonard, and a younger brother and sister who died during childhood. The Bradburies moved to Los Angeles, California when Ray was 14. His childhood formed the basis for many of his short stories and early works, such as “Dandelion Wine” and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury recounted his early influences in an autobiographical essay published by the New Yorker in 2012.
After graduation from high school in 1938, Bradbury couldn’t afford to go to college, so he went to the local library instead. “Libraries raised me,” he told the New York Times during an interview profiling his campaign to save Ventura County public libraries . “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” He told The Paris Review, “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don’t.”
He celebrated high school graduation in 1938 by publishing his first short story in a fan magazine. The following year he published a fan magazine of his own, Futuria Fantasia. He wrote nearly every piece in the magazine under different pseudonyms to disguise the fact that the magazine was a virtual one-man show. You can revisit Futuria Fantasia at Project Gutenberg for free.
His first big success didn’t come until 1947, when his short story “Homecoming” (narrated by a boy who feels like an outsider at a family reunion of witches, vampires and werewolves because he lacks supernatural powers) was discovered in a pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Mademoiselle by a young editor named Truman Capote. “Homecoming” won an O. Henry Award as one of the best American short stories of the year.
Along with 26 other stories in a similar vein, “Homecoming” appeared in Mr. Bradbury’s first book Dark Carnival, which was published in 1947. That same year he married Marguerite Susan McClure, whom he had met in a Los Angeles bookstore. McClure was the breadwinner in the early days of their marriage, supporting Bradbury as he worked on his writing for little to no pay. The couple had four daughters, Susan, Ramona, Bettina, and Alexandra.
In 1950, Bradbury published his first major work, The Martian Chronicles, which detailed the conflict between humans colonizing the red planet and the native Martians they encountered there. While taken by many to be a work of science fiction, Bradbury himself considered it to be fantasy.
First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see?
Bradbury’s best-known work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, became an instant classic in the era of McCarthyism for its exploration of themes of censorship and conformity. In 2007, Bradbury himself disputed that censorship was the main theme of Fahrenheit 451, as we’ve examined in a past blogpost.
Farenheit 451 like many of Bradbury’s other works was critical of mass media consumption and creature comforts, in particular television. Bradbury opined that “Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was.” Despite this aversion to television, Bradbury developed his own HBO series, allowing him to produce adaptations of his short stories. The Ray Bradbury Theater is an anthology series that ran for six seasons on HBO and USA Network. All 65 episodes were written by Bradbury and many were based on short stories or novels he had written, including “The Veldt.”
Bradbury’s career spanned 70 years, and during that time he wrote more than 30 books, over 600 short stories, and numerous poems, essays, screenplays and plays. More than eight million copies of his books have been sold in 36 languages. He also earned many honors and awards along the way. His favorite was perhaps being named “ideas consultant” for the United States Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. “Can you imagine how excited I was?” he later said about the honor. “‘Cause I’m changing lives, and that’s the thing. […] That’s my function, and it should be the function of every science fiction writer around. To offer hope. To name the problem and then offer the solution. And I do, all the time.”
Though none of his works won a Pulitzer, in 2007 Bradbury received a special citation from the Pulitzer board for his “distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.” In his final years, Bradbury felt content about his place in the annals of science fiction history, having achieved his childhood ambition of living forever through his work. Bradbury died in Los Angeles on June 5, 2012, at the age of 91.