Ray Douglas Bradbury used his elegiac short stories, often in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, to comment on the beguiling power of the imagination and the dehumanizing pressures of technocracies. Bradbury was born to Leonard Spaulding Bradbury, a lineman with the Waukegan Bureau of Power and Light, and Esther Marie (Moberg) Bradbury, who had emigrated as a child from Sweden. Bradbury’s older brother later appeared in fictionalized form in his stories.
The most important event of Bradbury’s childhood occurred when he was twelve years old and a carnival came to town for the Labor Day weekend. After attending the performance of a magician, Mr. Electrico, who sat in an electric chair, causing sparks to jump between his teeth and every white hair on his head to stand erect, Bradbury and the magician became friends. Their walks and talks along the Lake Michigan shore behind the carnival so energized the boy’s imagination that, a few weeks after this encounter, he began to write stories for at least four hours a day, a practice that soon became a habit.
In 1932 his family moved to Arizona, where they had lived in the mid-1920’s, largely because of his father’s need to find work. In 1934 the family settled in Los Angeles, which became Ray Bradbury’s permanent home. He attended Los Angeles High School, where he became involved with theatricals and journalism, and he went to film theaters several times a week. He also wrote a thousand words a day and joined the Science Fiction League, where he met such professional writers as Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett, with whom he later collaborated. After graduating from high school in 1938 Bradbury worked for several months in a theater group sponsored by the actress Laraine Day and for several years as a newsboy in downtown Los Angeles. He took these jobs for subsistence while he dedicated most of his energy to writing. His early efforts owed much to William S. Burroughs, but as he grew older he began studying such writers as Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. His own style reflected these influences, blending the clean colloquial rhythms of Hemingway and the rich poetic metaphors of Wolfe.
Bradbury’s poor eyesight prevented him from serving in the army during World War II, which left him free to launch his writing career. In the early 1940’s he submitted stories to such pulp magazines as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. His first published story, “Pendulum,” a collaborative effort, appeared in 1941. His first independent sale, “The Piper,” appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in February, 1943, but was preceded into print by “The Candle,” which was published in the November, 1942, issue of Weird Tales. As a young writer he received stimulus by going to Los Angeles libraries and reading randomly until story ideas came tumbling into his mind. In 1945 he sold “The Big Black and White Game” to the prestigious American Mercury, and it was later republished in The Best American Short Stories of 1946. His stories soon began to appear regularly in such magazines as Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Mademoiselle. These magazines paid well and allowed him to marry Marguerite Susan McClure, who at one time taught English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and with whom he had four daughters.
Dark Carnival, Bradbury’s first book, resulted from the encouragement of August Derleth, a publisher of fantasy literature. This compilation of early horror stories also includes poetic portrayals of the lonely and the anguished. In his second book, he abandoned the grotesque for Mars. Until then he had been writing what seemed to be science-fiction stories but were in reality explorations of humanity in challenging settings. Because publishers wanted a Mars novel rather than a collection of Mars stories, Bradbury added narrative transitions to twenty-six of his stories and produced The Martian Chronicles, which established his reputation as a sophisticated stylist with a distinctive imagination. The Martian Chronicles, which many consider Bradbury’s best book, is a lyrical account of Earth’s colonization of Mars from 1999 to 2026. During the first two decades after publication, it sold more than three million copies, even though space science was revealing that Bradbury’s Mars, with its canals, water, and a breathable atmosphere, was possible only in fiction.
Bradbury’s best-known collection, The Illustrated Man, also dates from this period; several of the stories in that volume explore the threats posed by technology to human values. During the time that Bradbury worked on The Illustrated Man he published a story, “The Fireman,” in Galaxy Science Fiction, that he thought he could expand into a novel. A fire chief informed him that book paper first burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, which gave him the title. He wrote the novel in twenty days on a rental typewriter in the basement of the library at UCLA. Fahrenheit 451, which deals with a book-burning fireman in a future society, is only secondarily concerned with totalitarianism, technology, and censorship. At its core this novel is rooted in Bradbury’s deep love for libraries and books. Like The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 is basically optimistic, for Montag, the book burner, ends up with other nonconformists memorizing the classic books that helped to create and nurture human civilization.
In the mid-1950’s Bradbury traveled to Europe in connection with a screenplay of Moby Dick that he wrote with renowned director and screenwriter John Huston. When Moby Dick appeared, several film critics lauded Bradbury’s work above Huston’s. Upon his return to the United States Bradbury began writing television scripts for such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Suspense, and The Twilight Zone.
During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Bradbury’s stories and novels centered more openly on his midwestern childhood, no longer camouflaged by a science-fiction or fantasy setting. Dandelion Wine is a nostalgic account of small-town life in the 1920’s, told through a delicate mixture of pleasant childhood memories and the unpleasant fears of loneliness and death. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury’s favorite book, a father tries to save his son from the evil forces of a mysterious traveling carnival. These two novels can be read as the childhood and early-adolescent chapters of Bradbury’s ongoing fictional autobiography, a series of novels in which characters loosely based on the author himself at different ages serve as vehicles for reflections on the relationship of the imagination to life. Bradbury’s next three novels extended this series. In Death Is a Lonely Business a young writer of pulp fantasy and horror stories confronts the reality of death. A Graveyard for Lunatics is about a neophyte Hollywood screenwriter who must solve a gothic mystery played out in the studio back lots to arrive at an understanding of conflicts in his own life. Green Shadows, White Whale is loosely based on the contentious creative relationship that developed between Bradbury and Huston during the filming of Moby Dick.
After Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury’s output of fiction decreased, and he turned to such forms as plays, poems, and essays. He had been fascinated by the theater since childhood, and in the 1960’s and 1970’s he devoted much of his time to adapting several of his stories into plays for his Pandemonium Theatre Company. Although most of his work was being produced in California, a few of his plays appeared Off-Broadway, including The World of Ray Bradbury Three: Fables of the Future. In the 1970’s he also began to write humorous poetry. Generally critics were not enthusiastic about Bradbury’s plays and poems, and in the 1980’s he continued to diversify his activities. He helped adapt Fahrenheit 451 into an opera and Dandelion Wine into a musical; he collaborated on the plans for Spaceship Earth for Walt Disney World in Florida; and he participated in designing a twenty-first century city near Tokyo.
Critics have found that Bradbury’s later output did not achieve the stature of his early work. His first story collections are recognized as having been immensely important for popularizing science fiction and lowering the barriers that isolated it from traditional literary forms. Unlike many pulp magazine writers, Bradbury was a careful craftsman sensitively attuned to the subtleties of language. He has been called America’s official science-fiction writer, the world’s greatest living science-fiction writer, the Norman Rockwell of science fiction, and the Walt Disney of science fiction, although a strong case can be made that Bradbury is not really a science-fiction writer at all: Isaac Asimov has shown that Bradbury’s stories about Mars are saturated with scientific incongruities and that they depict not possible futures but moral lessons for the present.
In fact, Bradbury is essentially a short-story writer and a romantic. Most of his books are short-story compilations, his novels are stitched-together short stories, and his plays are adapted short stories. His romanticism surfaces in the themes he often explores: the conflict between human vitality and machine control, between the creative individual and the conforming group, between the innocence of childhood and the corruption of adulthood, between the shadow and the light in every human soul.