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Book review: 'Becoming Ray Bradbury'

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Becoming Ray Bradbury - Jonathan R. Eller - University of Illinois Press, 360 pages, $34.95
  • Becoming Ray Bradbury
    Jonathan R. Eller
    University of Illinois Press, 360 pages, $34.95

Jonathan R. Eller, co-founder of the Center For Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI, is a literary detective. Eller's forte is to get at the lives of literary artists through an exhaustive study of their literary work, getting his hands on everything from scribbled notes to early drafts and revisions. But what makes Eller's approach especially interesting is his devotion to understanding a writer's complete publishing history, an insistence on tracing not only where a piece appeared in print, but on finding out the contexts - commercial, cultural, social and aesthetic - surrounding how writing becomes public.

Eller has found a fascinating subject in Ray Bradbury. Becoming Ray Bradbury is a literary biography that seeks to show how a gentle, Depression-era misfit, transplanted from Waukegan, Ill., to Los Angeles used his imagination to not only create a remarkable literary career for himself, but, to a surprising extent, help forge the collective imagination of generations to come.

Eller charts Bradbury's trajectory from his birth in 1920 to what would be a major turning point in his professional career, his sojourn in Europe as screenwriter for John Huston's filmed version of Moby Dick. Along the way, we see a young writer becoming accomplished in a publishing culture that now seems so foreign it might as well be a form of Bradbury fiction.

Eller meticulously reconstructs the hierarchal world of mid-Twentieth century magazine publishing that enabled Bradbury and so many other writers of his generation - Kurt Vonnegut among them - to actually make a living through the making of short stories. In Bradbury's case, this started between the covers of such pulps as Weird Tales, New Detective and Planet Stories, then graduated into such "slicks" as Collier's, Saturday Evening Post and even Mademoiselle.

Bradbury was a self-described metaphor machine, a writer with an intuitive gift for hitting on imagery and situations that evoked larger anxieties, longings and, especially, a peculiarly American kind of loneliness. Although often categorized and even honored as a science fiction writer, Bradbury bridled at the label. He was simply trying to describe dimensions of experience that realism was incapable of reaching.

Eller's research, incorporating his longtime relationship with Bradbury, reveals the sources of the artist's intellectual growth and development. A key influence was Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper, in which Krutch described modern humanity's "tragic fallacy," or, as Eller puts it: "that our appreciation of the great life-affirming tragedies of past literary ages disguises our inability to produce such works about our own age."

Through extended works like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury sought to create forms of contemporary mythology, tragedies, as Eller observes, that help us to live.

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