Some artists become so embedded in our culture that they’re easy to take for granted. The writer Ray Bradbury is like that. Now in his 90s, Bradbury’s stories, novels, plays and screenplays, not to mention adaptations of his work crossing a range of other media, are part of our cultural DNA.
At one time or another, almost everyone has encountered Bradbury’s work. Maybe it was through stories like “The Illustrated Man,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” or “And the Rock Cried Out,” orr, perhaps, through novels like Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Have you seen John Huston’s movie, Moby Dick? Bradbury wrote the screenplay.
Indeed, the more you think about him, the more apparent it seems that Bradbury’s contribution actually transcends a particular book, or two, or three. Taken whole, it can be argued the body of Ray Bradbury’s work has had a profoundly formative effect on our collective American imagination.
That’s because Bradbury, like Kurt Vonnegut, is a writer people actually read. Bradbury was at the height of his powers during a time in our cultural history when books that were both entertaining and artful could reach a mass audience.
But Bradbury’s popularity has also worked against him in certain ways. His books have not cracked the academic literary canon to any great extent. He is not much taught in universities.
At least not yet.
Together, William Touponce and Jon Eller comprise the brainpower behind The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, a branch of the Institute for American Thought, on the campus of IUPUI.
Located in a sub-basement, the institute is a kind of creative root cellar wherein scholars and editors work at preparing definitive editions of texts by the likes of philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce and George Santayana, as well as the great social justice activist Frederick Douglass.
For the past four years, Touponce and Eller have been working to give Ray Bradbury the level of scholarship they think his work deserves. In 2004, they co-authored the first major university press study of Bradbury’s career, Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. Since then, Touponce has served as editor of an annual journal, The New Ray Bradbury Review, and a print version of Bradbury’s screenplay for Moby Dick, published by Subterranean Press.
This month sees the publication of their latest project, the first critical edition of Ray Bradbury’s stories, The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury: Volume 1: 1938-1943, which presents Bradbury’s first stories, written for pulp magazines, in the order in which they were written, along with textual commentaries that document the ways the stories evolved over time.
At 63, William Touponce has spent a large part of his professional life reading Ray Bradbury and thinking about how Bradbury’s work has affected readers. But before he was a scholar, Touponce was a 12 year-old haunting the Carnegie Library in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was 1954, and Bradbury’s collection of stories, The Golden Apples of the Sun was in the library’s new arrivals section.
“I opened it up and I saw this picture of a hand reaching down from a space ship and scraping out some of the sun to bring it back as a power source,” Touponce said, his eyes sparkling over a white, trimmed beard. “It was a Promethean act of the imagination, although I couldn’t articulate that. I took the book home and read every one of those stories.”
Touponce wrote his graduate dissertation in comparative literature on Bradbury in 1981. It was, he said, “like giving the gift back that he gave me.”
At that time, literary scholars were paying more attention to what they called “reader response.” Touponce’s thesis was not about Bradbury as author, but peoples’ response to him.
“I think that everybody who’s read him has felt this sense of uplift and exhilaration to his writing,” Touponce said. “It’s deeply human in the way it looks at the contradictions of human life.”
Touponce finds that Bradbury is part of a long literary tradition going back at least to the French Romantic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and including the surrealists, which reflects on and seeks to trigger emotional reverie. “There are these leaps of imagination that combine both the unconscious mind and the conscious mind,” Touponce said. A combination, he adds, that went well with the science fiction genre, “because that’s what science fiction is supposed to do.”
While Bradbury began his career publishing genre fiction in pulp magazines, Touponce believes Bradbury has resisted categorizing his work.
“He was very self-consciously building in literary references, so that by the time he gets to Golden Apples of the Sun, the reviewer in Time magazine called Bradbury ‘poet of the pulps.’ He was someone who was doing something unique and magical, because he was transforming pulp material into literature. That’s in 1954, but I think this intention goes back to his very first story.”
This is why Touponce and Eller’s critical edition of Bradbury’s first stories is revelatory. “Although he says that he never thought of market when he was writing a story,” Touponce said of Bradbury’s career, “we know that he wrote things pulpy to sell them to certain venues and then later rewrote them.”
Referring to stories that would eventually find their way into Bradbury’s first landmark collection, The Martian Chronicles, Touponce said: “It’s amazing how much transformation went into that book in making it into a literary work. That is the hidden stuff that our research is bringing out.”
For Touponce, Bradbury’s ability to straddle the worlds of genre and literary fiction made him a kindred spirit with the French surrealists. “The surrealists didn’t like these distinctions between literary and nonliterary. They wanted to make art something anyone could do. Anyone could take a stroll through the city at night and find marvelous and wonderful things. I think Bradbury’s the same way. He’s not wanting to be an elite, literary writer. He wants to be an artist with a popular audience.”
Bradbury and Touponce have corresponded at length over the years since Touponce wrote his Bradbury-inspired dissertation. “I have a letter from him where he says he wants people to take his stories like apples and oranges, like fruit from a tree, and have them enjoyed,” Touponce said. “He really tries to break down that distinction between high art and entertainment.”
Where Touponce’s collaborator, Eller, engages with Bradbury’s work from textual and historical perspectives, Touponce is a literary critic, focusing on Bradbury’s themes. “I think that’s something that’s unique here,” Touponce said about The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, “you see a textual editor and a literary interpretive critic working together.”
The center was approved as part of IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts in 2007. In addition to producing the first critical edition of Bradbury’s stories, its annual Bradbury journal and editing and arranging for publication of the Moby Dick screenplay, the center has also created a database of Bradbury’s voluminous correspondence. “We’ve really come a long way in three years,” Touponce said.
Bradbury, though in ill health, has been a steadfast supporter of the center’s work. “We call him Dad,” Touponce said, smiling. “And he looks at us as sons. That’s okay, as long as it’s a metaphor, it doesn’t get too uncomfortable. He’s always been supportive of people, as long as they don’t over-intellectualize his work. He wants people to respond first in an emotional way.”
Eller is now putting finishing touches on the first volume of his biography, Becoming Ray Bradbury, due this November. For his part, Touponce is working on a collection of Bradbury notes, sketches and fragments, derived from 50 years of writing and 10,000 pages of material that he calls “a commonplace book.” Seven hundred of these shards, “little poetic descriptions of objects, and people and things,” will be arranged thematically. They are, Touponce said, the source of Bradbury’s reveries and “something no one has seen outside of Bradbury.” The manuscript should be done by the end of this year.
There’s more to do. The center’s funding will run out in another year, so Touponce and Eller are looking for additional support to complete two more volumes of The Collected Stories, as well as a descriptive bibliography and a volume of letters.
“We really are getting to the point where we’re talking about a legacy here,” Touponce said. “Not that Bradbury didn’t do that on his own. But in terms of thinking about his work critically, keeping his ideas alive through the journal and these other projects; his creativity and having people celebrate that – I think we are carrying on a legacy, and I think he understands it that way too.”
For Touponce, Ray Bradbury’s work is a self-renewing source of energy. “I can read him when I’m 12 years old,” he said,” and I can still read him and be refreshed.”
- Jon Eller and William Touponce