An Immense Gratitude
It seems that every piece of incoming mail was, for Bradbury, an opportunity to ply his trade.
Remembrance: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury, edited by Jonathan R. Eller, Simon and Schuster, 509 pages.
The act of writing a letter to an author is a bit like prayer. Both are rooted in hopefulness. During my adolescence, I wrote to several of my favorite authors. Fearing the crushing letdown of a non-answer, I was careful in whom I chose. Nevertheless, my results were sadly predictable: I never heard back from Kurt Vonnegut. Little, Brown replied simply to say that, yes, they still forwarded mail to J.D. Salinger. If I had heard anything more from Salinger, I would today be a millionaire following the auction of our correspondence.
I did hear back from Ray Bradbury (1920–2012). At the time, I was writing a book about Orson Welles, with whom Bradbury had a tangential connection: Bradbury had cowritten the screenplay to John Huston’s intriguing, ambitious film version of Moby-Dick, which featured Welles as Father Mapple. On a whim, I dashed off an admiring note to Bradbury. Some weeks later, I found an envelope reading “Ray Bradbury Enterprises” in my mailbox. I had seen enough interviews with Bradbury to know that he was, at heart, an earnest Midwestern boy, a wide-eyed son of Waukegan, Illinois, who just happened to be inhabiting the body of an 80-something Angeleno.
Bradbury wrote: “Dear Peter: Thank you for your letter of May 23rd and your kind words. I look forward to reading your book on Orson Welles. He was a great influence on my life and I had two opportunities to work with him over the years. My belief is still that Citizen Kane is the finest film ever made. I wish you all the best in the months and years ahead, Ray Bradbury.”
In paging through an extraordinary new collection of Bradbury’s letters, I came to realize just how common my experience was. It seems that every piece of incoming mail was, for Bradbury, an opportunity to ply his trade. “Bradbury was a prolific correspondent,” writes editor Jonathan R. Eller. “He prided himself on writing fiction (or adaptations of his fiction) nearly every day of his career, but the ever-increasing count of his known letters indicates that hardly a day passed where he was not deeply engaged in letter writing as well.”
Included in this judiciously assembled collection are communiques to and from agents, editors, and moviemakers. Mentors, peers, and family members are also represented. The book is not arranged chronologically but according to categories of recipient, and it can be frustrating to be yanked between old, wise Bradbury and youthful, wet-behind-the-ears Bradbury. Yet Eller’s approach pays off because we see how Bradbury talked to different people in different ways, including fans like me.
“Throughout his career, students of all ages, often unpublished, wrote to Bradbury for advice and critique,” Eller writes. One such student was a high school junior named Thomas Thurston Thomas in 1965. In a generous answer, Bradbury declined to read the youngster’s work (“All of the stories written by boys in their teens, including all the stories I wrote in my teens, are simply not good”) but went on for paragraphs with advice that boiled down to this: write. “Between now and your twentieth birthday, I want you to write at least a thousand words, four pages a day, or the equivalent of a short story a week,” Bradbury said. “Only with this kind of disciplined schedule can you learn enough, do enough, to be a writer.”
Even as Bradbury entered the twilight of his life, he was still willing to engage thoughtfully with novices. In the 2000s, a high school teacher named Gregory Miller sought the counsel of Bradbury, who gamely provided encouragement. “I’ve tried to live with the motto ‘I can hardly wait’ in mind,” Bradbury wrote to Miller in 2004. “In other words, every day jump out of bed because you’re curious to see what the day holds, and what you can find, and what you can create, because it’s all so wonderfully exciting.”
Such words may strike some as Pollyannaish, but to read the letters assembled here is to see that Bradbury was no fake. He lived his days on the planet Earth with relish and imagined humanity’s future with gusto. During Bradbury’s own salad days, he proudly touted to his friend Edmond Hamilton that he had placed a batch of stories in the American Mercury, Collier’s, and Mademoiselle. “It’s all very unbelievable and I’m still gasping and holding a vial of smelling salts to my nostrils,” Bradbury wrote.
Many years would elapse before Bradbury shed his innocent wonder about being published, and perhaps he never did. In 1949, ahead of the publication of The Martian Chronicles, he sounds anxious and inexperienced in his letters to Doubleday editor Walter Bradbury (no relation): “I am enclosing the copyright data you asked for. Incidentally, I want to be certain that the copyright page for The Martian Chronicles contains none of this copyright data at all. . . . Will there be an advertising budget on Chronicles? And have you any idea of what the initial printing will be?”
In 1971, Knopf editor Nancy Nicholas gently suggested changes to a book of Bradbury’s verse, to which the author replied with a flat explanation about his fundamentally intuitive process: “I think you should know now that of course I do not know, on a conscious level, what I am doing.” When Walter Bradbury wrote to ask about the ongoing delays that were impacting the completion of what became Dandelion Wine (“you are either putting it aside too frequently and too casually, or you are up against a block in the completion of it”), Ray replied: “The book is going slowly because I won’t fuss and fidget and push and monkey with it. I wait for the excitement. Not a passive waiting by any means; not neglect, at all.” The book eventually emerged, and it remains a masterpiece.
Get daily emails in your inbox
Not that Bradbury was a neurotic artist. To the contrary, the book is chock full of letters in which he expresses his delight at his own work and excitement over his own ideas. In a letter to producer Lewis Allen, Bradbury boldly puts forth his opinions on casting for Francois Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit 451. “I am very upset to hear that Terence Stamp is set for Montag,” he writes. “As for the girls you mention, I, unlike many, have never been impressed with Jean Seberg, nor, from what I have seen, by Jane Fonda.” (Blessedly, the roles went to Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.) In 1997, he relishes the sight of an ad for one of his books in The New Yorker; a year later, he sounds over the moon that an art director endorsed his concept for the cover of Death Is a Lonely Business.
When most people write letters, they are concerned with how they come across to the recipient. Bradbury seems blissfully sure of himself and his opinions, which include his objections to automotive travel (“the auto has taken over much of the work once done by germs”) and jet travel (“balloons are more my speed; though I realize this is only ridiculous romanticism on my part”). He is somewhat shameless in putting himself forward for projects, writing to Federico Fellini in 1978: “I want to enclose a play of mine which I believe contains the seeds of a possible Fellini/Bradbury collaboration.”
A thoroughly mainstream liberal in many ways, Bradbury was eccentric enough—and conservative enough in some of his instincts—to attract the admiration of Russell Kirk. Portions of their correspondence are included here, and perhaps the most fitting summation of Bradbury’s life-embracing perspective is found in this passage written to Kirk in 1967: “Above all, at heart, the thing that drives me most often is an immense gratitude that I was given this one chance to live, to be alive the one time round in a miraculous experience that never ceases to be glorious and dismaying. I accept the whole damn thing.” Here is a book—and a soul—to treasure.