Library Grows A Lush Imagination

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Ray Bradbury and his Green Town Roots

By Ellyn Ruhlmann, Freelance Writer

Where was Ray Bradbury when the stock market came crashing down in 1929? Others, jobless by the millions, ate in soup kitchens and slept in cardboard jungles, and where was he? Ray Bradbury was on Mars.

Sheltered between the pages of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars tales, nine-year-old Ray wasn’t worried about his dad holding a job, or where his next meal would come from. He was worried about Ras Thavas transplanting his brain into the body of a giant ape. Other days he might travel to Oz to cavort with the likes of Button-Bright, and Ojo the Munchkin boy. All characters he pulled from library shelves in hometown Waukegan, Illinois.

"My idea of living was every Monday to run down Washington Street directly to the library … the Carnegie Library built by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century," Bradbury said in a 2006 interview. "I loved opening the library door and looking in and listening to all my friends in there. All the books talked to me, they all whispered. The stacks were dark and mysterious and wonderful."

It was at the library that Bradbury learned about magic and creatures fantastic, about mystery and the art of suspense.  It’s where he forged an intimate connection with Poe and other literary masters whose work would profoundly influence his own. Many of these early library memories still echo throughout Bradbury’s stories, most notably his masterwork, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Nose down at one of the long tables at the Carnegie Library, caught in some wild caper, Bradbury was growing into one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of our time.

Outside, the world was still crumbling with the aftershocks of Black Tuesday, but Bradbury wasn’t feeling them. He was always someplace else.

Poet of the Pulps

Bradbury grew up the third son of a middle-class family in Waukegan, a place named, he said, “with neither love nor grace”—later immortalized as Green Town in his novels. Canopied by trees and dotted with dandelions, this nostalgic old neighborhood lay hitched together by brick-paved streets, trains and a trolley, yet divided by a deep, woody ravine. In short, the ideal setting to indulge his craving for make-believe.

Ray and older brother Skip would make frequent trips not only to the library, but also the cinema, magic shows and, when lucky enough, a lakefront carnival. He recalls the pivotal night he encountered “Mr. Electrico,” a carnival magician who could survive super-charges of electricity. Sitting front-row, Ray felt the unexpected tap of the magician’s sword and the boom of his command: “Live forever!” After that, Ray started writing every day without fail.

His early outpouring showed a swirl of cultural influences, from Buck Rodgers to Jules Verne, King Kong to Hawthorne. (“A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am,” Bradbury quipped. “But it burns with a high flame.”) They were stories that eluded labeling. Not traditional science fiction or fantasy, these tales formed more of a hybrid genre, one tinged with poetic imagery and prose.  Bradbury’s classic library education had marbleized with all the graphic appeal of pop culture to create his unique style—a style that would lead Time magazine to dub him “Poet of the Pulps.”

He published his stories in his own zine, Futuria Fantasia, before pulp magazines like Weird Tales began picking up his work. Over the years, Bradbury gained a steady following and in 1947 came out with his first anthology, Dark Carnival, the same year his short story, “Homecoming,” was selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories. Bradbury had made the transition from what many considered lowbrow pulps to high-paying slicks. Mainstream critics had their eye on him, and were ready for the explosive bestsellers that followed.

Rocketing Fame

“A thing that begins when you’re three and six and 10 and 12 winds up in your fictions when you’re in your 30s,” Bradbury observed.

Decades after he caught his first flare of inspiration from Burroughs’ Mars novels, Bradbury composed The Martian Chronicles—his first tour de force. Again drawing from library classics of his youth, the author credited Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for helping give structure to this book he calls “a half-cousin to a novel.” Ylla and her kind with their yellow coin eyes—living just a planet away—took our imaginations on a rocket ride. The Martian Chronicles, as Bradbury later found out, even sparked the ambitions of real-life space travelers: the boys who would grow up to be Apollo astronauts.

A year later came The Illustrated Man, another loosely-knit collection of stories that wooed over the anti-fantasy literati. By this time, 1951, Bradbury and his burgeoning family were living in Los Angeles, and despite this newfound notoriety, he still couldn’t afford his own office. So he improvised. Leaving his clamorous offspring behind, Bradbury would often sojourn to the UCLA library and ramble about, pulling inspiration from one tome or another. One day, he heard the clack of typewriter keys from below. Peering down into the basement, he found a whole roomful of typewriters, available to rent for 10 cents a half-hour.

“I got a bag of dimes, I moved into the typing room of the library, and I spent $9.80,” said Bradbury in an interview. “And I wrote Fahrenheit 451. So you see, what a place for Fahrenheit 451 to be written, in a library! … Where it wasn’t being burned.” More than fifty years later, Fahrenheit 451 has sold more than five million copies and is still widely circulated—required reading in many English courses. Often compared to classics like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel’s messages about totalitarianism and the superficiality of mass culture still resonate today.

For years, Bradbury shrank from the science fiction label because he believed science fiction is the art of the possible, and he wrote of the impossible; he wrote fantasy. But in the end, this author, who learned how to terrorize from Poe and Shelley, whose work evinced chills on Alfred Hitchcock shows and among pulp fans everywhere, might best be remembered for Fahrenheit 451 because it’s the only true science fiction book in his corpus. And as such, perhaps the most terrifying.

“I have to write these books and help change the future,” Bradbury said. Yet, in practicing this art of the possible, Bradbury may have himself introduced new possibilities. For a book written back when TV was still a newfangled invention, Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates an almost eerie prescience. In Montag’s world, technology eclipses humanity, shutting people off from each other with virtual reality, big-screen TVs and “seashell radios”—our iPods of today. A half-century later, much of Bradbury’s foreboding has come to fruition.

Other Explorations

The year Fahrenheit 451 hit the shelves, 1953, media from radio to film began to till the rich fields of Bradbury’s work. It Came From Outer Space appeared on the big screen that year, followed by other Hollywood adaptations, including The Illustrated Man and eventually, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s short stories also emerged on 1950’s TV shows like Tales of Tomorrow, Suspense, Jane Wyman’s Fireside Theatre and others. In 1980, Rock Hudson would star in a TV miniseries of The Martian Chronicles, and the author himself would later host his own TV series, The Ray Bradbury Show.

While show biz made hay with Ray, his talents overspilled into architecture as well. In 1962, he was asked to serve as consultant for the New York World’s Fair, and to write and choreograph The American Journey, an elaborate educational display at the U.S. Pavilion. Bradbury also devised prototypes for “small town” shopping malls all across the country, including the innovative Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles and Horton Plaza in San Diego. And in 1976, the mammoth behind the Mouse, Walt Disney company, tapped Ray to help design and script the interiors of Spaceship Earth, EPCOT’s geodesic focal point.

Bradbury had always loved pop culture, and pop culture learned to love Ray Bradbury.

Hometown Reflections

… From the age of twenty-four to thirty-six hardly a day passed when I didn’t stroll myself across a recollection of my grandparents’ northern Illinois grass, hoping to come across some old half-burnt firecracker, a rusted toy, or a fragment of letter written to myself in some young year hoping to contact the older person I became to remind him of his past, his life, his people, his joys, and his drenching sorrows. —Ray Bradbury, introduction to Dandelion Wine

By the mid-fifties, Bradbury was back living in Los Angeles after spending a half-year abroad to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of Moby Dick. Director John Houston sent a limo for him opening night, and he got a close squint at the Hollywood lights. Ray Bradbury was big time now. His books topped the bestseller lists. His name was  a household name. Yet Bradbury felt increasing pangs for home, for his humble Green Town. He mulled wistfully over boyhood haunts, the spooky sprints through the ravine, trips to the coal docks, the green glow of bankers’ lamps at the Carnegie library. And he wrote about them. This period marks a kind of homecoming in Bradbury’s writing, the shift to autobiographical fantasy.

In 1957, he published Dandelion Wine, a poignant portrayal of one golden summer in Green Town, a year before the Great Depression. Crafted in a series of vignettes, the book offers readers a glug of Grandpa Spaulding’s best vintage, conjuring images of boyhood pleasures, of wet, green lawns and new tennis shoes and lime vanilla ice. But Dandelion Wine is also a novel of loss. It’s about your best chum moving away, and taking the last ride on a familiar trolley before city buses roar in. In Waukegan, the last trolley ran in 1947, and like 12-year-old Douglas at the end of summer, Bradbury fans feel the loss of this simpler era.

Summer cools to autumn, the author’s favorite time of year, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, his next Green Town novel. Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has just moved into Green Town, casting its pall over the once happy haunts of Bradbury’s youth. As the carnival’s mysterious carousel turns, either aging or age-reversing its riders, terrors mount. Suspense finally culminates at Ray’s old source of refuge, the Carnegie Library. Here, 13-year-olds Will and Jim seek protection “somewhere in the recumbent solitudes” from the tattooed menace of Mr. Dark. But the boys, who started out as green as their town, quickly learn that the library—as Bradbury says—is a place of discovery.

Library Degree

You must live feverishly in a library. Colleges are not going to do any good unless you are raised and live in a library every day of your life. —Ray Bradbury

Readers marvel that Bradbury, a wielder of complex themes and nuanced, metaphor-rich language, never made it to college. Like Hemingway and Faulkner, Ray Bradbury dedicated himself to independent study. He earned his own degree, largely in the library. And in return for this free education, Bradbury became a mighty advocate for libraries everywhere. Until health issues impeded, he made frequent visits back to Waukegan, and supported the Ray Bradbury Creative Writing Contest at the Waukegan Public Library for more than 20 years. When the city voted to demolish the old Carnegie Library building, it was Bradbury who stopped the wrecking ball. The landmark, now slated for a museum, will forever remain a chilling reminder of Dark’s demonics.

Spin Bradbury’s own carousel backward, and Dark and his carnival had their real beginnings with Dark Carnival, Bradbury’s very first published work. Since then, he produced more than 600 short stories, novels, plays and poems. Unconventional in style and subject, Bradbury’s work became enormously influential to the literary community, earning placements in four Best American Short Story collections. Writers like Studs Terkel believe the author’s finest achievement came in his “rural remembrances of things past.” Could Bradbury have found that letter he wrote, reminding him of his younger self? In the Green Town novels, all his boyhood experiences exhale with startling vividness. It’s as if he felt the tap of Mr. Electrico’s sword again, and wanted to pass along the charge.

“When people touch my books, they are alive,” Bradbury says. “So that’s the gift I give to them, and I want them to carry them back and forth to the library.”

About the Author: Ellyn Ruhlmann is a freelance writer living in Grayslake, Illinois. One of her specialties is writing about libraries and their impact on communities. Ellyn is passionate about books and literacy issues, and holds a master's degree in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Like Bradbury, she earned it largely in the library.