Something Wondrous This Way Comes

REVIEW: 'Remembrance: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury'

Simon & Schuster
March 3, 2024

March 2024

Dear (if I may be so bold) Ray,

I read Jonathan R. Eller's collection of your correspondence, from the fan mail you sent in your youth to the letters and emails you sent in 2007. Eller writes that, before your death in 2012, you approved of his publishing some of your letters: "Oh sure, oh yeah," you said, "because it's the story of my life." That's exactly what the book is—autobiography, yet somehow more authentic because the autobiographer was writing of his experiences while living them.

You critiqued plenty of books throughout your life, Ray, so you can understand Remembrance is a hard book to review. So many letters are so personal—those to your parents, of course, and those to friends, especially amid an argument. But then, you were always personal in your writing, weren't you? A Bradbury story is always autobiographical, certainly in feeling and usually also in fact, from the earliest Weird Tales submissions on. OK, so maybe you didn't really meet the powers of darkness in the form of a traveling carnival, but Something Wicked This Way Comes's Mr. Electrico was real, you explained, and formative on you. OK, so maybe firemen aren't yet hired to burn books, but you always could see, and target, the insidiousness of thought control. (How sad you would be now, if you could see the cruel iconoclasm that accompanies today's "wokeness," politicization of everything, and cancel culture.) And, of course, Something Wicked and Dandelion Wine's Green Town is your idealized Waukegan, Ill., where you grew up and which you capture with the skill and Americana of, yes, Mark Twain.

I was in elementary school when I discovered one of your stories in the library—I think it was "The Black Ferris." A mysterious circus comes to town on the wings of the October wind ("like a dark bat flying over the cold lake"), bringing a Ferris wheel that can reverse the flow of time? I was hooked. On to The Martian Chronicles, The October Country, and the other glorious short stories! On to Something Wicked and—eventually—Dandelion Wine! I came to realize, at some point, that a story like The Martian Chronicles' "Mars Is Heaven" (my favorite Bradbury, then and now) doesn't have much to do at all with the fourth planet from the sun. Your Mars exists in the longings of the human soul—the reason the story is so moving and so terrifying. The Martian Chronicles can "be read on Mars … one hundred years from now," you noted in a 1996 letter, because you were writing "mythology, not scientific fact." And what is mythology, after all, but our stumbling first attempts to cope with the world, the universe, and the divine?

You made this point both in interviews and in these letters. "Fantasy must not just be fantasy," you wrote in a 1981 analysis of Something Wicked, "it must be rooted in metaphor." (If only more fantasy and sci-fi writers nowadays understood this!) The power of metaphor, of meaning, of mythopoeia, overshadows the arbitrary genre distinctions beloved of critics. "I don't write stories with labels at all, if I can help it," you explained in 1951. "I write 'stories.' I write stories the best I know how, at all times."

That you did, with that inimitable prose style—poetic but not purple, with the honesty and precision of one of your favorites, Robert Frost—for over 70 years. Your gift for prose shows up throughout Remembrance, with phrases funny ("they both breathed blarney and barley"), writerly ("I would be delighted [hell, what a weak word] to try my hand at it"), and contemplative: "I still feel like the boy who woke up summer mornings in Illinois thirty years ago," you wrote in 1960. "Hell, it's a collaboration between him and me still, anyway, his early delights, and my later wisdoms knocking together and coming out in stories."

I was particularly struck by a letter you wrote to a friend, in the middle of a fight. "I hope this friction cools off quickly. We all need friends and life is so damnably, tritely, short." That tritely is the Bradbury touch.

You may be surprised, as I was, by how Eller organized the book—not totally chronologically but thematically. The letters in each section are chronological, but then the reader moves on to the next section and is back in your early days. (I was amused by how many novelists, politicians, filmmakers, actors, journalists, philosophers, etc., with whom you corresponded—Ray, is there anyone you didn't know?) I understood why Eller made that choice, though, as I read on: A straightforward progression would be too much. After reading letters from three U.S. presidents and the Pulitzer committee, we need a reminder of when you were working your way up, paying your dues, toiling in the pulps. The future, in other words, leads us to the past… I think you would have liked that.

I could say much more. I loved your rightly incensed letter to a far-left editor who wanted you to change a story to align with his publication's politics. He could criticize style, characterization, and structure, you told him, but "when you begin telling me how my theme should be angled sociologically or politically, I am going to pack my belongings and trot out the front door." Hear hear!

But I'll stop there, except to say that throughout the book you refer to your novels, stories, and poems as "yarns." Is that fair for someone of your talent, someone who broke the barriers between genre and "literary" fiction, who reminded us of wonder? But maybe, ultimately, just spinning a yarn is a writer's highest achievement—a yarn that will withstand time and become mythology, ready for Martians to read 100 years hence.

Thanks, Mr. B., for the letters, for the wisdom, and for the yarns.



Remembrance: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury
by Ray Bradbury, edited by Jonathan R. Eller
Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $35

Published under: Book reviews