I’ve got a personal memory of the late, great Ray Bradbury that’s bittersweet — but sweeter and way less bitter than it was at that time. It’s about when the author of “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Dandelion Wine” and “The Illustrated Man” helped me earn an “A” in an independent study English course I took during my senior year at a college in western New York.
The course required a mini-thesis, no classes, and periodic meetings with the department chairman, a wonderful and wise old gentleman (as in probably in his early 60s — I mean, afterall, I was just 20 years old) named Leo Maloney.
I’d been reading a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne — specifically, I was captivated by the short story “Young Goodman Brown” and the novels “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter.”
And I loved everything I’d read by Ray Bradbury — especially “The Martian Chronicles,” which I still think is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read — and had just read (and really liked) his novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
I got it in my head that there were parallels between those works by Hawthorne and Bradbury.
I’d also been reading a lot of literary history, criticism and theory and had been struck by what I’d read somewhere about something referred to as the “numinous,” which I understood and explained as a sense of mystery and foreboding and impending disaster, an unnamed fear, an uneasiness that can’t quite be explained, a dark presence that you can’t quite put your finger on but the sense of it keeps you awake at night.
I detected and felt that in the works of both men, especially in Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which combines gothic elements with sweet nostalgia for childhood innocence in a story revolving around the appearance in a small midwestern town of a mysterious traveling carnival headlined by the strange Mr. Dark, and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the story of young man who sets off at sunset into the dark woods around Salem, Massachusetts, leaving behind his wife Faith as he embarks on a mysterious mission.
That became my thesis, which was titled something like “Things That Go Bump in the Night: Examples of the Numinous in Works by Ray Bradbury and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Here’s the sweet part of the memory: Somehow I came upon a mailing address for Bradbury,, somewhere in California, I think in Los Angeles. With all the cockiness and gumption I could muster (which was a lot of cockiness and gumption), I wrote to Bradbury and explained my thesis.
And, about a week later, the great man wrote back!I’ve lost — or at least can’t find — the letter. But in it, I remember, he talked about how others had cited such influences as Herman Melville and Edgar Rice Burroughs on hiswork. But, he said, no one had really ever mentioned the influence of Hawthorne — and, Bradbury said, as a youngster he had loved and devoured the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, yes, he said, I was right on target in detecting the dark and mysterious presence of Hawthorne in his work.
I incorporated most of Bradbury’s letter into my thesis paper. I got an “A” for the paper and the course. How could I not?
The bitter part? I was 20. I wrote poetry. I had made a connection with a great, famous writer. So I wrote back to him, sending him a copy of my thesis — and well as a sampling of two or three of my poems.
A few weeks later, another envelope arrived from Ray Bradbury. In it were copies of my two poems — marked up and edited heavily with red pen. To put it mildly, Bradbury ripped my poems to shreds. OK, fine. But what really got my goat was that he’d also enclosed one of his own poems — “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” I think it was called, and cited it as an example of a well-crafted poem, a poem I could learn from and use as a model.
Sorry, I still think Bradbury was a great fiction writer in his early years but that he was never anything more than mediocre as a poet.
So…20-year-old me took up my own red pen, marked up my copy of “When Elephants Last…,” and mailed it back to Bradbury.
I never heard from Ray Bradbury again.
Now, of course, that exchange of poems doesn’t mean nearly as much as the great works of fiction the man left behind. I was bitter about his comments about my poems. Now I think it’s funny — even though I still don’t think he was right.
So rest in peace, Ray Bradbury, where gentle rains fall upon the red Martian hills, or perhaps someplace where three suns rise and three suns set, in all their glory, three times a day, over lush green hills, where you sit at your typewriter banging out beautiful fiction and not-to-great but heartfelt poems..