How Ray Bradbury helped me earn an “A” in English

Ray Bradbury

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..


My favorite Martian

I caught a glimpse of Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago on some cable TV movies channel. It brought back some memories. And it set me to thinking a little about Bradbury’s literary legacy. Maybe it’s not necessary to say this, but I think some people still need to be told that he was far more than a writer of science fiction. Ask me to list my top 100 favorite books and it just might include three by Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.

Bradbury’s early writing, especially in those three books, combines emotional, crisp, almost poetic writing with extraordinary flights of the imagination and a unique gift for telling even the most unbelievable tales in a way that suspends belief with an ease that’s beyond belief. The Martian Chronicles populated and injected poetics into our dreams of the cosmos. Dandelion Wine, which I assume was inspired by Bradbury’s own memories of growing up in a small town in simpler times, perfectly captured the  joys and magic of childhood. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a dark, rumbling, ominous summer thunderstorm somehow captured within the covers of a book.

But something happened to Ray Bradbury. Look at his writing of, say, the last forty years, and for the most part it’s derivative and just plain uninspired. What happened? My theory? Bright lights, big city. Bradbury went Hollywood, which is a place that was way too far away from his boyhood home in a small town in Illinois.

Those three books I listed are works of genius. Throw in some of the other short-story collections and novels — Fahrenheit 451, Golden Apples of the Sun, The Illustrated Man, A Medicine for Melancholy, R Is for Rocket, S Is for Space — and you’re not going to hear me denying that Bradbury deserved the special National Book Award citation he received for Distinguished Contributions to American Literature.

But for a long time he’s come across like he thinks he’s one of the greatest writers ever — like all he has to do is set his pen to paper and yet another masterpiece will appear.  And when that didn’t happen, he apparently still thought it did, and still came across like he was 20th century American literature’s equivalent of a rich and hearty Melville-Hawthorne-Poe stew with a dash of Verne and a sprinkling of Lovecraft, served up with a side dish of (Edgar) Rice (Burroughs).

Speaking of which, when I was in college I wrote a thesis in which I compared the “sense of the numinous” in Something Wicked This Way Comes and a few of Bradbury’s short stories with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables, as well as the short story “Young Goodman Brown.”

Somehow I got hold of Bradbury’s mailing address in L.A., and he was kind enough to write back. Not only that, he applauded my observations of this hard-to-define sense of looming evil and vague foreboding found in his work and in Hawthorne. Not only that, as I remember it, Bradbury also commented that no one had ever really mentioned his affinity with Hawthorne and told me that Hawthorne was one of his favorite authors when he was young.

I guess it goes without saying that my professor was suitably impressed and gave me a “A” on the thesis.

But wait. It gets better. I was 21 years old. I’d just got a personal letter from one of the greatest writers ever. Writer to writer, right? Wat did I do? Of course I sent him some on my poems and asked him what he thought of them.

Now I have to admit that I was young and foolish and wrote gloomy, indecipherable poems inspired at least in part by my reading of every single City Lights Pocket Poets book published by the Beat poets, including one book by Gregory Corso in which writes something about hanging from the Inevitable Meat Hook and in the margin next to that line 21-year-old Nicholas DiGiovanni wrote “YES!!!”

But my poems weren’t all that bad. Some of them later got published. Some of them were good enough that I got invited to read them — in public — in New York City.

How did Bradbury respond? He marked up my poems to highlight why they sucked. And he sent me copies of a few of his own poems, including one titled “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” These were meant to show me how GOOD poets write poems.

So I wrote back to the esteemed Mr. Bradbury, in all my young and righteous rage, and told him that his clumsy, meant-to-be-funny riff on Whitman’s famous poem was actually stupid and trite. And that the rest of his poems sucked too!

Never heard from Bradbury again.

I still think he’s written more great books that a whole bunch of other American authors, including (painfully, obviously, inevitably) me. And I think it’s cool that he’s 89 years old and is still writing and has still never gotten a driver’s license.

But I also still suspect he sold his soul, maybe right around the time he got involved in the movies, working on the script of “Moby Dick” starring Gregory Peck.

More exactly, I think maybe Ray Bradbury, who looked up at the stars and had an extraordinary vision, sadly had that vision blurred when he got a different kind of stars in his eyes.