The world lost one of its most haunting, poetic voices when Raymond Douglas Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5th. We are all diminished by his death.
The steady stream of obits and accolades over the past several hours have all read something along the lines of: “the first writer of literary science fiction,” or, “made science fiction respectable.” He was compared in these notices to his contemporaries, Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Robert Heinlein (190701988) and Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007).
This simplifying of the story is expected in our media, but it does a great disservice to Bradbury. Despite the relative merits of the gentlemen named above, they were not prose stylists as lyric, distinct and evocative as Bradbury. Bradbury’s brand of American lyrical fantasy has more in common with Our Town and You Can’t Take it With You than the baroque excesses of Stranger in a Strange Land or Breakfast for Champions. To capture the real flavor of Bradbury’s literary contribution, it makes more sense to compare him to Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), William Saroyan (1908-1981) or Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) than Heinlein or Clarke.
Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920. It was a particularly American time and place, a moment that would be memorialized in the art of such painters as Norman Rockwell. The impact of his birthplace on Bradbury’s art is remarkable: it laid a foundation of small-town American sweetness, optimism and community under much of his work. These qualities are found in abundance in two of Bradbury’s novels, Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). Both books are, in your correspondent’s estimation, two of the finest American novels of the 20th Century.
There are two overarching characteristics to Bradbury’s corpus – love and its blessed accomplice, enthusiasm. Both are expressed through a deep vein of nostalgia – nostalgia for a lost past and an unforgotten childhood.
Bradbury was a man in love – in love with the pop culture of the American Century, in love with writing, and in love with the world. When he was a boy, Bradbury met a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico, an encounter that would change his life. Here’s the exchange, in Bradbury’s own words, from December 2001:
Back when I was twelve years old I was madly in love with L. Frank Baum and the Oz books, along with the novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and especially the Tarzan books and the John Carter, Warlord of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I began to think about becoming a writer at that time.
Simultaneously I saw Blackstone the Magician on stage and thought, what a wonderful life it would be if I could grow up and become a magician.
In many ways that is exactly what I did.
It was an encounter with another magician that changed my life forever.
During the Labor Day week of 1932 a favorite uncle of mine died; his funeral was held on the Labor Day Saturday. If he hadn't died that week, my life might not have changed because, returning from his funeral at noon on that Saturday, I saw carnival tent down by Lake Michigan. I knew that down there, by the lake, in his special tent, was a magician named Mr. Electrico.
Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"
I thought that was a wonderful idea, but how did you do it?
The next day, being driven home by my father, fresh from the funeral, I looked down at those carnival tents and thought to myself, "The answer is there. He said 'Live forever,' and I must go find out how to do that." I told my father to stop the car. He didn't want to, but I insisted. He stopped the car and let me out, furious with me for not returning home to partake in the wake being held for my uncle. With the car gone, and my father in a rage, I ran down the hill. What was I doing? I was running away from death, running toward life.
When I reached the carnival grounds, by God, sitting there, almost as if he were waiting for me, was Mr. Electrico. I grew, suddenly, very shy. I couldn't possibly ask, How do you live forever? But luckily I had a magic trick in my pocket. I pulled it out, held it toward Mr. Electrico and asked him if he'd show me how to do the trick. He showed me how and then looked into my face and said, "Would you like to see some of those peculiar people in that tent over there?"
I said, "Yes."
He took me over to the sideshow tent and hit it with his cane and shouted, "Clean up your language!" at whoever was inside. Then, he pulled up the tent flap and took me in to meet the Illustrated Man, the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the acrobats, and all the strange people in the sideshows.
He then walked me down by the shore and we sat on a sand dune. He talked about his small philosophies and let me talk about my large ones. At a certain point he finally leaned forward and said, "You know, we've met before."
I replied, "No, sir, I've never met you before."
He said, "Yes, you were my best friend in the great war in France in 1918 and you were wounded and died in my arms at the battle of the Ardennes Forrest. But now, here today, I see his soul shining out of your eyes. Here you are, with a new face, a new name, but the soul shining from your face is the soul of my dear dead friend. Welcome back to the world."
Why did he say that? I don't know. Was there something in my eagerness, my passion for life, my being ready for some sort of new activity? I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that he said, "Live forever" and gave me a future and in doing so, gave me a past many years before, when his friend died in France.
Leaving the carnival grounds that day I stood by the carousel and watched the horses go round and round to the music of "Beautiful Ohio." Standing there, the tears poured down my face, for I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico.
I went home and the next day traveled to Arizona with my folks. When we arrived there a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago.
I have long since lost track of Mr. Electrico, but I wish that he existed somewhere in the world so that I could run to him, embrace him, and thank him for changing my life and helping me become a writer.
More Bradbury tomorrow!