A great writer, a great American. I devoured his books, was never disappointed. I think I started with Dark Carnival, and then…well, I can’t remember what came next. I do have two memories of him, one direct, the other maybe something he wouldn’t have welcomed but would no doubt have given him a good laugh.
The direct memory was of a speech he gave to a big crowd of American businessmen in L.A., and he talked a lot about the power of imagination, and he urged them all to embrace their dreams, even the wildest ones, and to pursue them, because we’re in America and anything is possible. After all, he’d spent years writing about Mars (both Mars as a metaphor and the “real” Mars), and then early one morning the first earth vessel was landing on Mars and he’d been invited to the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena to watch the first pictures arrive. He told us how excited he was, and how emotional everybody became when the first photos came in: “They were wonderful pictures, and grown men were crying…”
And then a television journalist shoved a mic into his face and said, “Well, Bradbury, how does it feel? All these years you’ve been dreaming about Mars and writing about Mars, and here are the first pictures from Mars, and there’s no sign of life anywhere. So how does it feel?”
Bradbury yelled at us. “I shouted at him. I shouted “Fools! Fools! There IS life on Mars. And it is US.”
It sent chills up my spine. What a brilliant response it was. If he’d had a month to write it, even he couldn’t have improved it.
The second story isn’t about Bradbury himself, but about Fahrenheit 451, the movie. As you know, the story is about burning books and about those who salvage the documents of civilization from the burners, the “firemen” who build the book pyres and set them aflame. Back in the seventies, a period when I worked in the Italian State Central Archives most every day, Italian TV’s Channel 1 put the movie on one night. If you did research in the Archives, you were at the mercy of the schleppers, the men who went down into the basements to get your documents for you, and if they liked you, you got your documents. If they didn’t like you–and they were not in a rush to decide if they did or didn’t–you got something, but not the full package.
It was, literally, dirty work. I never went down there, but they were forever covered with dirt, and I’m sure there were insects and rodents scurrying around, and I was very grateful when, in the fullness of time, they put me on the OK list and I started to get significant quantities of very interesting material.
You may think that I digress unnecessarily, but not so. For on the morning after the Bradbury movie was broadcast, I went to the bar near the Archives, and a bunch of schleppers were there, and they were talking about Fahrenheit 451. And they weren’t bemoaning the evil of book-burning. Quite the opposite. They loved it. “Did you see those beautiful bonfires?” one of them said, and they all laughed happily, clearly sharing the happy thought of some avenging demon burning all those filthy documents they schlepped upstairs to the likes of me.
I’m sure Bradbury would have had a happy laugh at that. He had a wonderfully supple mind, one of the most playful and elegant minds in a country that excels at such minds, and he’d have delighted at the thought that his story about evil was nonetheless capable of bringing a happy thought to Italian workers who labored in a sea of dirty documents.
He lived 91 years, and he was one of the few heroes of my youth who actually exceeded my hopes for him. What a guy!