Ray Bradbury Accepts the 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

NOVEMBER 15, 2000

Images: 2000 National Book Awards Host Steve Martin.Steve Martin: Each year the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation confers a special award upon an individual who has enriched our literary culture through a life of service or a corpus of work. The National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters will be presented tonight to Ray Bradbury.

Novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and poet, Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois 80 years ago. He grew up in Illinois and Arizona and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where Mr. Bradbury has lived ever since. He married Marguerite McClure in 1947. They have four daughters: Tina, Ramona, Susan, and Alexandra.

Ray Bradbury’s first published story was called “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” and it appeared inImagination! Magazine. The author was 18 years old.

Since that time, how can we even begin to count all of the ways in which Ray Bradbury has etched his indelible impressions upon the American literary landscape? There are few modern authors who can claim such a wide and varied province for their work, spanning from the secret inner-worlds of childhood dreams, to the magic realism of everyday life, to the infinite expanses of outer space.

Half a century ago, The Martian Chronicles was published and soon thereafter Fahrenheit 451 (by the way in Europe that would be “Centigrade 283”)–the quintessential book lovers’ book written in nine days; and then Dandelion Wine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Illustrated Man, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes. (By the way, the original title was “Look Out, Here Comes Something Wicked”.) Ray Bradbury’s prodigious and seemingly never-sleeping imagination continues to delight us, and next fall his new novel, From the Dust Returned, will be published by Avon Books.

What better way to conclude this introduction to Ray Bradbury than to show a clip from the classic film “Fahrenheit 451”, directed by Francois Truffaut starring Oscar Werner and the incomparable Julie Christie. We extend thanks to Universal Pictures for providing this excerpt. Let’s roll the film.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2000 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

Mr. Bradbury: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, here I am. I have one good eye, one good ear, one good leg, and there’s other things missing but I’m afraid to look.

This reminds me of my encounter with W. C. Fields when I was a kid. My folks wandered out to Los Angeles because my dad was looking for work in the Great Depression and I was enamored of movie stars and I wanted to see famous people so I put on my roller skates, I was 13 years old, and I roller-skated out to Hollywood and there standing on the steps of Paramount Studios was everybody’s hero, Mr. W. C. Fields himself. I roller-skated over to him; I said Mr. Fields, can I have your autograph? And he signed it and gave it back to me; he said, “There you are, you little son-of-a-bitch.” And here I am. I felt as if I was knighted that day.

This is incredible. This is quite amazing because who you’re honoring tonight is not only myself but the ghost of a lot of your favorite writers. And I wouldn’t be here except that they spoke to me in the library. The library’s been the center of my life. I never made it to college. I started going to the library when I graduated from high school. I went to the library every day for three or four days a week for 10 years and I graduated from the library when I was 28.

And so I’ve written more short stories and novels and plays and poems about other writers than any other writer in history. I’ve been madly in love with them. I’ve written poems about Edgar Allen Poe being my father. Emily Dickinson being my mother. I’ve written a poem the title of which is “Emily Dickinson Where Are You? Herman Melville Mentioned Your Name Last Night in His Sleep.” I’ve written a wonderful story called, “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine” in which Charles Dickens comes to live in my grandparent’s home when I’m 12-years-old during the long summer of 1932. You didn’t know it, but I helped him finish A Tale of Two Cities with a nickel tablet and a yellow Ticonderoga #2 pencil.

So my dream has always been; I’ve never been jealous or envious of other writers. I have been in love with them and my dream always was that some day I could go to the library and look up on the shelf and see my own name gleaming against L. Frank Baum and the wonderful Oz books, or against Edgar Allen Poe’s or leaning against many other similar writers and knowing that Jules Verne was on a shelf down below me along with H. G. Wells. These are all my companions.

I wrote a long poem a few years ago about taking a journey across England to Land’s End and I said to myself, “Who would I want to take on such a journey late at night, and just sit up all night and listen to them and not say a word myself?” I’d have Rudyard Kipling there and Charles Dickens and Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville and listen to their talk all night and go to sleep with the lazy talk of these wonderful people inside my ears.

So when it comes to a novel like Fahrenheit 451, I don’t know how many of you know, but I wrote it in the library, the basement at UCLA. This is 50 years ago. I had no money to rent a proper office. I had a large family at home and I needed to have a place where I could go for a few hours. I was wandering around the UCLA campus and I looked down below and I listened and down in the basement I heard this typing. So I went down in the basement of the UCLA library and by God there was a room with 12 typewriters in it that you could rent for 10 cents a half-hour. And there were eight or nine students in there working away like crazy, so I moved in there one day with a bag of dimes and I began inserting dimes into the machine and the machine released the typewriter and you’d have half an hour of fast typing. I ran upstairs in between sessions.

Can you imagine what it was like to write Fahrenheit 451 in the library where you could run upstairs and feel the ambience of your beloved writers; and you could take books off the shelf and discover things that you might want to put in your book as a quote and then run back down and finish writing another page. So over a period of nine days I spent $9.80 and I wrote Fahrenheit 451.

You might say I wrote a dime novel, right? But, later Ballantine Books came along and they wanted me to add some material to it so I wrote another 2,500 words. That was during the Joseph McCarthy period. He was giving a bad time to a number of people and I wrote the additional pages to Fahrenheit 451. I still needed some extra income because my family was growing, and I tried to sell it to various magazines who were afraid of the subject matter because Joseph McCarthy was making such a ruckus in the country.

A young editor came along who was starting a new magazine and needed material. He said, “I have very little money. I’ve got $400. Is there something you could sell me for $400?” I said,”Yes, I have this novel and I’d like to have it published in the magazine before it comes out in book form,” and he said, “I will take it.” So I sold Fahrenheit 451 and it appeared in the second, third, and fourth issues of Playboy.

Not a lot of applause from you men here. [APPLAUSE] That’s more like it. That’s more like it. Where would you have been when you were 14 without that magazine, huh? We didn’t have anything like that when I was growing up. It was a terrible, terrible time. Hugh Hefner came up to me at a party a year ago and said, “Thanks for being there when it counted.” And no one knew what he was talking about, but I did. He gave me a chance upward.

It’s been a long, slow process and I’ve been helped by a number of wonderful friends. Number one, my wife took a vow of poverty to marry me, and when we got married we had $10 in the bank.

This is back in 1947, and my wife had to go to work immediately. We had a ceremony at an Episcopal Church and I put $5 in an envelope and handed it to the minister. He said, “What’s this?” I said, “That’s your pay for the ceremony today.” He said, “You’re a writer aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then you’re going to need this.” He handed it to me. I took it back and many years later I sent him a decent check.

I settled into this small bungalow with Maggie back in ’47, but that same month a wonderful thing happened. A young editor at Simon & Schuster wrote me. I had met him briefly that summer before and was incredibly impressed with him. His name was Don Congdon and he said in his letter, “I’m stopping being an editor now this month. Do you need a literary agent?” And I responded to him, “Only if it’s for a lifetime.”

I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife. So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes. And saying to me every time something came up, “What is this going to mean 10 years from now or 20 years from now? We’d better not do it.” So that’s the best advice you can have.

And then along the way I had wonderful editors like Kathy Hourigan over at Knopf, and Bob Gottlieb, and now I have Jennifer Brehl at Avon. But a wonderful thing happened concerning one of my first books. Back in 1949 my wife was pregnant and we had absolutely no money in the bank. Our friend Norman Corwin, the great radio writer, producer, director, a dear friend, said to me, “Ray, why don’t you come to New York and let the editors see your face and maybe you’ll sell something there.” So I got on the Greyhound bus, four days, four nights to New York. Have you ever done that on the Greyhound bus? Don’t. Don’t. Those were the days before air conditioning and toilets.

I arrived at the YMCA, the Sloan House, moved in there for $5 a week and proceeded to show my short stories to editors all around New York City, but nobody wanted my short stories. They said, “Don’t you have a novel?” I said, “No I’m a sprinter. I’m a sprinter.” But finally I had dinner my last night in New York with Don Congdon and Walter Bradbury, no relation of mine. Walter Bradbury at Doubleday. And sitting at dinner that night he said to me, “Ray, what about all those Martian stories you’ve been writing in the pulp magazines during the last 10 years? Don’t you think they would make a novel if you wove them together in some sort of tapestry and called it The Martian Chronicles?” I said, “Oh my God.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson when I was 24 and I said to myself, ‘Oh God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday I could write a book as good as this but put it on the planet Mars.'”

I made an outline, I named some characters, but I forgot all about it and suddenly here was Walter Bradbury suggesting to me a possible novel I’d written without knowing it. So he said, “Do an outline. Come tomorrow to the Doubleday offices and if I read your outline and like it I’ll give you $750.”

I stayed up all night at the Y. I wrote the outline. I took it to him the next day and he said, “Yes, this is it. Here’s $750.” He said, “Now do you have any other material that you could give me that we could kid people into thinking it was a novel?” And I said, “Yes, I have a short story about a man with tattoos all over his body and at night when he dreams he perspires and the tattoos on his body come to life and tell their stories.” And he said, “Here’s another $750.”

So in one day I sold The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man for $1,500. I was rich. And that’s, you know, 53 years ago and money went a long way then. It paid for our rent for the next two years. Our rent was only $30 a month. It paid for our baby. Babies were cheap back then. It cost $100 for our baby. And it was a down payment on a little tract house when we moved inland further. The book came out and there were very, very few reviews. In fact, only one. I was in a bookstore. I bumped into Christopher Isherwood. I did not know him. I grabbed a copy of my book; I signed it and gave it to him. I thought, Oh Christ, you know, I know he’s thinking, “One more book to read. Oh God.”

But three days later Christopher Isherwood called me and said, “Do you know what you’ve done?” I said, “No, what have I done?” He said, “You’ve written a remarkable book and I’m going to be the book editor and writer for Tomorrow Magazinenext October and this will be my first review.” So he did a three-page review of The Martian Chronicles which introduced me to the intellectual world and saved my soul.

So that was the only review. But he introduced me to Gerald Heard and finally my hero, Aldous Huxley, at tea one day. I hate tea. My God, I hate tea. And you have to pretend to like tea when you’re sitting with Aldous Huxley. And Mr. Huxley leaned forward during tea and he said, “Do you know what you are?” And I said, “No, what am I Mr. Huxley?” He said, “You’re published. You’re a poet.” I said, “Is that what I am? Is that what I am.” Aldous Huxley was telling me that I was a poet and I had yet to write one decent poem. I was working at it but it didn’t come right, so I put all my poetry into my books.

So through Isherwood, I met a lot of wonderful people and over the years slowly, slowly, slowly, The Martian Chronicles came into being. I wrote a whole series of essays and short stories and one day woke up and saw that I’d written a novel, and that’s still around.

All of my work is a wonderful surprise and a delight. I take joy in what I do. I have a wonderful relationship with my waking self every morning and that hour around 7:30 when your brain is not connected to your ears, when it’s floating around inside your head full of metaphors. I lie in bed and I watch the metaphors collect and drift and when they reach a certain point of collision, I jump out of bed and get them down before they go away. Everything I’ve done is a surprise, a wonderful surprise. I sometimes get up at night when I can’t sleep and walk down into my library and open one of my books and read a paragraph and say My God, did I write that? Did I write that? Because it’s still a surprise.

Along the way people said to me, “Ray, when are you going to do a screenplay?” Because I love motion pictures. I’ve seen just about every one ever made. A lot of the bad ones and a lot of the wonderful ones over and over again. I said, “Yes, there’s one man I’d love to work for, that’s John Huston,” and I knew that I wanted to work for him. Well, I gave John all of my books of short stories one day in 1951, and he wrote back from Africa where he was making “The African Queen” and he said, “Yes, I agree with you, someday we’ll work together. I don’t know on what.”

The day finally came. I came home from a bookstore one day and my wife said, “John Huston just called. He wants you to come to his hotel.” I went to John Huston’s hotel. I walked into his room. He put a drink in my hand. He sat me down and he leaned over and he said, “Ray, what are you doing during the next year?” I said, “Not much, Mr. Huston. Not much.” And he said, “Well, Ray, how would you like to come live in Ireland and write this screenplay of ‘Moby Dick’?” And I said, “Gee, Mr. Huston, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing.”

He’d never heard that before and he thought for a moment and then he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what Ray. Why don’t you go tonight, read as much as you can, and come back tomorrow and then tell me if you’ll help me kill a white whale.”

So I went home that night and I said to my wife, “Pray for me.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I’ve got to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow.”

Luckily I was at the right age to read the book. I was 33 years old. I’d tried when I was younger. It just didn’t work. But what I saw there is a part of myself, the gift of metaphor.

All the early writers in America, Melville and Poe and many of the others wrote in metaphorical style. You could remember their stories. I raced through the book. I didn’t read it. I looked at all the metaphors and I came back the next day and I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I went to live in Ireland for the better part of a year and it was hellish work. Terrible work because I read some sections of the novel over 100 times. Some sections 200 times. Some sections 300 times. Other sections not at all because you’re looking for the metaphor. You’re finding a way to combine things and put them together. And finally, after seven months of hard work, a day of great passionate relaxation came to me. I got out of bed one morning in London and I looked in the mirror and I said, “I am Herman Melville.” I sat down at the typewriter and in eight blazing hours I wrote the last 40 pages of the screenplay and it all came out right; for that one day, for a few hours, the ghost of Melville was really in me. Was really in me.

I ran across London and I threw the screenplay into John Huston’s lap and I said, “There, I think it’s finished.” And he read it and he said, “By God, start the cameras.” That happened after all that research and trying to get Melville into my bloodstream, a very important, very important thing. Along the way after “Moby Dick” I worked on many other things. I worked on many screenplays. Did some more short stories. And finally, one of the great things in my life had to do with space travel.

People are always asking how I can be so involved with outer space. Why do I care about space travel. My answer has always been because I think there is a chance for us to become immortal. Our endeavor to go into space has to do with our living in other worlds and moving life from earth out to Alpha Centauri and perhaps further with all the bumps and wrinkles, with all our inconsistencies, with all our evil things, but not with all of our bad things because we’ll be taking along Shakespeare and many others, Emily Dickinson, many other people to fund the universe with our knowledge.

When we landed on the moon, David Frost asked me to appear on his show so that I could explain my ideas about the reason for us being alive at all. So I went over to the “David Frost Show” and I was there at 8:30 at night when we landed on the moon. A great moment. I was crying. I think all over the world people were crying. One of the greatest nights in the history of the world.

So I prepared to go on the show and say what I had to say, and David Frost said, “And now we have a great American here, a pure genius. He’s a wonder,” and I thought, That’s got to be me. It’s got to be me. And he says, “And here he is, Engelbert Humperdinck.” No, no, no! He came up and sang his stupid song, and then he started another introduction I thought, “Well this time it’s got to be me.” And he did another introduction and it was for Sammy Davis, Jr. He was a very nice guy, a very talented guy. I knew him. I took my daughters out to see him the day before on the set of the studio, but this was not a night for Sammy Davis, Jr. or Englebert Humperdinck.

I walked off the show. I went out to the parking lot, the producer came running after me and said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “I’m leaving.” He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Watch my dust. That idiot in there has ruined the greatest night in the history of the world. I don’t want to be on the show with him. Get me a cab and get me out of here.” They got me a cab and I crossed London and I went to meet with Walter Cronkite. I did a show with Walter Cronkite on Telstar around the world and I was able to say what I had to say about the possible immortality of mankind.

We’re always asking, “What are we doing here on earth?” We are the audience. There’s no use having a universe, a cosmology, if you don’t have witnesses. We are the witnesses to the miracle. We are put here by creation, by God, by the cosmos, whatever name you want to give it. We’re here to be the audience to the magnificent. It is our job to celebrate. That’s what I wanted to say and what I did say on the Cronkite show.

I stayed up all night that night we landed on the moon. I was on nine different shows around the world. I said all these things. I cried all night I was so happy. At nine o’clock in the morning I walked back across London exhausted but very, very joyful, and out in front of my hotel I saw a little London newspaper and it said, “Neil Armstrong walks at 6:00 a.m., Bradbury walks at midnight.” So I had the satisfaction of that moment, of being part of our landing on the moon, and my hope is that we will go back in the near future.

Now it’s time to wind this up and to show my appreciation for this magnificent Medal. My moment with Herman Melville in many ways is equal to what has occurred to me in my lifetime and what you have told me tonight. I’ve researched my life. I’ve looked into myself. I’ve tried to find me. Along the way I’ve located myself.

Tonight I can look in the mirror and say to myself, My God, who’s that there? Why, that’s Ray Bradbury. I can’t believe it. You’ve done it to me. Thank you very much.