Steve Martin: Every year since the 1988 National Book Awards ceremony, it has been a tradition to present the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On behalf of the Board of Directors, this award is given to an individual, and I quote: “Who has enriched our literary heritage during a life of service or to a corpus of work.” Tonight we are gathered with great anticipation to honor and listen to Philip Roth, who received the National Book Award in 1960 for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. He was twenty-six years old.
Over the four decades since, he has produced twenty-four more books. He won a second National Book Award in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater. Mr. Roth has fulfilled both aspects of the mission of this award. He has indeed led a life of service to the English language, and thereby to all serious readers, who are the only kinds of readers he tolerates. Well I am sure he and I will find some other common ground. Like three great modern writers he deeply admires, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has invented a style by turns obsessive, lyrical, erudite, and of necessity, painfully human. To read Roth properly, you must permit yourself to become overwhelmed. Then will follow a refreshing, new understanding of the power of narrative. As Nathan Zuckerman observes in I Married a Communist, “The book of my life is a book of voices. When I ask myself how I arrived at where I am, the answer surprises me – listening.”
We know all too well that Philip Roth the author does not like to be conflated with his literary characters. However, that kind of empathy has informed the entire corpus of his work, which brings us to the second dimension of tonight’s award. This brief citation cannot do justice to the themes that have preoccupied Philip Roth. How is it possible that one writer, in one lifetime, can be utterly consumed by so many issues of profound, unsettling intensity; the endless sexual dance of men and women in and out of marriage and love; the constantly mutating shape of Jewishness in America; the constantly mutating shape of America; the sometimes subtle, often horrific ways in which politics infiltrates daily life – the enthralling, ugly and comic drama of families, and perhaps the most complex of all, the mysterious mirror images of identity. Who are we? Why are we here?
“Frankness is everything to me,” Philip Roth said in a recent interview. We are grateful tonight to this distinguished writer for not sparing us the facts as he portrays them in his inimitable manner. Ladies and Gentlemen: Philip Roth.
Steve Martin: Tonight we gather to honor Arthur Miller, exemplary man of letters, fearless novelist and short story writer, outspoken topical essayist, journalist and literary critic, down to earth, irreverent memoirist, versatile writer for radio, TV and screen, and as if all of that were not sufficient, our greatest living playwright.Crossing the boundary of these genres is Arthur Miller’s lifelong preoccupation with the condition of men and women joined together in common society. As he puts it, “Our membership in the ordinary human race”.
“We are trying to save ourselves separately,” Arthur Miller has cautioned, “and that is immoral”. His belief in the responsibility and obligation of the artist as a social being — he is well known for his decades long commitment to PEN — is balanced by an unsparing commitment to art as truth telling, a quality as eternal as the ancient Greek tragedians he has always admired yet especially pertinent to these times.
“Literature and art,” Miller says, “are not required to reassure when, in reality, there is no assurance, or to serve up clean and wholesome stories in all times and places.” Whatever he has written over seven decades, Arthur Miller monitors the tempo of time. This vigilance makes his work so modern and continuously vital. He never gives up attempting to capture time’s mysterious passage, whether it be the dark history of racial and religious repression, the dependable cycle of seasons allowing him to plow and plant his beloved Connecticut garden or the uneven memories of all too human characters in his evocative magical plays.
“The performer is his art,” Miller writes, “whereas the writer can step away and leave it for the world to make of it what he will.” Indeed, this brief introductory praise cannot possibly do justice to the essence of Arthur Miller’s dramatic poetry so let’s watch this excerpt from the 1984 production of “Death of a Salesman” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich, courtesy of Castle Hill Productions.
Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller: Thank you. Thank you very much. Whenever I get up to thank people for inviting me to speak or accept some honor, I’m immediately assaulted by the memory of the actress, Maureen Stapleton, who stepped up to receive her Oscar some years back, and instead of submitting to hallowed custom by thanking her agent, her mother and father, her acting teacher, a few cousins and the doorman of her apartment house, she cleared her throat and said, “I want to thank everybody I ever met.”
I feel something similar now, probably because when you come down to it, I’m known primarily as a playwright, and playwrights, on the whole, are set slightly apart or below book writers. I’m not sure why this is so, unless it has something to do with how we are described. One doesn’t speak of bookwrights, poetwrights or prosewrights; we alone are associated, at least nominally, with shipwrights, millwrights, boatwrights. This is very odd.
I’ve written prose, of course, two novels, a lot of short stories, several books of reportage and so on; but I’m primarily a writer of plays–and playwrights, at least in America, are not generally thought of as literary. The reason for this, most probably, is that they usually aren’t. We are regarded, at best, as hybrids, people who write, to be sure, but our prose is basically functional. Actors have to be able to speak words easily and it has to nail audiences to their seats. Perhaps it is the utilitarian strain upon our writing that sets it apart and even helps denigrate it.
There were, for instance, a number of masterly European playwrights in the last century whose works have stayed alive through the generations but were left unconsidered for the Nobel Prize. I’m thinking of Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. And I’ll bet you can’t name the novelists who did win.
O’Neill, who was honored, would probably not have considered himself a literary artist, merely a truthful one. It was more than politeness that moved him to write to Sean O’Casey about one of his plays, “God, I wish I could write like that.” From one Irishman to another, this was a hell of a confession.
Among American playwrights, at least before Tennessee Williams, I can think of only two in the 20th century who manifestly tried to write plays with an eye toward literary style. One was Maxwell Anderson, but to write literary he had to slip on a quasi-Elizabethan disguise which, to be sure, had its vogue for several years but would probably not go down well with us any more because of its artificiality. We can stand the artificial from the British but not from locals.
For most of us, all British speech is artificial so we can’t tell the real artificial from the artificial. In short, we don’t expect reality from the British, we expect style. For the English, consciousness of linguistic style springs from an unshakable fascination with class, which governs speech from the top of the social ladder down to the Cockneys who make a daunting point of artificiality by refusing to speak like other Englishmen. They are free to invent outrageous new usages that generally mock the proprieties of their betters.
Clifford Odets was the American cockney, branding his language with his often delightfully peculiar twists which the critics thought came from the Bronx but were really his own invention. Nobody in the Bronx ever said, “I’m going out and get an eight-cylinder sandwich,” and anyway, he came from Philadelphia. Odets doted on language and kept a card file with lines he’d heard in the street, usages he would take home and do a little carving on.
When he started out, Odets cultivated a proletarian posture in tune with the depression time but he was really a literary man who kept his recondite tastes to himself lest he frighten the critics and scare off the Broadway ticket buyers. This avoidance was more than his eccentric choice, however; American theater distrusted the literary and, in fact, until Williams, the American play, in effect, pretended that it hadn’t been written at all but merely happened. Indeed, the highest compliment a play could have had was that it seemed to have written itself.
The situation has changed in recent decades, but I wonder if the basic acknowledgement of a play author’s existence is basically as a constructor and shaper of the action rather than that of a word artist. It is almost but not quite the present situation of the screenwriter. I have yet to meet anyone who went to see a movie because it was written by somebody. In effect, play writing was commonly thought of as a form of engineering, engineering with laughs, suspense or tears. A play was built rather than written.
This rubric, I suppose, is part of the mythology of authorial neutrality or literary bricklaying. A bricklayer has no ulterior ideology concerning the aesthetic or moral value of his work. It is enough that it be plumb and level and not fall down. If the Europeans quite differently assumed that a play of any moral or aesthetic pretensions was inevitably intended to mean something and was unavoidably metaphorical, the notion was close to anathema here. If you have a message, send it by Western Union was the wisdom of the day.
The Austrians have a saying. When some calamity happens, a train wreck, a collapsed bridge, there’s always somebody to remark, “Well, who knows for whom it’s good?” For American playwriting, this aversion to metaphorical significance exerted a weighty pressure to suppress speechifying about thematic significance, if any, relying upon the implications within the action to expand the play’s general significance.
A play that dared to venture beyond this stricture was suspect as unaesthetic propaganda. That classical plays-from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Chekhov- were loaded with generalizations about power, society and justice and so on was a fact that did not interfere with this aesthetic which itself, God forbid, could not be called an aesthetic at all but simply the only right and natural way of regarding theater or any other art.
Time magazine, after all, always referred to the author of a successful play as a crack playwright, quite as though he had peered through a gun sight and hit the bull’s eye. It was all very steely and mathematical and, of course, menacing to any author with more than pure entertainment in his mind.
The convention of the play as a species of engineering was, of course, unannounced and largely unconscious. American theater, like the British, had never been other than a commercial enterprise, quite opposite to that of Europe, which had developed out of a very different circumstance. It took George Bernard Shaw nearly ten years to get a British audience and critics to so much as listen to an Ibsen play for more than a week’s run and then only by stuffing the parts with great stars. There was always, apparently, an Anglo-Saxon suspicion, if not an aversion, to any play that parted too noticeably from the theater of pure entertainment.
In Europe, theater had traditionally been subsidized by either individual aristocrats — remember Lord Strange’s men during Shakespeare’s time — much as music was, or by towns and cities. These sponsors expected and indeed demanded some kind of compensation in at least some of the works they were paying for.
I recall a conversation I had with Thomas Mann after he had seen “Death of a Salesman” in New York. The play seemed to have somehow distressed him but not for the obvious reason. He was, indeed, affected by it, as he said, but it also apparently aroused some sort of resentment in him. “They are like aborigines,” he said of the characters. “There is no idea coming from them.”
To me, of course, if I may say so, that was precisely the triumph of the play, whose metaphor lay in its very design, in the arc of its story, in the voyage of its characters. Put another way, I had learned my American theater lesson: If you have a message, send it either by Western Union or by virtue of the play’s inexorability.
I think it was Tennessee Williams who first successfully introduced our theater to what could be called literary writing. Clearly, the author of “Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar” was declaring rather than camouflaging his writerly presence on the stage. This stuff did not just happen nor had it been overheard. It was a highly composed, often sumptuous language, in whose writing one easily sensed a certain authorial joy.
But here I am getting really interested in the subject and I have to stop. So thanks again, and next time it crosses your minds to cite a playwright for this honor, please don’t hesitate. It is like the great comedian, Fred Allen, once said when one of the sponsors of his radio show kept barging out of the control room to excitedly suggest some inept change in the script. After four or five such interruptions, Allen, his patience worn thin, asked: “Where were you when the pages were blank?”
The answer, of course, is that the executive may not have been aware of it but he was waiting for a writer who, God knows, may even have been a literary fellow in disguise. Thank you.
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.
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.