Biography of Ray Bradbury, American Author

Author of 'Fahrenheit 451' and More

Portrait of writer Ray Bradbury
Portrait of writer Ray Bradbury, 1978.

Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images

Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) was an American writer who specialized in genre fiction. His best known works are in fantasy and science fiction, and he was noted for his ability to bring genre elements into the literary mainstream.

Fast Facts: Ray Bradbury

  • Full Name: Ray Douglas Bradbury
  • Known For: American science fiction author
  • Born: August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois
  • Parents: Leonard Spaulding Bradbury and Esther Bradbury (née Moberg)
  • Died: June 5, 2012 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: Los Angeles High School
  • Selected Works: The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Dandelion Wine (1957), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), I Sing the Body Electric (1969)
  • Selected Awards and Honors:  Prometheus Award (1984), Emmy Award (1994), Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2000), National Medal of Arts (2004), Special Citation by the Pulitzer Prize jury (2007)
  • Spouse: Marguerite "Maggie" McClure (m. 1947-2003)
  • Children: Susan Bradbury, Ramona Bradbury, Bettina Bradbury, Alexandra Bradbury
  • Notable Quote: “Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.”

Early Life

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of telephone and power lineman Leonard Spaulding Bradbury and Esther Bradbury (née Moberg), an immigrant from Sweden. He was a descendant of Mary Bradbury, one of the women who had been convicted at the Salem witch trials but managed to escape her sentence until the hysteria had passed and she had been officially exonerated. Ray Bradbury was not her only literary descendant; the transcendentalist writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson also could trace his heritage to Mary Bradbury.

For a time during the 1920s and early 1930s, the Bradburys moved back and forth between Waukegan and Tucson, Arizona, following Leonard as he sought employment. Eventually, they settled in Los Angeles in 1934, where Leonard was able to find steady work making wire for a cable company. Bradbury was reading and writing from a young age, and once he was in Hollywood as a teenager, he befriended and tried to spend time around the professional writers he admired. Science fiction writer Bob Olsen became a particular mentor, and by the time Bradbury was 16, he had joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society.

Bradbury often spent time as a teenager roller skating through the streets of Hollywood in hopes of catching glimpses of his favorite stars. Unusually, he never bothered to get a driver’s license, instead using public transportation or a bike for most of his life. He remained living at home with his parents until he married at the age of 27 to Marguerite “Maggie” McClure. McClure was his first and only romantic partner, and they married in 1947. The couple had four daughters: Susan, Ramona, Bettina, and Alexandra; Bettina went on to a career in screenwriting, which her father had also done.

Science Fiction Short Stories (1938-1947)

  • "Hollerbochen's Dilemma" (1938)
  • Future Fantasia (1938-1940)
  • "Pendulum" (1941)
  • "The Lake" (1944)
  • "Homecoming" (1947)
  • Dark Carnival (1947)

Bradbury’s youthful love of science fiction and the fan community led him to publish his very first story in 1938. His short story "Hollerbochen's Dilemma,” about a character who can see the future and stop time, was published in Imagination!, a fanzine owned by Forrest J. Ackerman, in 1938. The story was widely panned, and even Bradbury himself admitted that he knew the story wasn’t very good. Ackerman, however, saw promise in Bradbury. He and his then-girlfriend, fellow fanzine publisher Morojo, funded Bradbury’s interest, sending him to the First World Science Fiction Convention in New York City in 1939, then funding his own fanzine, Future Fantasia.

Headshot of a young Ray Bradbury
A young Ray Bradbury, circa 1950.  Bettmann/Getty Images

Future Fantasia published four issues, each of which were almost entirely written by Bradbury and sold under 100 copies. In 1939, he joined the Laraine Day's Wilshire Players Guild, where he spent two years writing and acting in plays; once again, he found the quality of his own work lacking and gave up playwriting for a long time. Instead, he returned to science fiction and short story circles and began honing his writing there.

In 1941, Bradbury published his first paid piece: the short story “Pendulum,” co-written with Henry Hasse and published in the zine Super Science Stories. The following year, he sold his first original story, “The Lake,” and was on the path to becoming a full-time writer. Because he was medically rejected from the military during World War II, he had more time and energy to devote to writing. He published his short story collection, Dark Carnival, in 1947. That same year, he submitted his short story “Homecoming” to Mademoiselle magazine. Truman Capote was working there at the time as a young assistant, and he pulled the story out of the slush pile. It was published, and later in the year, it won a place in the O. Henry Award Stories of 1947.

Bradbury’s Most Famous Novels (1948-1972)

  • The Martian Chronicles (1950)
  • The Illustrated Man (1951)
  • The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
  • The October Country (1955)
  • Dandelion Wine (1957)
  • A Medicine for Melancholy (1959)
  • The Day It Rained Forever (1959)
  • The Small Assassin (1962)
  • R is for Rocket (1962)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)
  • The Twilight Zone "I Sing the Body Electric" (1962)
  • The Machineries of Joy (1964)
  • The Autumn People (1965)
  • The Vintage Bradbury (1965)
  • Tomorrow Midnight (1966)
  • S is for Space (1966)
  • Twice 22 (1966)
  • I Sing the Body Electric (1969)
  • The Illustrated Man (film, 1969)
  • The Halloween Tree (1972)

In 1949, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, Bradbury headed to New York in hopes of selling more of his work. He was largely unsuccessful, but during a meeting, one editor suggested he could connect several of his stories and call it The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury took to the idea and, in 1950, the novel was published, largely by piecing together his previous short stories and creating an overarching narrative.

It was in 1953, though, that Bradbury’s most famous and enduring work was published. Fahrenheit 451 is a work of dystopian fiction that takes place in a future of extreme authoritarianism and censorship, most famously in the form of book burning. The novel deals with themes ranging from the rise of mass media to McCarthy-era censorship and political hysteria and more. Prior to this book, Bradbury had written a couple of short stories with similar themes: 1948’s “Bright Phoenix” features conflict between a librarian and a “Chief Censor” who burns books, and 1951’s “The Pedestrian” tells the story of a man hounded by police for his “unusual” habit of going out for a walk in a TV-obsessed society. Initially, the book was a novella called “The Fireman,” but he doubled the length at the behest of his publisher.

Ray Bradbury holds up a copy of 'Fahrenheit 451'
Ray Bradbury holds a copy of his most famous novel 'Fahrenheit 451' in 2002.  Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Dandelion Wine, published in 1957, returned to the form of The Martian Chronicles, functioning as a “fix-up” that reassembled and reworked existing short stories to create a single unified work. Originally, Bradbury intended to write a novel about Green Town, a fictionalized version of his hometown of Waukegan. Instead, after discussions with his editors, he pulled out several of the stories to create what became Dandelion Wine. In 2006, he finally published the “remainder” of the original manuscript, now a new book called Farewell Summer.

In 1962, Bradbury published Something Wicked This Way Comes, a fantasy horror novel that was a wholly original narrative like Fahrenheit 451, rather than a reworked compilation. He spent most of the 1960s working on short stories, publishing a total of nine collections during the decade. He published his next novel in 1972, The Halloween Tree, which sends its young characters on a journey across time tracing the history of Halloween itself.

Stage, Screen, and Other Works (1973-1992)

  • Ray Bradbury (1975)
  • Pillar of Fire and Other Plays (1975)
  • Kaleidoscope (1975)
  • Long After Midnight (1976)
  • The Mummies of Guanajuato (1978)
  • The Fog Horn & Other Stories (1979)
  • One Timeless Spring (1980)
  • The Last Circus and the Electrocution (1980)
  • The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980)
  • The Martian Chronicles (film, 1980)
  • The Fog Horn and Other Stories (1981)
  • Dinosaur Tales (1983)
  • A Memory of Murder (1984)
  • The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone (1985)
  • Death Is a Lonely Business (1985)
  • The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992)
  • The Twilight Zone "The Elevator" (1986)
  • The Toynbee Convector (1988)
  • A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990)
  • The Parrot Who Met Papa (1991)
  • Selected from Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed (1991)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his upbringing and his love of all things Hollywood, Bradbury spent some time working as a screenwriter on and off, beginning in the 1950s and continuing to nearly the end of his life. He wrote two episodes of the seminal sci-fi anthology The Twilight Zone, nearly 30 years apart. First, in 1959, he wrote “I Sing the Body Electric” for the original series; the story later inspired one of his prose short stories. Then, in 1986, during the first revival of The Twilight Zone, he returned with the episode “The Elevator.” Bradbury was also famous for a TV show he did not write for. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, famously asked Bradbury to write for the show, but Bradbury declined, insisting that he was not very good at creating stories from other people’s ideas.

Beginning in the 1970s, Bradbury began working significantly on adapting his successful short stories into other media—specifically, into film, television, and theatre. In 1972, he released The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays, a collection of three short plays: The Wonderful Ice Cream SuitThe Veldt, and To the Chicago Abyss, all of which were adapted from his short stories of the same names. Similarly, Pillar of Fire and Other Plays (1975) collected three more plays based on his sci-fi short stories: Pillar of Fire, Kaleidoscope, and The Foghorn. He also adapted several of his most famous works into stage plays, including The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, both finished in 1986, and Dandelion Wine in 1988.

Ray Bradbury
Portrait of writer Ray Bradbury, 1978. Sophie Bassouls / Getty Images

Bradbury’s most famous works also were adapted for the big screen, often with Bradbury’s own involvement. Both The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes (the former in 1980, the latter in 1983) were adapted for the screen, with Martian Chronicles taking the form of a TV miniseries and Something Wicked becoming a full-length film. Intriguingly, the only one of his “major” titles that he did not personally adapt was Fahrenheit 451. It was turned into two different films: one for theatrical release in 1966, and one for premium cable network HBO in 2018.

Later Publications (1992-2012)

  • Green Shadows, White Whale (1992)
  • Quicker Than The Eye (1996)
  • Driving Blind (1997)
  • From the Dust Returned (2001)
  • Let's All Kill Constance (2002)
  • One More for the Road (2002)
  • Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales (2003)
  • Is That You, Herb? (2003)
  • The Cat's Pajamas: Stories (2004)
  • A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories (2005)
  • Farewell Summer (2006)
  • The Dragon Who Ate His Tail (2007)
  • Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band is Playing & Leviathan '99 (2007)
  • Summer Morning, Summer Night (2007)
  • We'll Always Have Paris: Stories (2009)
  • A Pleasure to Burn (2010)

Bradbury continued writing even in his later years. He wrote a trio of mystery novels, scattered from 1985 to 2002: Death Is a Lonely Business in 1985, A Graveyard for Lunatics in 1990, and Let’s All Kill Constance in 2002. His short story collections continued to be published throughout his later years as well, with a combination of previously published stories and new pieces.

During this time, he also served on the advisory board for the Los Angeles Student Film Institute. In the 1990s, he adapted more of his books into screenplays, including an animated version of The Halloween Tree. His 2005 film A Sound of Thunder, based on a short story of his by the same name, was an abject failure, losing most of its budget and receiving critical pans. For the most part, his screenplays failed to reach the same acclaim that his prose work did.

Literary Themes and Styles

Bradbury frequently insisted that his works were not science fiction, but fantasy. He argued that science fiction is just ideas about what is or could be real, while fantasy is about what never could be real. Either way, his most notable works tend to be genre fiction with hints of dystopia, horror, science, and cultural commentary. After his death in 2012, the New York Times obituary called him “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”

In many cases, the themes of his stories have been up for debate or have been interpreted in several differing ways over the years. The epitome of this, of course, is Fahrenheit 451, which has been interpreted as anti-censorship, as commentary on the alienation caused by the media, as anti-political correctness, and more. It is probably most famous for its commentary on the role of literature in society and as a depiction of a dystopia that uses alienation and censorship to maintain an authoritarian grip. It does, however, have a vaguely hopeful ending, suggesting that Bradbury’s view was not that “all is lost.”

Aside from his more outrageous creations, Bradbury also has a running theme of safety and home through many of his works, often represented by “Green Town,” his fictionalization of Waukegan. In many of the stories, Green Town is a backdrop to stories of whimsy, fantasy, or even terror, as well as a commentary on what Bradbury saw as the disappearing of small-town rural America.

Death

In the final years of his life, Bradbury suffered from ongoing illnesses and health problems. In 1999, he suffered a stroke that caused him to need to use a wheelchair some of the time. He still continued writing and even appearing at science fiction conventions for a decade after his stroke. In 2012, he fell ill again, and he died on June 5 after a prolonged illness. His personal library was bequeathed to the Waukegan Public Library, and he is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, with a headstone inscribed with his name, dates, and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” His death inspired an outpouring of support and commemorations, including an official statement from the Obama White House and inclusion at the Oscars' "In Memoriam."

Photo of Ray Bradbury projected against a starry background
Ray Bradbury's memorial during the 2013 Academy Awards "In Memorium".  Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Legacy

Bradbury’s legacy largely lives in the way that he bridged the gap between literary fiction and “genre” (that is, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even mystery) fiction. He inspired later luminaries such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Steven Spielberg, as well as countless other writers and creative artists. Fahrenheit 451 remains a standard for American literature studies, and many of his other works remain popular. Bradbury’s commentaries on media and alienation have continued to be relevant in an increasingly tech-reliant society, but he also inspired many great creative minds to imagine what could be possible.

Sources

  • Eller, Jonathan R.; Touponce, William F. Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. Kent State University Press, 2004.
  • Eller, Jonathan R. Becoming Ray Bradbury. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
  • Weller, Sam. The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. HarperCollins, 2005.