“Jon, you’re a bibliographer by training,” one said. “You’re going to be Ray Bradbury’s horseholder.”
That’s military speak for escort, and Eller and his wife, Debi, had no way of knowing where it would lead. But Eller gladly chauffeured the author of Fahrenheit 451 and other classic novels and short stories. During that week, they bonded over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. They had long discussions about Bradbury’s writing, which Eller had read and studied.
Despite the conference’s packed schedule, Bradbury readily agreed to Eller’s suggestion that they visit a local high school together. The author championed reading, libraries, and education—often, his school visits were spur-of-the-moment and uncompensated. Bradbury thought it would be swell—that’s the word he used, swell—to meet some Colorado students. At the school, he spoke without a script as Eller stood in the wings: “You’re growing up in a science-fictional age,” he told the kids. “Read and dream!”
Teachers migrated into the hallway, star-struck. One by one, they told the writer, “You’re why I became a teacher,” or “You’re why I became a librarian.” The last man came out and shook the writer’s hand. “Mr. Bradbury, you changed my life,” he said. The teacher grew emotional and said no more. He didn’t need to.
That was the effect Bradbury had on people, says Eller, who went on to develop a lifelong friendship with the author. In 1993, Eller moved to Indianapolis to teach at IUPUI, where he continued studying the author’s work; a little over a decade later, he co-founded the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies there. Thanks to a lucky series of events, the professor came to acquire a lifetime collection of Bradbury artifacts, books, and personal papers. Initially, the accommodations weren’t exactly deluxe. A cramped basement in the School of Education building housed the archive for several years. Inside and atop filing cabinets were props from Bradbury’s stints writing for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, aliens suspended in jars, and other spooky bits of America’s midcentury obsession with space exploration.
Following Bradbury’s 2012 death, the collection grew to include his personal library, writing desk, and 40 years of correspondence with presidents, filmmakers, and other writers. Much of the archive temporarily languished in storage: 20,000 pounds of boxes and furniture stacked floor to ceiling.
This month, the Center celebrates its move to a space three times larger in Cavanaugh Hall with a show at IUPUI’s Cultural Arts Gallery, Ray Bradbury’s Magical Mansions, which draws from the Center’s extensive collection. It’s an unusual repository for this or any university campus. Aside from smaller science fiction collections at a few college libraries, and occasional class offerings, academic acceptance of Bradbury’s genre has been scarce. Archives like the one at IUPUI could change that. Bradbury’s chance meeting with Eller all those years ago gave the professor his life’s work. In return, Eller is giving Bradbury what science fiction writers never had: a place of honor in academia.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury moved to Los Angeles with his family during the Great Depression as his father searched for work. After graduating from high school in 1938, he sold newspapers on the street corner. When he wasn’t selling journalists’ stories, he was writing his own. Growing up poor and on government assistance, Bradbury gravitated toward his imagination. From the beginning, he set his tales on distant planets, or here on Earth with characters living among ghosts.
In those early years, Bradbury sold his stories to whatever pulp magazines would print them. The glossies and literary magazines soon followed, however. With collections like The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951), he began to establish himself as one of the best in the business. He cared about universal concerns, which emerged no matter the story’s subject or setting. The speculation about outer space. The technologies we invent, and how they affect us. The questions of the heart and mind. How we live, how we die, and what it means. His were human stories told through the lens of fantasy.
By the time his novel Fahrenheit 451 came out in 1953, Bradbury was a star. Many called the novel a warning against censorship, given that it was published in the wake of McCarthyism, and the book’s “firemen” confiscated and burned all books. To Bradbury, though, the novel was about the dangers of illiteracy and being too dependent on television. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he said. “Just get people to stop reading them.”
Literary writers of the time admired him, including John Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, and C.S. Lewis. Poet W.H. Auden said of Bradbury, “He’s the only one of those fellows I like,” meaning, those who wrote science fiction or fantasy. Despite selling millions of books, Bradbury and writers like him were considered by many to be producers of mindless entertainment. Kids’ stuff. The publishing world was fickle toward Bradbury’s work and seemed unsure of its merit. He had made appearances in the Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize anthologies, but New York houses sometimes still turned down his books, as if to distance themselves from science fiction. One cited the pulp stories as weaker than those published in “quality magazines,” but some of the alleged “quality” stories had been published first in pulps like Weird Tales. But the accuracy of such opinions weren’t always grounded in reality: One of Bradbury’s stories had been rejected by Weird Tales and later sold to literary stalwart Harper’s.
Those mixed messages fell in line with the critical and academic take on the genre at the time. Detractors noted that most science fiction writing prioritized action and strange settings, and the writing suffered as a result. It wasn’t considered worth serious study. Bradbury, a self-taught writer who never went to college, defied those claims. His writing was both literary and fantastical. And the big publishing houses eventually came around.
After that fateful meeting with Bradbury in 1989, Eller began to think about how little the world knew about the famed writer. Though earlier biographers had covered his life in broad strokes, Bradbury had held back. Eller believed that because Bradbury had gained so much fame through his writing, he wanted to keep part of his life private. Much of Bradbury’s story had yet to be told. As Eller and Bradbury began to correspond and visit each other occasionally, Bradbury was impressed with the young professor’s ability to connect the writer’s early life to his later work, and to put his career into context. Bradbury agreed to help with what would become Eller’s multi-volume biography.
The professor, who eventually moved to Indianapolis for a job at IUPUI after a career in the Air Force, visited Bradbury in Los Angeles once or twice each year, conducting lengthy interviews. Fifteen years of conversations later, Eller proposed his outline for the biography. Bradbury approved it simply in his own hand: “O.K. R.B.”
Eller wrote the first volume of the biography, Becoming Ray Bradbury, in about 12 months. “It was sort of like Ray writing Fahrenheit: It was a blaze of writing,” he says. “I don’t write fiction. I can’t write poetry. But I found my way. Sort of like Ray, I tumbled my way into being able to do this.” Eller tells a story that merges the biographical with the writer’s mind: How did Bradbury conceive these tales, and what did it mean to him to be one of the best-known writers of our time? Throughout, Eller adds context via history and literature.
University of Illinois Press contracted to publish the three-volume biography, affording Eller the space that previous biographies lacked. Volume one spans Bradbury’s early personal and writing life, using interviews, publications, and letters to provide a highly detailed trajectory of the author’s life. In the second volume, Ray Bradbury Unbound, the story picks up in 1953 as Fahrenheit 451 is about to be released. Bradbury is in Ireland, writing the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick, setting the stage for future film and television work. Eller now is drafting the third volume, The Enduring Ray Bradbury, scheduled for release in 2019.
Coincidentally, as Eller was devoting years of his life to telling Bradbury’s story, Donn Albright, a Muncie native and Bradbury collector, had struck up a friendship with the writer as well. Albright, now a retired professor of illustration at the Pratt Institute, first heard Bradbury’s stories on the show Dimension X. He’d listen on the family Philco radio in Muncie. He wrote to the author, and was thrilled with a response; they struck up a correspondence, and decades later, Albright began visiting Bradbury. Amazingly, on those visits, Bradbury would tell Albright, “Take anything you want, as long as you leave me four copies for my daughters.” Albright was a completist. He owned every magazine in which Bradbury’s work had appeared.
Bradbury’s wife, Maggie, died in 2003, and the author passed away in 2012. Their daughters gave Eller and the Center the author’s remaining correspondence, bookcases, filing cabinets, desk, three of his typewriters, artwork, and many awards and mementos. Bradbury left Albright his books and papers, which he then passed on to IUPUI.
When Bradbury died at age 91, Eller got the phone call late at night. Eller, who no longer flew, booked a flight for the services without thinking. Tributes rolled in from President Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, and countless writers. News organizations around the world began calling Eller for comment on Bradbury. “Ray was in orbit,” Eller says. “He followed the time zones in his death.”
Eller, with now-retired IUPUI Professor William Touponce, co-wrote the first university press book on Bradbury. Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction (Kent State University Press, 2004) laid the groundwork for founding the Center and archive in 2007. Though the 510-square-foot basement location wasn’t set up for tours, Eller would often drop what he was doing to show curious visitors around. This summer, Eller began the laborious task of moving the archive to an impressive new 1,460-square-foot location in Cavanaugh Hall. It includes a room for Bradbury’s recreated office: a blue metal desk and work table, a globe of Mars given to him by NASA, and a Viking 76 paperweight made with material from the lander. Bookshelves and file cabinets line every wall. Eller and his wife, Debi, spent months readying the space: hanging pictures, cleaning shelves, and cataloging the large book collection. “At this point in most academics’ lives, they’re getting ready to retire,” Debi says. “But Jon is trying to preserve the effects of a man he respected so much.”
The Center’s new outpost offers room to shelve the 20,000 pounds of materials previously stacked floor to ceiling, and perhaps more importantly, a much more public face. Eller sees the Center as a resource for teachers, librarians, and scholars who want to pass on Bradbury’s importance to future generations, and it gives Bradbury and science fiction academic credibility. And it might be just be the beginning: In addition to finishing the third volume of his biography, the professor eventually hopes to acquire even more space and funding to expand the Center into a full-fledged museum.
Eller turns 65 in January. He could retire, and he and his wife could travel more frequently. But there’s his work with the Center to consider. “It’s complicated now, because as my colleagues at the Air Force Academy said to me, ‘You’re going to be Ray Bradbury’s horseholder,’” he says. “Mr. Bradbury, you changed my world, you changed my life.”
He’s quoting the high school teacher back in Colorado Springs, but it could be a line from Eller’s autobiography, if he were to write one. The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies once may have seemed, well, like science fiction. Yet the icy reception the genre once received from critics and academics has begun to thaw. Eller’s expansion of the archive and demand as a speaker illustrate what Bradbury foretold: science fiction can teach us about being human, because we share our lives through stories. We live on through them.
Bradbury died before seeing Eller’s second book in print, and never got to visit the Center that may enshrine his legacy. Eller says the hardest part of the book project has been changing references to the author into past tense. Even now, he sometimes switches into present tense when talking about his mentor and friend. A force of habit, perhaps. Or the skill of the biographer, scholar, and archivist who can bring his subject to life.