New Chicago exhibit honors late, great sci-fi author Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's career launched in southern Wisconsin thanks to another well-known writer and publisher.
Bradbury Chicago
Courtesy of American Writers Museum.
The "Ray Bradbury: Inextinguishable" exhibit is also available to tour virtually online.

When Ray Bradbury died in June 2012, at 91, his New York Times obituary called him “a master of science fiction” and “the writer most responsible for bring modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”

Bradbury’s notable books include the story collection “The Martian Chronicles” and the novel “Fahrenheit 451.”

Earlier this month, my wife and I visited the American Writers Museum in Chicago where a new exhibit, “Ray Bradbury: Inextinguishable,” is scheduled to run through May 2022.

The Writers Museum is always worth a visit. The last time we were there, they were featuring the enormous scroll of tracing paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote his landmark novel, “On the Road.” Kerouac wrote so quickly he didn’t want to have to change paper in the typewriter.

I enjoyed the Bradbury exhibit, though I am not a big science fiction fan. Part of my appreciation came from knowing the role that Sauk City author and publisher August Derleth played in launching Bradbury’s career.

A decade ago — at the time of Bradbury’s death — I had the chance to peruse Derleth’s papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.

Included is the robust correspondence between Derleth and Bradbury.

It began with a 1939 letter, written by a 19-year-old Bradbury, who had just read “The Outsider and Others” by H. P. Lovecraft, published by Derleth’s Arkham House press. The young Bradbury was nearly breathless in his appreciation of Lovecraft’s prose and the beautiful Arkham edition of the book.

“I am not a rich fellow by any means,” the teenaged Bradbury wrote. “In fact, I make only ten dollars a week. But I will give up half of my salary any day to buy a book such as this.”

Derleth responded, and over the next few years the letters grew more personal.

“Dear Augie,” Bradbury wrote, early in 1945. After describing some recent travel, Bradbury noted, “I want to thank you for the suggestion that sometime in the next two years, Arkham House might try an anthology of Bradbury stories.”

Arkham House published Bradbury’s first book, the story collection “Dark Carnival,” in 1947.

Even as his fame grew, Bradbury kept writing Derleth. One letter came from Ireland, where Bradbury had been hired by director John Huston to adapt “Moby Dick” for a film.

“I’m proud of [the screenplay],” Bradbury wrote in June 1954. “Huston says it is the best script anyone has yet given him.”

A poster for the film is included in the Chicago exhibit.

Bradbury’s experience with Derleth likely played a role decades later when he agreed to allow a small Wisconsin literary magazine, Cambridge-based Rosebud, to reprint his story “Last Rites.”

“I got the sense he remembered Wisconsin and Derleth fondly,” Rosebud publisher Rod Clark once told me.

After that first contact, Bradbury and Clark stayed in touch. Bradbury contributed a poem to Rosebud and a previously unpublished story, “The Trivial Pursuits Transporter.”

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of original work by a world-famous author to a small literary journal. When I reached Clark in Cambridge last week, he was unaware of the Bradbury exhibit in Chicago. “I have to go,” he said.

Rosebud is still publishing. It will have its 30th anniversary, a remarkable feat for even the biggest magazines, in 2023. Rosebud’s extended family suffered a blow earlier this month with the June 7th death of founder John Lehman, who passed the publishing baton to Clark in the late 1990s but whose adventurous spirit continues to infuse the magazine’s pages.

When we spoke last week, Clark was recalling how Lehman just announced one day in the early 1990s that he wanted to start a literary magazine that would be sold and read coast to coast.

Clark’s response: “Do you have half a million dollars?”

Lehman did not, but it didn’t matter.

“He was such an imaginative entrepreneur,” Clark said. “He was into taking risks and bringing people together to do interesting things.”

Early on, Lehman knew — he came out of advertising and marketing — that big names on the cover would sell magazines. It led him — and later, Clark — to approach famous writers for a contribution. What did they have to lose? Stephen King contributed a poem and remains a fan.

Clark’s cold call to Bradbury’s agent evolved into a long-distance friendship with the author.

Last week, Clark noted a mantra of his late friend Lehman: “If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”

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