Ray Bradbury: An Appreciation of Zest and Gusto

By J.F. McKenna

The universe contorts and, being the universe, makes its contortion felt even in the most common of places, such as the local coffee shop on Business 22 in Monroeville, Pa. That’s where I learned about Ray Bradbury’s death June 5. That’s where I felt those cosmic pitches and rolls.

Bradbury would appreciate such momentous reporting from a small square of the universe. In life, Bradbury appreciated damn near everything and its interconnection to everything else. That’s what made him a great writer. He was a chronicler not only of those things Martian but of witchcraft, whales and Shakespeare. To call Ray Bradbury only a science-fiction writer would be as false and futile as trying to construct a fence around the ever-expanding universe that inspired his writing.

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used,” Bradbury intones in the opening paragraph of his essay The Joy of Writing. “How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”

That’s the advice of a good man to other good people, whether they write professionally or not, and whether they prefer fantasy over physics or today’s sports section over a glimpse at tomorrow’s marvels. To Bradbury, zest and gusto were the indispensable combination that lubricates man’s imagination and his actual progress.

I discovered Bradbury as an adult merely seeking strong writing models, rather than as another eager fan of his science fiction. In time, though, I realized that Bradbury and his works cannot be conveniently segregated by me or any other person who opens The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 or Zen in the Art of Writing. So goes the nature of zest and gusto as promoted in print by the fellow born in Waukegan, Ill., in 1920.

Writing in the 1980 introduction of his collected stories, Bradbury acknowledged that he had been a happy child collecting Buck Rodgers comic strips. “My life has been happy ever since,” he wrote. “For that was the beginning of my science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” In effect, the true Renaissance Man, as Bradbury would tell you, is also the Neolithic Man and the Space Colony Man. 

All of us should be grateful that Bradbury embraced his muse wholeheartedly as a child. Otherwise, today’s world would be minus such tender short stories as The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair and the censorship novel Fahrenheit 451 (the first draft of which he wrote for $9.80 in dimes, in the basement of the University of California’s library in 1950).

“While science-fiction purists complained about Mr. Bradbury’s cavalier attitude toward scientific facts—he gave his fictional Mars an impossibly breathable atmosphere—the literary establishment waxed enthusiastic,” The New York Times reported the day after Bradbury’s death. “The novelist Christopher Isherwood greeted Mr. Bradbury as ‘a very great and unusual talent,’ and one of Mr. Bradbury’s personal heroes, Aldous Huxley, hailed him as a poet. In 1954, the National Institute of Arts and Letters honored Mr. Bradbury for ‘his contributions to American literature,’ in particular the novel Fahrenheit 451…. ” Likewise, many in business and industry point to Bradbury’s literary contributions as the inspiration to their own pursuits.

Back in 1953, in The Nation, Bradbury defended his science-fiction writing.  Soon after, a world-famous art historian sent Bradbury a fan letter, telling him that The Nation article was “the first time I have encountered the statement by an artist in any field, that to work creatively he must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or as a fascinating adventure.”  Later recalling that letter, Bradbury wrote: “I had my way of seeing, writing and living approved….We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we’re not crazy after all, that what we’re doing is all right. All right, hell, fine!”

Nearly 40 years later, Bradbury passed along that universal sense of zest and gusto in a handwritten letter I hold dear:

DEAR JOE MCKENNA:

WHAT A GIFT OF LOVE YOUR LETTER OF FEB. 14, ARRIVING ON ST. VALENTINE’S TO NOURISH MY SOUL!  I SEND IT BACK TO YOU AND YOUR YOUNGER SON, REDOUBLED. MUCH, MUCH THANKS. PRAY FOR SUMMER, AND PEACE. YOURS, Ray Bradbury

Many, many thanks to you, Ray.

 J.F. McKenna is a business journalist and communications consultant. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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