Banned Books Week: Q&A with Bradbury expert Jonathan Eller

Jonathan Eller, director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI, with a few pulps featuring Bradbury's stories from the center's archives.

In addition to numerous titles at IUPUI, including the Chancellor's Professor of English, Jonathan Eller is the Director of the Center of Bradbury Studies on the IUPUI Campus. Eller has been at IUPUI since 1993 but had been writing about Bradbury well before then. He'll give a talk during the Sept. 26 closing reception of Banned Books Week at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Tim Youd will retype Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library on a desk used by Bradbury early in his career — and Eller is providing that desk, part of the Bradbury Center's archives.

READ: A profile of Tim Youd, who's making a return trip to the Vonnegut library as part of his 100 Novels Project

Eller also collaborated with Youd in order to help him find a 1947 Royal KMM model typewriter of the type that Bradbury used to write Fahrenheit 451. I talked with Eller in late August at the Center for Bradbury Studies on the IUPUI campus.

NUVO: Give me a thumbnail sketch of the Bradbury Center.

Jonathan Eller: First of all, I had begun to develop a relationship with Ray Bradbury in the 1980s. Over time I had begun to work with him and people around him on special editions of his books — and over the last ten years, writing two volumes of biography in a planned three volume set.

In 2011, I published [the first volume of the biography] Becoming Ray Bradbury with the University of Illinois Press, which takes him up to the age of 33 in 1953, just as he has published Fahrenheit 451 and has no idea what it's going to mean for his life or his career yet. And he heads off to begin a screenwriting stint for the 1956 film Moby Dick which he begins to write in 1953 for director John Huston.

The new book which comes out next week — Ray Bradbury Unbound — picks up that story in 1953 and he's working on the screenplay of Moby Dick for the demanding director John Huston. And this carries Ray's life through the '50s and '60s and '70s and shows how his great gift for short storywriting was somewhat muted when Hollywood begins to draw him into TV and into film. He did lots of scripts for Alfred Hitchcock.

When I came here 21 years ago to IUPUI in 1993, there was already a professor here, Bill Touponce, who had been publishing on Ray Bradbury. Together, in 2007, we formed this center to capture all of the concentration of American culture that Ray Bradbury had influenced over a 70 year career.

NUVO: What's your involvement with the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library?

Eller: Julia Whitehead and the KVML have been kind enough to work with me over the years. I've come in over the last two summers and taught for them, in Teaching Teachers to Teach Vonnegut [a workshop for high school teachers that awards all-important professional development credits]. I've been involved with Banned Books Week before. I lectured on the censorship challenges to both Vonnegut's and Bradbury's works.

This year they've asked me to come back in when Tim has finished typing up the Fahrenheit manuscript all on one piece of paper, for the actual burning. I'm always happy to work with them because Vonnegut and Bradbury were kindred spirits. They both hated intolerance. They both hated threats to the freedom of the imagination. And they were both Midwestern guys.

READ: A calendar of Banned Books Week events at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

In all the talking I've done around the country from Cal Tech to the American Library Association, we've never had an event where a work is symbolically burned as a cautionary reminder — lest we forget that the freedoms that we have on a national level are not always reflected on a lower level.

NUVO: Bradbury's books, like Vonnegut's work, faced censorship challenges.

Eller: Bradbury faced a lot of the same things. Fahrenheit 451 was often banned because there is some mature language. Not gratuitous; it's just there in the right proportion. So, yes, school boards have periodically banned it; occasionally back in the 50s, and even later, it would be censored. As a matter of fact, in the 1960s, his publishers, in an effort to make a version of it that was suitable for schools, silently removed all references to sexuality, insanity, alcoholism, [as well as] profanities and references to God.

NUVO: That's kind of ironic.

Eller: The great cautionary tale about censorship was itself bowdlerized or expurgated. They didn't have a bad motivation, but it's the fact that it happened shows that you don't have to burn the books; you just have to get them to stop reading them in their original forms. And Bradbury made note of that on numerous occasions.


Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.

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