In the month since Ray Bradbury died at the age of 91, a host of tributes have appeared, touching on almost every salient aspect of his long life and his exceptionally many-sided work. Yet one theme worthy of attention, so it seems to me, has been largely ignored.
“Largely,” I say—not entirely. On June 7, our local paper, the Chicago Tribune, featured a page-one celebration of Bradbury by Julia Keller, which covered familiar territory. But most of the top half of page 3 was given to a gossipy feature by Mark Jacob, headlined thus: “BRADBURY RODE WITH SLOW COMPANY.” A large photo showed Bradbury on his bike. Caption: “Ray Bradbury didn’t drive a car, but he was often out and about in Los Angeles, browsing bookstores, his bicycle propped outside.” And a sidebar noted that while Bradbury “had some amazing accomplishments . . . one nonaccomplishment is also noteworthy: He never got a driver’s license.”
This was followed by a gallery of nine prominent non-drivers, including Studs Terkel, Mae West, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, and Albert Einstein. (“Who says he was a genius? He didn’t even know how to drive.”)
Some other retrospectives I’ve seen since Bradbury’s death have noted that he didn’t drive, generally treating it in one-liner fashion as an endearing quirk: He wrote about Mars . . . but he never drove a car.
But there is more to it than that. In a society dominated by cars, where driving is the unquestioned norm, non-driving is not just a minor eccentricity. Of course, non-drivers come in all shapes and sizes. And there have been places and times, since the advent of the Car Nation, when non-driving has not been so exceptional. But Ray Bradbury was only 13 years old when his family moved from Waukegan, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, the Vatican of car culture.
Why didn’t Bradbury drive? In 2011, the University of Illinois Press published a fascinating book by Jonathan R. Eller, Becoming Ray Bradbury. Eller, the co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, probably knows more about Bradbury than any other living person. Oddly, in a book that leans heavily toward the psychological, Eller touches only glancingly on the subject. He repeats, in passing, the lore about Bradbury’s “abiding fear of automobiles—the multiple-fatality accident he had witnessed shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1934 remained a recurring nightmare.”
So was that it? A good deal later in the book, Eller mentions Bradbury’s story “The Pedestrian,” written in 1950 and published in 1951. Eller says the story was inspired in part by a very odd story by one David H. Keller, “The Revolt of the Pedestrians,” published in 1928, but was triggered by two incidents over a span of years in which, while walking late at night with a friend in Los Angeles (with one friend in Pershing Square in 1940; with another on Wilshire Boulevard in 1949), Bradbury was hassled by the LAPD. “Through these experiences,” Eller writes, in his charmingly orotund style, “he had come to see the pedestrian as a threshold or indicator species among urban dwellers—if the rights of the pedestrian were threatened, this would represent an early indicator that basic freedoms would soon be at risk.”
Maybe. You can decide for yourself by reading “The Pedestrian.” It’s very short, and slight, but as a lifelong non-driver and a dedicated walker, I feel a certain affection for it. The story—set, implausibly, in 2053—expresses the fear of ruthlessly enforced conformity that was so strongly felt at that time. The protagonist, Leonard Mead, is walking alone at night, as is his wont. He never meets anyone else on these nocturnal walks. His neighbors are all inside, watching television.
Mead, we learn, is a writer, though he hasn’t written anything for years. “Magazines and books didn’t sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike houses at night now, he thought, continuing his fancy. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.”
Suddenly a robotic police car shines its very bright light on him, addressing him in a metallic voice, questioning him, and then ordering him to get in.
“Where are you taking me?”
The car hesitated, or rather gave a faint whirring click, as if information, somewhere, was dropping card by punch-slotted card under electric eyes. “To the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”
Pretty corny stuff, and easy to condescend to, from this distance. But as Eller observes, “this story proved to be the last stepping-stone to Bradbury’s composition of ‘The Fireman’ . . . . It took a relatively short creative leap to find Fireman Montag, not quite sure what he is looking for, taking late night walks down deserted streets.” Then came the final step from “The Fireman” to Fahrenheit 451.
And “The Pedestrian” suggests, I think, that Bradbury’s non-driving wasn’t simply explainable as the result of witnessing a traumatic car accident. “To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November,” the story begins, “to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do.”
What Bradbury gives us here is a glimpse of the inner conversation that sustained a lifetime of writing. In the same vein, when Eller speaks of Bradbury’s “need to read—an almost visceral need that was only slightly less of a reflex than breath itself”—he’s not indulging in hyperbole. Reading is breathing, and thinking is walking.
Why didn’t Ray Bradbury drive? Because he was Ray Bradbury.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine.
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