By Steve Litteral
Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. His tales gave me a great appreciation of literature when I was a young student.
Out of all of his many books and short stories, Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury’s best-known work. It is a tale of the future where people are hooked on prescription drugs, technology takes over, and mindless television programs are the only form of entertainment, since books are banned. Books are not only illegal; they are searched for and burned by the government.
The book was published in 1953, but any contemporary reader will see many similarities with our society today. Of course, books are not banned these days, but they are largely ignored by a public who would rather watch a movie than read a book. Although Bradbury spent most of his life in California, he is actually an Illinois native. He was born in Waukegan in 1920, and it is in Illinois where Bradbury discovered his love of reading at his local library.
Bradbury passed away in 2012, and it was a huge loss to the world of literature. He was not only a great storyteller, but he was also a prominent advocate for public libraries.
Eventually, the Los Angeles home of Ray Bradbury was sold to a local architect for $1.76 million. In the Midwest, that sounds like a lot of money, but where it is located in L.A., it was considered a bargain. His canary-yellow house is famous among his fans, and many people have probably seen his basement, which was featured at the beginning of every episode of his television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992). The basement was packed with books, paintings, African masks, and toy dinosaurs that he used for inspiration while he was writing.
Recently, the former home of Bradbury was demolished by the current owner. I work at a historic house museum, so I find it frustrating that the home of such an important literary figure can be so easily destroyed. The homes of many important authors have been saved to tell their story, and some authors like Edgar Allan Poe have several house museums dedicated to their memory.
The historic house museum has a long history in the United States, and it comes from the English tradition of preserving ancient sites and monuments. In 1895, there were about 20 house museums across the U.S., and today there are roughly 6,000 historic house museums.
The home is only the shell of the museum. It can be argued that the most important part of the house museum is the collection of artifacts. In the case of Bradbury, his home was a treasure trove of books, manuscripts and correspondence. These places are not saved to serve as a shrine to any certain historical figure, but they represent their role, however small it may have been, in culture and history.
History is a topic that is not stressed in schools as much as it was in the past, so public history sites like house museums are filling the gap in education. These sites are very important to future generations.
Although it is very sad that Bradbury’s home was destroyed, there are signs of hope. The University of Indiana at Indianapolis has a Center for Ray Bradbury Studies that was created in 2007. They have saved many artifacts from the Bradbury home, including photos, correspondence, and a research library that can be used by scholars for research. If you would like to take a short road trip, the Waukegan Park District offers a walking tour of many of Bradbury’s childhood haunts, including his boyhood home and the public library where he discovered the gift of literature.
Ray Bradbury will always be with us through his stories, but I think that there can be a balance that can integrate physical locations with important literature. For example, if you walk the streets of Waukegan, you will quickly realize that it was the inspiration for Bradbury’s novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and other stories that are set in a fictional Illinois town.
If you don’t have the time to visit Waukegan, I would encourage you to visit your local library and pick up one of Ray Bradbury’s stories. You will not be disappointed.
Steve Litteral is a Rockford native and serves as executive director of Rockford’s historic Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum, 411 Kent St.
From the Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2015, issue