Ray Douglas Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Ill., into a family that once included a 17th-century Salem woman tried for witchcraft. The Bradbury family drove across the country to Los Angeles in 1934, with young Ray piling out of their jalopy at every stop to plunder the local library in search of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.
In 1936, Bradbury experienced a rite of passage familiar to most science-fiction readers: the realization that he was not alone. At a secondhand bookstore in Hollywood, he discovered a handbill promoting meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Thrilled, he joined a weekly Thursday-night conclave that would grow to attract such science-fiction legends as Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett and future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
After a rejection notice from the pulp magazine Weird Tales, he sent his short story “Homecoming” to Mademoiselle. There it was spotted by a young editorial assistant named Truman Capote, who rescued the manuscript from the slush pile and helped get it published in the magazine. “Homecoming” won a place in The O. Henry Prize Stories of 1947.
But the most significant event for Bradbury in 1947 was surely the beginning of his long marriage to Marguerite McClure. They had met the previous April in Fowler Brothers Bookstore, where she worked-and where at first she had him pegged for a shoplifter: “Once I figured out that he wasn’t stealing books, that was it. I fell for him.”
In 1950, Bradbury’s second book, “The Martian Chronicles,” took the form of linked stories about the colonization of the red planet. As always in his writing, technology took a back seat to the human stories.
Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451” on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library, where he had taken refuge from a small house filled with the distractions of two young children. Ballantine editor Stanley Kauffman, later the longtime film critic for The New Republic magazine, flew out to Los Angeles to go over the manuscript with Bradbury, plying the sweet-toothed perfectionist author with copious doses of ice cream.
The book came out to rapturous reviews. To this day it sells at least 50,000 copies a year and has become a touchstone around the world for readers and writers living under repressive regimes.
In 2004, Bradbury received the National Medal of Arts, a presidential award administered by the National Endowment for the Arts. He accepted a citation recognizing “his gift for language, his insights into the human condition, and his commitment to the freedom of the individual.”
David Kipen is a former director of literature for the National Endowment of the Arts. This post originally appeared on The Big Read.