This story stretches to Mars but it starts in a folder in a box at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.
In the folder is a 1939 letter from an unknown, aspiring author to a Wisconsin-based publisher named August Derleth.
Derleth’s Sauk City company, Arkham Press, had just published a book by H.P. Lovecraft titled “The Outsider and Others.”
In a small dwelling on West 12th Street in Los Angeles, a 19-year-old Illinois native named Ray Bradbury obtained a copy of the book. His response was so enthusiastic he wrote the Wisconsin publisher a letter of thanks.
“Dear Sirs,” it began, and then Bradbury — who went on to become one of the most famous writers of science fiction in the world — expressed his wonder at Lovecraft’s prose and Arkham’s beautiful edition of the book in a way perhaps only other struggling artists could truly appreciate.
“I am not a rich fellow by any means,” Bradbury wrote. “In fact, I make only ten dollars a week. But I will give up half of my salary any day to buy a book such as this.”
Bradbury’s death June 5 at 91 was front page news in the New York Times and elsewhere. The Times called the author of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451” the writer “most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”
But it was that 1939 letter to Sauk City that essentially jump-started Bradbury’s career, for August Derleth and Arkham House published Bradbury’s first book eight years later.
Bradbury’s extensive correspondence with Derleth — by 1945, the letters are addressed “Dear Augie” — is collected in the August Derleth papers at the Historical Society.
It should be noted that toward the end of Bradbury’s life, he made another significant Madison-area connection — this one with Rosebud, the literary magazine published in Cambridge.
What began in 2003 with Bradbury — a celebrated eminence once again living in Los Angeles — kindly agreeing to allow Rosebud to reprint one of his early stories, eventually developed into a long-distance friendship with Rosebud publisher Rod Clark, culminating in Bradbury writing an original short story that had its world premiere in Rosebud.
“It’s like he came full circle,” Clark said last week, of Bradbury’s early and late Wisconsin connections.
It was in a January 1945 letter to Derleth that Bradbury initially addressed the possibility of Arkham House publishing his first book.
“Dear Augie,” he wrote, “I’ve spent a lot of time traveling since last September when I wrote you; I’ve been to Ensenada, Mexico, over to Yuma, to Palm Springs, Lake Arrowhead and Santa Barbara. So I must apologize for this long overdue letter.
“First I want to thank you for the suggestion that some time in the next two years Arkham House might try an anthology of Bradbury stories.”
Six weeks later, Bradbury wrote again. This time he had a title in mind for the collection. “I’ve waited before writing you again, because I’ve been searching for a new title. I think I have a good one in ‘Dark Carnival.’ The cover jacket might possibly illustrate a small carnival that has set up its merry-go-round and side-show tent and banners in a dark green woodland glade at twilight.”
Arkham House published “Dark Carnival” in 1947. In the next few years, with the publication of “The Martian Chronicles,” Bradbury’s reputation soared. But he continued to correspond with his friend Derleth, including some letters written from a hotel in Dublin when Bradbury was writing a movie script of “Moby Dick” for director John Huston.
“I’m proud of it,” Bradbury wrote in June 1954. “Huston says it is the best script anyone has yet given him.”
A half-century on, Bradbury began an association with Rosebud in Cambridge. “I got the sense he remembered Wisconsin and Derleth fondly,” Clark said.
In the final decade of his life, Bradbury contributed four pieces to Rosebud and granted them an exclusive interview.
It is a coincidence — or maybe not — that in its current issue, Rosebud has a piece titled “Citizen Ray” by Bill Goodwin, a Los Angeles writer who wrote a book about Bradbury.
“Ray Bradbury is a living treasure,” Goodwin wrote, and if, alas, that is no longer completely true, Bradbury remains a treasure all the same, one to which Wisconsin can lay a partial claim.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.