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Martian Modernism: Modernist Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Idea of Culture in Ray Bradbury’s “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright”

In this article, I explore the intersection of science fiction and modernist anthropology in a period of crucial development for both fields—the 1920s through the 1940s—by examining the ways in which Ray Bradbury’s “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” a central chapter in The Martian Chronicles (1950), engages in debates over culture and form that circulated among modernist anthropologists, artists, and critics. In recent years, scholars have argued that science fiction has a particularly close connection to “modernism,” conceptually and historically.[1] At the same time, historians of anthropology have long cited this period as marking the emergence of that discipline in its modern form: led in the US by Franz Boas and his students A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s enters what George Stocking calls its “classical period,” with new conceptions of culture as plural, unified, meaningful, and bounded “wholes” at its theoretical center and the ethnography as its approach.[2] Crucially, these anthropologists were intimately involved in, and their conceptions of culture emerged from, the broader intellectual, aesthetic, and political conversations that characterized Anglo-American modernism.[3]

Science fiction’s connection to anthropology has often been noted. Critics such as John Rieder have shown how both science fiction and anthropology develop in the dislocations produced within late nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialism and narratively (re)produce the “colonial gaze” that shaped western encounters with the colonized other.[4] Much of this valuable work, however, treats late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century ethnology and twentieth-century anthropology interchangeably, without addressing the paradigm shifts around culture and representation that define modernist anthropology. Others that do address twentieth-century cultural anthropology in relation to SF generally begin the story in the mid-1950s or 1960s, with the work of Ursula Le Guin or Chad Oliver, both of whom had direct connections to professional anthropology.[5] The theoretical and aesthetic elements of a specifically modernist anthropology and its relation to science fiction has been relatively unexamined.

In fact, science fiction participates in the interdisciplinary debates over culture and form that emerge in the 1920s and continue through the 40s. Bradbury’s “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” engages with the theories of culture and aesthetics of Boasian anthropologist Sapir, as well by modernist authors, including Willa Cather. Bradbury’s narrative makes visible both the shared assumptions about culture that undergird the narrative techniques of both science fiction and modern ethnography and the power dynamics embedded within these techniques.

Bradbury stands at a generative intersection of multiple modernisms. Bradbury emerged as a writer within the fan culture created by Gernsback’s pulp SF magazines; by the 1940s, he was publishing in an array of pulp magazines including Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as middlebrow “slicks” like Collier’s and Maclean’s. At the same time, Bradbury embarked on a program of self-education in “high modernism” in this period, voraciously reading under the tutelage of fellow Los Angeles Science Fiction Society members Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett, authors including T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, and Cather.[6] The Martian Chronicles was composed of short stories previously published in both pulps and slicks, rewritten to create, along with several new stories, a novelistic story sequence chronicling the human exploration and settlement of Mars.[7] Bound in hardcover, the previous pulp material was thus recast as a form that made a claim for higher prestige. By the mid-1950s Bradbury was popularly known as the “Poet of the Pulps”—a title that registered the way Bradbury both blurred, and at the same time underscored, the mutually constitutive categories of literary value and prestige: pulp, “middlebrow,” and “high modernism(s).”[8]

“—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” was first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1948 and then slightly revised to become a key story in The Martian Chronicles. In it, an expedition from Earth arrives on Mars to find empty cities of beautifully delicate architecture and art, left behind by now-extinct Martians. Spender, an archeologist/anthropologist, laments the coming destruction of these ruins by future settlers, who will “throw condensed-milk cans in the proud canals” and “banana peels and picnic papers in the fluted delicate ruins of the old Martian valley town.”[9] Spender escapes to the hills where he lives in the Martian ruins, learning their language, art, and philosophy. He returns and, calling himself “a Martian,” kills several of the crew; the remaining men give chase to capture or kill Spender (60).

At the story’s climax, Spender and the captain, who sympathizes with Spender’s reverence for the Martian civilization, meet in a temporary truce. Spender offers his account of Martian culture, which takes the form of a modernist anthropological account. Unlike American “so-called culture,” the Martians

knew how to blend art into their living. It’s always been a thing apart for Americans.  Art was something you kept in the crazy son’s room upstairs. . . . Well these Martians have art and religion and everything. . . . They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. (64, 67)

As a result of this harmonious synthesis, their “cities were good” (64). Spender figures cultural identity as a form of racial identity: “learning to read the ancient books and looking at their art forms,” Spender becomes “free of [American] ethics and customs,” “out of their frame of reference,” and instead is “glad to call [the Martians] his ancestors” (60, 64–65).[10]

In contrasting Martian culture to the crass behavior of the rocketmen, Bradbury on the one hand rehearses a science fiction version of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, with humans playing futuristic Philistines to the Martian Hellenists.[11] On the other hand, in constructing Martian “culture” as specifically “whole,” “blending” art, science, and religion, Bradbury draws on distinctly modernist conceptions of culture being developed by a range of modernist artists and thinkers in the interwar period, and most forcefully articulated by Boasian anthropologists. One of the most influential articulations of this version of culture—and the one with which I argue Bradbury is in dialogue—is Sapir’s “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” (1924). Sapir performed fieldwork among a variety of American Indian tribes and specialized in linguistic anthropology.[12] He was also intensely engaged in the broader artistic and intellectual circuits of 1920s New York, publishing essays, poetry, and criticism in a variety of journals of art and opinion that were central in forming the parameters of modernism, including The Dial, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and the Freeman.[13] The first half of “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” was in fact first published in The Dial (the same journal that would publish Eliot’s The Waste Land) in 1919 under the title “Civilization and Culture.”

In “Culture, Genuine and Spurious,” Sapir defines “genuine culture” as above all characterized by unity and wholeness: culture, he suggests, is

not of necessity either high or low; it is merely inherently harmonious, balanced, self-satisfactory. It is the expression of a richly varied and yet somehow unified and consistent attitude toward life, an attitude which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others. It is, ideally speaking, a culture in which nothing is spiritually meaningless.[14]

By this standard, modern industrial society, with its emphasis on “technical routine that . . . answers to no spiritual needs,” offers only “spurious” culture, a “spiritual hybrid of contradictory patches” that “carefully avoid participation in a harmonious synthesis” (315). This image of spurious “culture”—and its association with mainstream American values—is echoed in Bradbury’s description of the American “so-called culture.”

Moreover, for Sapir, the American Indian is the exemplar of this genuine culture: the traditional daily practices of “the American Indian,” he writes, like fishing and hunting, are a “culturally higher type of activity than that of the telephone girl or mill hand simply because . . . it works in naturally with all the rest of the Indian’s activities instead of standing out as a desert patch of merely economic effort in the whole of life” (316). For Sapir, American Indian culture is genuine precisely because of “the firmness with which every part of that life—economic, social, religious, and aesthetic—is bound together into a significant whole” (318).

Moreover, the “significance” of genuine culture does not refer to any particular content but rather to the formal structure that creates meaning: Sapir is, in short, interested not in what a particular element means, but how it means, in its relation “to all others.” The structuralism of Sapir’s genuine culture links “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” to Sapir’s influential work in linguistic anthropology, in which he argued that any language is structured by a set of phonetic patterns that formed a “complete system of reference,” a “formal completeness” that lies beneath the specific content of whatever one might say in that language.[15] That formal unity is what Bradbury embodies in Martian culture: we learn little about the specific content of Martian language or religion or art; we just know the different elements of science, religion, and art “blend” to create a “formal completeness.”

Bradbury, then, takes Sapir’s version of “genuine” American Indian culture (and the corresponding critique of American “so-called culture”) and transposes it as genuine Martian culture. Critics have long noted that the narrative of Martian Chronicles replays and revises the mythology of frontier expansion in the American West, with Martians in the role of “the American Indian.” Bradbury in part replaces Manifest Destiny’s narrative of “progress” of “civilization” with a romantic nostalgia lamenting the destruction wrought by the pioneers.[16] This analogy is underscored by Bradbury’s revision of the original Thrilling Wonder story to make the Martian “extinction” the result of a deadly epidemic of chickenpox that had been introduced by the previous human astronauts—events, of course, that echo the historic decimation of indigenous populations by diseases brought by colonial settlers. In this way Bradbury’s story-cycle both critiques and participates in the processes of imperialism—much like the discipline of anthropology itself.[17]

What these arguments miss is how Bradbury’s specifically modernist construction of Martian “culture” revises (even as it repeats in another register) the narrative of the “vanishing American Indian.” Instead of the triumphant evolutionary narrative of “primitive” American Indians replaced, however regrettably, by the “progress” of civilization, or the nostalgic Romantic narrative of the “noble savage,” close to “nature,” replaced by “artificial” civilization, in Bradbury’s modernist version—like in Sapir’s—the Martians-as-American Indians are exemplars of “whole” culture, replaced by a “spurious” one.

I am not arguing here that Bradbury read Sapir’s writing itself—I have found no evidence to that effect. Instead, it is more likely that Bradbury drew on a conception of culture and form—or more precisely, culture as form—made available through the popularization of anthropological discourse in the interwar years, in part through the circulation of these ideas within the interdisciplinary debates over culture and value that included literary writers, artists, critics, and anthropologists more broadly. To this interdisciplinary conversation, we can add science fiction. In the case of Bradbury, one likely vector of influence would be Cather. As I have shown elsewhere, Cather likewise articulates Sapir’s spatial conception of culture as a structured, integrated whole in her description of the vanished cliff-dweller culture in the American Southwest in The Professor’s House.[18] Bradbury, in fact, frequently cited Cather (along with Emily Dickinson and Eudora Welty) among his literary “mothers.”[19] Thus Cather’s 1925 novel is more likely intertext mediating between Sapir’s construction of genuine (American Indian) culture and Bradbury’s genuine (Martian) culture.[20]

The parallels to Cather’s novel, or more specifically to “Tom Outland’s Story,” which forms the center of the novel’s tripartite structure, are numerous and striking. In that story, the cowboy Tom Outland (in a scene inspired by accounts of the “rediscovery” of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in the late nineteenth century) stumbles upon the deserted “Cliff City,” whose inhabitants have disappeared, leaving behind the monuments of their culture “preserved like a fly in amber.” The “sculpture”-like Cliff City,[21] then, is suspended in time much like the “fluted, delicate ruins” of the Martian cities in Bradbury’s tale, “left flawlessly intact” despite having been “empty for thousands of years” (Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, 49, 50, 55). In both stories, the spatial form of indigenous architecture embodies the unified way of life practiced within it. Importantly, Cather embodies the Cliff Dweller’s synthesis of art, religion, and science in the City’s central tower: the “one fine thing” that “held the jumble of houses together and made them mean something,” the characters surmise that it served simultaneously as a watchtower, an astronomical observatory, and a religious site (Cather, The Professor’s House, 180).

Thus Cather’s construction of cliff-dweller culture—like Bradbury’s construction of Martian culture—echoes Sapir’s conception of “genuine” American Indian culture, in which “every part of that life—economic, social, religious, and aesthetic—is bound together into a significant whole” (Sapir, “Culture, Genuine and Spurious,” 318). Both Cather and Bradbury imagine these whole cultures destroyed by representatives of “spurious,” fragmented cultures. Cliff City, they speculate, is eventually “wiped out, utterly exterminated, by some roving Indian tribe without culture or domestic virtue” (Cather, The Professor’s House, 197). In Bradbury’s transposition, Spender’s fellow astronauts are the “roving . . . tribe without culture” whose germs wipe out the Martians before they could do the job themselves (Cather, The Professor’s House, 198).

Through a science-fictional setting, Bradbury participates in and extends a modernist conception of culture, most clearly articulated by American anthropologists like Sapir in the 1920s and 1930s and in conversation with imaginative writers like Cather. These shared debates over culture and form, circulating among anthropology, science fiction, and literary modernism reveal several things. Both Cather’s and Bradbury’s accounts of culture reveal the way conceiving culture as a bounded whole makes it uniquely available to the anthropologist/scientist as quite literally an object of analysis—and in this case, for aesthetic contemplation. Culture thus also becomes an object available for what Cather’s Outland calls “possession” by the (colonial) observer; at the same time, as critics have noted, those who live in those cultures are “incarcerated” within the reified and bounded culture into which they are placed.[22] For Cather’s Outland and Bradbury’s Spender, simultaneously possessing and belonging to their object of analysis is made literal by the fantasies of indigenous identity they produce: Cather’s Outland imagines “the pots and pans” of Cliff City as “belong[ing] to my poor grandmothers a thousand years ago;” now they “belong to the country, to the State, and . . . to boys like you and me, that have no other ancestors to inherit from” (Cather, The Professor’s House, 219). Similarly, Spender is “glad to call [the Martians] his ancestors” (Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, 64). Both texts reflect the ways in which modernist ideas of culture also become ideas of national and even racial identity, figuring both as a kind of “possession”—thus continuing in another form colonial ideologies and power dynamics against which anthropologists imagined culture pluralism being deployed.[23] 

Setting science fiction side-by-side specifically modernist anthropology moreover reveals shifts in what has been taken to be characteristic features of both SF and anthropology. Rieder, for example, identifies one shared feature of early twentieth-century SF and ethnography as the “anachronistic structure of anthropological difference,” whereby geography stands in for time, and the geographically-distant other is imagined as representing an earlier stage of linear, evolutionary progress (Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, 6). In both Sapir and Bradbury, that temporal-spatial relationship is revised, and their “genuine cultures” represent a unity that is both “past” but also, in the mode of cultural critique, a potential future. Sapir, for example, looks to ancient Greece and Elizabethan England as “genuine cultures” and points to contemporary regional movements within the US as potentially genuine cultural alternatives to the homogenized “so-called” culture of the nation-state. Similarly, Bradbury blurs the past and the future throughout The Martian Chronicles: on the one hand, Bradbury is notoriously nostalgic (specifically for his image of the small-town Midwest circa 1920); at the same time, the “wholeness” of Martian culture emerges as humanity’s potential future. For example, the story “Night Meeting” centers on a ghostly human/Martian encounter in which the characters (and the reader) find it impossible to tell who represents the past and who the future; in the novel’s final story, “The Million Year Picnic,” the last human families, who have fled to Mars to escape nuclear apocalypse on Earth, form a potential remnant from which a genuine culture might be rebuilt.

In “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” and in The Martian Chronicles more broadly, Bradbury explores the idea of culture in ways that echo the modernist constructions of culture by, on the one hand, anthropologists like Sapir and, on the other, modernist authors like Cather: like Sapir and Cather, Bradbury constructs an idea of “genuine culture” as a “whole” system of meaning incorporating aesthetics, economics, science, and religion to form a “way of life” that itself constitutes an “aesthetic” object; where Sapir and Cather look to the American Indian as exemplars of “culture,” Bradbury substitutes his Martians. In illustrating this intersection, Bradbury reveals the way that midcentury science fiction, with its interest in composing “other worlds” through narrative, was part of the broader debates around culture, form, and the narration of difference that shaped modernist anthropology and literature.



[1] For example, Gary Westfahl (The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998]) marks the late 1920s as a crucial turning point in the genre’s history, with the emergence of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and its pulp offshoots. More broadly, Philip Wegner (Shockwaves of Possibility: Essays on Science Fiction, Globalization, and Utopia [New York: Peter Lang, 2014]) and Paul March-Russell (Modernism and Science Fiction [New York: Palgrave, 2015]) argue that science fiction is a specifically modernist form.

[2] George Stocking, “The Ethnographic Sensibility of the 1920s and the Dualism of the Anthropological Tradition,” in Romantic Motives: Essays on Anthropological Sensibility, ed. George Stocking (Madison, WI: Wisconsin University Press, 1989), 212, 220.

[3] See my Composing Cultures: Modernism, American Literary Studies, and the Problem of Culture (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013); Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Marc Manganaro, Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[4] John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 4; Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, “Science Fiction and Empire,” Science Fiction Studies 30 (2003): 231–45.

[5] See Samuel Gerald Collins, “Sail On! Sail On!: Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future,” Science Fiction Studies 30, no. 2 (July 2003): 180–98; Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 2008), especially “Third Beauty: Future History.” 

[6]For Bradbury’s engagement with pulp and high modernisms, see Jonathan Eller, Becoming Ray Bradbury (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

[7] For the composition history of The Martian Chronicles, see Jonathan Eller, “The Body Eclectic: Sources for Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles,” in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Ray Bradbury, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010), 141–72.

[8] For the multiple modernisms of pulp magazines, middlebrow mass market publications, and “high modernism,” see David M. Earle, Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009); Paula Rabinowitz, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and Lise Jalliant, Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series, 1917–1955 (New York:  Routledge, 2014). For Bradbury’s negotiation within this dynamic, see Anthony Enns, “The Poet of the Pulps: Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction,” Belphégor 13, no. 1 (2015):

[9] Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (New York: Bantam, 1979), 49. 

[10] Spender’s words remain largely the same in both the original magazine version and The Martian Chronicles.

[11] Bradbury was thinking explicitly about Arnold in this period, as he worked on a never-published manuscript, “Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night.” Set in a totalitarian society that engages in the ritual destruction of art and literature, a key scene is a reading—and burning—of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (a moment that will become a central scene in Fahrenheit 451). See Jonathan Eller, “The Story of Fahrenheit 451,” in Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2013), 167–87.

[12] See Regna Darnell, Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).

[13] On Sapir’s anthropology and literary criticism, see Richard Handler, “Anti-Romantic Romanticism: Edward Sapir and the Critique of American Individualism,” Anthropological Quarterly 62 (1989): 1–13; Manganaro, Culture, 1922; and Hegeman, Patterns for America.

[14] Edward Sapir, “Culture, Genuine and Spurious,” in The Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality, ed. David Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949), 315.

[15] Edward Sapir, “The Grammarian and His Language,” in The Selected Writings of Edward Sapir, 150–59, 153.

[16] See Gary Wolfe, “The Frontier Myth in Ray Bradbury,” in Ray Bradbury, ed. Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander (New York: Taplinger, 1980), 55–82.

[17] For anthropology’s imbrication with colonial expansion, see George Stocking, “The Ethnographer’s Magic: Fieldwork in British Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski,” in The Ethnographer’s Magic; and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 12–59; James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), especially 21–54; and Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” in Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 98–122.

[18] See Aronoff, Composing Cultures, especially chapter two.

[19] Ray Bradbury, “A Second Homecoming,” Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, ed. Sam Weller and Mort Castle (New York: William Morrow, 2012), 5.

[20] Bradbury’s connection between Mars, the desert southwest US, and Native Americans was also influenced, of course, by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s example in The Princess of Mars series, in which John Carter is transported from fighting Apaches in Arizona to his encounter with the warring races and civilizations of the desert Martian landscape. As critics have shown, however, Burroughs’s Barsoom stories play into the dominant evolutionary narratives of culture as “civilization,” progress and empire, with its attendant racialized taxonomies (see, for example, Conor Reid, The Science and Fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs [Canterbury, UK: Glyphi Ltd, 2018]). Boasian anthropologists, Cather, and Bradbury alike deploy the concepts of culture as plural, relative wholes precisely to critique these evolutionary narratives.

[21] Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (New York: Vintage, 1990), 180.

[22] Arjun Appaduri, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1988): 36–47.

[23] See Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).