Last month, we looked at dystopian novels on this column, and with the summer heat wave coming, looking at Ray Bradbury's landmark novel Fahrenheit 451 seems appropriate. This has long been one of my favorite novels, introduced to me by the appropriately named Mrs. Page, my 10th grade English teacher. Of all the books that I read for class, this was the one that stood out the most: Bradbury's vivid, crisp prose and thunderbolt of a message electrified every synapse in my brain, and I read it several times after that, outside of class. As the years have gone on, it's become increasingly apparent that Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most important literary contributions to the genre, combining an important metaphor regarding free expression with a cynical counter to the optimistic science fiction that had preceded it.
"The book-burning bigot, hearing this, realizes that the whole town has hidden books by memorizing them. There are books everywhere, hidden in people's heads!" So wrote Bradbury in the 1993 forward to his landmark novel. The genesis of Fahrenheit 451 is an interesting one, built from real incidents and other short stories, beginning in 1951.
Bradbury was born on August 22nd, 1920, where he grew up reading everything he could get his hands on, from L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels to science fiction pulp magazines. By the age of 12, he had decided that he wanted to be a writer, and upon his graduation from high school, turned to his local public library when he couldn’t afford to attend college—something which he would claim was the best education that he ever could have asked for. Immersed in the Los Angeles science fiction fan scene, he began writing story after story, selling his first in 1941 to the magazine Super Science Stories.
Bradbury kept writing, and toward the end of the 1940s, he wrote short story titled “Bonfire,” which he would eventually publish in the Torquasian Times fanzine. The story outlines a conversation between two people while the world is ending, and their concern for the fate of humanity’s artwork. Shortly after writing it, Bradbury sat down to write Bright Phoenix in 1947, where a community's chief censor starts using a library as a place to burn questionable books, but is infuriated by the librarian's behavior. The story was a taut metaphor for free expression and ideas: Books transcended their physical properties of paper and ink and glue, and became something far more important when locked up in the minds of a person. Upon realizing that he can’t burn out the questionable ideas, the censor goes insane.
Bright Phoenix wasn’t published immediately: It wasn’t until the May 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in which the original story was printed. However, it became an important stepping stone to another work, a novella titled The Fireman. While walking one night in Los Angeles in 1950, Bradbury was stopped by a police officer, who questioned him about his actions, to which Bradbury replied: "Putting one foot in front of the other." The officer, irritated, questioned him further before admonishing him to "don't do that again." Bradbury, furious, turned to the page, writing a short story titled “The Pedestrian,” where people were forbidden from walking by law. He later noted that had he not written that story, he wouldn't have had the drive to write The Fireman, which he came up with during a midnight walk around Los Angeles.
The story ignited a passion inside of Bradbury, and he went to the University of California at Los Angeles campus, where he rented a typewriter for 10 cents an hour. He sat down and began to write, leaving only reluctantly at the end of the day to return to his family. He returned each day for the next eight days, until the story was completed at 25,000 words. He noted later that he had an incredibly difficult time selling the story, as the Un-American Activities Committee had been stood up in the early 1950s, worrying publishers across the country about their content. One editor decided to purchase the story: H.L. Gold, who published the story in the February 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Bradbury described Gold as “braver than most at the time.”
Bradbury noted that the inspiration for the story came only in part from his encounter with the police officer in 1950. He later recounted that there were other instances that concerned him: the actions of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1934 and as well as that of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Looking further back in time, he pointed to the burning of the great library of Alexandria, and the collective impacts that these actions had on the world’s knowledge base. Libraries and books had an important place in Bradbury’s heart, and their destruction greatly concerned him. The Fireman addressed those concerns, and he turned to other writings.
In 1953, Bradbury was approached by Ian Ballantine, who was launching a new publishing business. In Bradbury’s The Fireman, he saw the kernels of a larger story, and asked him if the story could be expanded with another 25,000 words. Tasked with a deadline, Bradbury returned to the UCLA Library where he revisited the story, completing it in August. By the beginnings of the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun his work in the Senate, launching accusations against a number of individuals, and adding to the anti-communism hysteria in the nation. Bradbury’s book gained new relevance in those times when books were removed from libraries and schools and few people were brave enough to question it. The story, now titled Fahrenheit 451, was published in October of 1953 and followed Guy Montag, a fireman who operated in a world where ideas and free thinking were considered dangerous. His task was to burn the books that were discovered—sometimes along with their owners. Montag, however, had begun to collect the banned items, and eventually he flees from the city. A year later, the book was purchased by Hugh Hefner, the editor of Playboy Magazine, who published the story in three parts in the March, April and May 1954 issues.
The book remained popular and controversial following its publication. In 1966, French director François Truffaut co-wrote and directed an adaptation of the novel, which was well-received by Bradbury. In 1967, Ballantine began to change the text, eliminating profanity after they received complaints. When Bradbury found out in 1979, he demanded that the original text be restored, which happened in 1980. Over the years, the book has been frequently and ironically challenged, more recently in 2006, when Texas parents demanded the removal of the book from their daughter’s English reading list, after learning that a Bible was burned early in the book.
In 1984, the Bradbury earned the Prometheus Award Hall of Fame award for the novel, and in 1989, he was named the 10th Science Fiction Grandmaster. In 2000, he was honored by the National Book Foundation with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his lifetime of writing. On November 17th, 2004, he was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the same year in which the book received a retro Hugo Award, 50 years after it was first eligible. On April 16th, 2007, he received a special citation from the Pulitzer board "for his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy". In 2010, a collection, A Pleasure to Burn, which contained related stories, was published.
Bradbury, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91, has long been considered one of the greatest presences in the speculative genres, not only for his incredible written output, but for his tireless defense of free thought and of public libraries and books. Fahrenheit 451 is more than a shrill defense against the banning and destruction of books; it is a celebration of the importance of ideas and the impossibility of their suppression.