Greater Minds: Ray Bradbury on burning books

  • Ray Bradbury combined five short stories into Fahrenheit 451.
  • The theme of censorship resonated at a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee was active.
  • Fahrenheit 451 advocates for complexity as much as against censorship.
  • In later editions, editing for offence replaced censorship for political reasons.


A signed photograph of Ray Bradbury (Alan Light [CC/Flickr])

Once upon a time, two writers walked down a street in Los Angeles.

A police car pulled up and an officer stepped out to ask what we were doing.

“Putting one foot in front of the other,” I said, too much the smartaleck.

That was the wrong answer.

The policeman repeated the question.

Too big for my britches, I replied, “Breathing the air, talking, conversing, walking.”

The officer frowned. I explained.

“It’s illogical, your stopping us. If we had wanted to burgle a joint or rob a shop we would have driven up in a car, burgled or robbed, and driven away. As you see, we have no car, only our feet.”

“Walking, eh?” said the officer. “Just walking?”

I nodded and waited for the obvious truth to sink in.

“Well”, said the officer, “don’t do it again.”


Is he inspiring an author? (Thomas Hawk [CC/Flickr])

And the police car drove away.

From which we may infer that the writers were white.

The flame is lit

One of the writers was Ray Bradbury, who used the encounter as the basis for his short story, The Pedestrian, set in a future in which walking is considered deviant behaviour. Bradbury’s description of the encounter is in his afterword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, which includes a description of the tortuous process by which he wrote it.

I found the description interesting partly because it describes the inception of a classic novel, and partly because it explained how I had found myself under the mistaken impression that I had read it. When I thought I was rereading it, I found I recognised much of it but I was sure I was reading a lot of it for the first time. I had in fact read The Pedestrian and The Fireman, a novella that Bradbury constructed around five different short stories including The Pedestrian and later expanded into Fahrenheit 451. The other four were Bonfire, Bright Phoenix, The Exiles and Usher II, all of which explore the theme of censorship.


(Verde Otaared [CC/Flickr])

Bradbury wrote the stories in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee was imposing itself on the American literary scene. As Bradbury was regarded as a pulp writer at the time, his more subversive stories largely passed beneath the notice of the HUAC. It’s hard to imagine them approving of a story like The Other Foot, in which black people exiled to Mars decide to greet white refugees by imposing Jim Crow-style segregation in revenge for the injustices they suffered themselves, only to abandon the whole project when confronted with the human face of the refugees. The message is impossible to miss and HUAC regarded the civil rights movement as inseparable from the communist party.

Classic words on a hired typewriter

Bradbury hired a typewriter by the hour and hammered out the 25,000 words that became the first version of Fahrenheit 451, telling of firemen tasked with burning hidden stashes of books to eradicate dangerous ideas. The commentary on HUAC’s activities is as clear as the commentary on Jim Crow in The Other Foot. In his afterword to the fiftieth anniversary


Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 (Boston Public Library [CC/Flickr])

edition of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury laments:

No one wanted The Fireman. It was rejected by just about every magazine in the field and was finally published by Galaxy Magazine whose editor, Horace Gold, was braver than most in that time.

Bradbury states started writing The Fireman in 1950 and in spite of being repeatedly rejected, it was published in 1951. The submission-rejection cycle was considerably faster 65 years ago than it is now.

So Bradbury’s fictional polemic against censorship saw daylight in an age of censorship. It’s often the fate of literature that opposes the zeitgeist to be suppressed at the time, and then when the zeitgeist has moved in line with the work in question. Bradbury was spared the wait as not only The Fireman was published in 1951, but he developed it into the novel-length Fahrenheit 451 which was published two years later, when Joseph McCarthy was donning the cape of anti-communist crusader.

Happiness through simplicity

As HUAC-style censorship faded into history, Fahrenheit 451 came to be recognised as a classic dystopian novel, alongside Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.


A fireman in action in the film of Fahrenheit 451 (Mike Schofield [CC/Flickr])

Fahrenheit 451 echoes elements of both novels. Brave New World presents a society in which people are kept in a state of infantile idiocy through constant happiness. The citizens of 1984 are prevented from thinking subversive thoughts by a language structured to make them impossible to formulate. Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a fireman who limits thought by physically destroying the dangerous complexity of ideas in a society where people prefer to stay glued to their televisions.

As the protagonist, Montag, becomes infected with the ideas he is supposed to be destroying, his boss explains his role in maintaining society:

You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides of a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.

It’s as astute a comment now as it was in 1953 on a society that outsources political reporting to the entertainment industry. We don’t have to look to literature to find people who prefer the certainty of labelling political issues as right and wrong to struggling with the complexity needed to really understand them.

Why burn the books when you can edit them?

Fahrenheit 451 outlived HUAC and Joseph McCarthy and was developed into a play, a film by François Truffaut and even an opera. It did not, however, outstrip censorship. It merely lived to see it change form. In his much-reproduced Coda to the 1979 edition, Bradbury railed against the censorship of offended sensibilities. It’s an epic rant in which he probably intentionally tweaked every tail he could work into a few hundred words. He has as much to say about editors producing simplified versions of literature as about people who demand literature is compatible with their worldview.

Only six months ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.


(mySAPL [CC/Flickr])

For Bradbury, over-simplification was the enemy of understanding, and offence was the enemy of truth.

There is a scene in Fahrenheit 451 where Montag drags his wife and her friends away from their wallscreen televisions to confront them with the complexities of a book he barely understands himself. One of his wife’s friends bursts into tears and rails at him for upsetting her. Do you recognise that reaction? Please share your thoughts in the comments?

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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