HISTORY, CONTEXT, AND CRITICISM Edited by Jonathan R. Eller
THE STORY OF FAHRENHEIT 451
Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
THE STORY OF FAHRENHEIT 451
Jonathan R. Eller
Ray Bradbury never really figured out how to learn in a lecture hall or a classroom environment. The printed word seemed far more real to him, and the pages of countless library books formed the core of his education. Bradbury would never attend college; after his 1938 graduation from Los Angeles High School, he spent four years selling evening newspapers at the corner of Norton and Olympic, earning one penny for every three-cent newspaper he sold. But he continued to read voraciously, absorbing a wide range of classics as well as the works of contemporary writers. Sometime in 1944 he read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and from that point on, Fahrenheit 451 was inevitable.
In revealing the underlying terror of Stalin’s show trials, Darkness at Noon became the great cautionary tale for Bradbury. It fueled his subsequent confrontations with intolerant authority, and with those who denied the existence of intolerance. Bradbury’s unpublished speaking notes of the mid-1950s contain his most forceful acknowledgment of this inspiration: “People have often asked me what effect Huxley and Orwell had on me, and whether either of them influenced the creation of Fahrenheit 451. The best response is Arthur Koestler. . . . [O]nly a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved. . . . Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was therefore . . . true father, mother, and lunatic brother to my F. 451.”
The “intellectual holocaust” revealed by Koestler recharged Bradbury’s own conviction that literature is every bit as precious as life itself. From a young age he was greatly affected by accounts of the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria and the loss of many classical works that we now know only by title or through fragments of surviving parchment. Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time, and came to see the shelves as populations of living authors: to burn the book is to burn the author, and to burn the author is to deny our own humanity. Koestler’s cautionary tale soon inspired a series of writing experiments about books—and about those who would burn them. But nine years would pass before the reading public first learned the temperature at which book paper combusts.
Bradbury made notes for a story about book-burning firemen as early as February 1946, but he soon set this project aside. Initially, the path to Fahrenheit 451
led through an unfinished and entirely different story line—Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night
, which survives only in fragmentary drafts of a few episodes written at intervals during 1946 and 1947. These all focus on a nightmare inversion of traditional values in a post-apocalyptic world where death provides the best way out of a ravaged landscape. The modernist lament for lost homelands and lost values weighed heavily on him during this time, and Bradbury briefly experimented with the darker possibilities of the rapidly emerging atomic age: “If you can’t fight the meaninglessness with a religion, then slide along down the chute with it into oblivion. Make a religion of Meaninglessness.” To this end, Bradbury imagined an elite class of public assassins who also performed ritualized burnings of the books and fine art that gave meaning to an earlier age, including the poem that would
play a central role in Fahrenheit 451
—Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
In the fragmentary Ignorant Armies, which takes its title from the last line of Arnold’s poem, a prominent assassin actually reads “Dover Beach” to a massed crowd “in order that you may know what we are destroying,” and subsequently burns all of Arnold’s works as a warm-up to the destruction of what is perhaps the last copy of Shakespeare’s works. But the assassin finds that he cannot take the ultimate step of cultural annihilation by burning Shakespeare and becomes a fugitive from the mob. For Fahrenheit, Bradbury transformed this image into the scene where Fireman Montag reads “Dover Beach” to his wife and her friends. This reading would become the pivotal point of no return for Montag, who will be betrayed by his own wife for giving voice to the forbidden words.
Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night ended up a creative dead end for Bradbury, but his metaphor-rich description of the burning of Matthew Arnold’s book offers an early glimpse of the powerful prose he would bring to Montag’s story:
The book turned and fought, like some small white animal caught within the fire. It seemed to want very much to live, it writhed and sparkled and a small gust of gaseous vapor blew up from it. Leaf by leaf it burned in upon itself, as if hands of fire were turning each page, scanning and burning with the same fire. The pages cringed into black curls and the curls departed on puffs of illumination.
This unsettling image—the death of living words—emerges from a world without hope or meaning, but Bradbury soon realized
that predicting this kind of dark future ran counter to his creative instincts. He was more effective at exploring the sources and celebrating the achievements of the human imagination, and gradually began to examine where present-day threats to creativity might lead. At first, these new stories focused on supernatural fiction, a field where he had found his first success as a writer during the early 1940s; his extended tale “Pillar of Fire” (1948) and his story “The Mad Wizards of Mars” (1949; better known as “The Exiles”) warn that such labels as horror
, and supernatural
—genres that were already coming under increased scrutiny in the late 1940s—could be extended to include many of Shakespeare’s works as well as other classics of mainstream literature.
Bradbury’s well-known “Carnival of Madness,” given an even longer life as “Usher II” in The Martian Chronicles, extended the scope of his storytelling to include broader threats to canonical literature and other creative aspects of the cultural tapestry. His vengeful protagonist Stendahl, the millionaire who builds all of Poe’s infamous death devices into a single, Usheresque mansion, uses these horrors to destroy the governing elite responsible for the burning of all art and literature. Stendahl’s account of this future history is clearly a trying-out of the explanations that Professor Faber will convey to Montag in Fahrenheit 451: “They began by controlling books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures, there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.”
Bradbury’s earliest sustained images of book burning survive in the fragmentary episodes of his unfinished 1946–47 novel, Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night. In this postapocalyptic culture where all treasures of the old world are reviled, a volume of Matthew Arnold’s poetry is burned in front of a frenzied crowd as a prelude to the burning of the world’s last volume of Shakespeare’s works. The metaphorical agonies of the burning book, and the secret misgivings of the book burner himself, anticipate the emotions that Bradbury would fully develop in “The Fireman” and Fahrenheit 451.
In revising “Usher II” for The Martian Chronicles
, Bradbury added “books of cartoons and then detective books” to the destruction list, an allusion to the earliest targets of local groups and national organizations intent on enforcing behavioral “norms” in the early postwar era. Given these activities and the emerging agenda of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, it required a relatively small leap of the imagination for Bradbury to extend his storytelling into civil liberties. As Bradbury has often noted, “The Pedestrian” provided
the final bridge into “The Fireman,” the short novella that later bloomed into Fahrenheit 451
. By 1950, he had come to view the pedestrian as a threshold or indicator species capable of foretelling things to come—if the rights of the pedestrian were threatened, it would be an early indicator that broader freedoms of thought and action were also at risk.
This conclusion was deeply rooted in personal experience. In 1941, while walking through Pershing Square late at night with friend and occasional coauthor Henry Hasse, Bradbury had his first relatively mild encounter with police. The specific incident that sparked “The Pedestrian” involved a similar late-night walk with a friend along Wilshire Boulevard near Western Avenue sometime in late 1949. Bradbury often wrote and spoke about being questioned that evening by a passing patrolman, and usually described as well his somewhat confrontational response (“What am I doing? Just putting one foot in front of the other . . .”). He wrote “The Pedestrian” while the emotions were still close at hand, and in March 1950 sent it on to his New York agent, Don Congdon. Although it didn’t reach print in The Reporter until August 7, 1951, its composition in the early months of 1950 predates Bradbury’s conception of “The Fireman.”
Sometime in the spring of 1950, Bradbury suddenly envisioned his solitary pedestrian, considered a dangerous deviant in a culture where virtual-reality entertainments had replaced evening walks, in an entirely different role and gender. The pedestrian became young Clarisse McClellan, a reader of forbidden books, a questioner of authority, and a solitary late-night walker. She turns a corner and encounters Guy Montag, fireman, walking home from his station shift
in a future where firemen set fires rather than prevent them. She smells the kerosene on his tunic and says, “I know what you do.” Montag does not know her, but her fleeting companionship kindles a new joy in living and helps him understand why he has secretly hidden some of the books that he is sworn to destroy by fire. This time, Bradbury was able to avoid the nihilistic dead ends of Ignorant Armies
and instead developed a protagonist who could survive, and, with other survivors, preserve the forbidden literatures that define what it means to be human.
During the summer of 1950, Bradbury composed the first draft of “The Fireman,” at this point titled “Long After Midnight.”1
It was the result of nine days of self-enforced isolation in the UCLA Library’s subterranean typing room, alternating half-hour stints at the dime-a-dance machines with inspirational walks through the literature collections on the upper levels. Bradbury soon sent a subsequent hand-revised typescript, now titled “The Fire Man,” to Don Congdon. In early September 1950 Congdon had a clean copy prepared and began to circulate it. His initial impulse was to start with Amazing Stories,
one of the oldest magazines in the pulp tradition of science fiction and fantasy, but he and Bradbury quickly decided to try mainstream magazines first, where Congdon had long-standing connections as both an agent and an editor. In quick succession, Esquire
, the Canadian weekly Maclean’s
, The Saturday Evening Post
, and Cosmopolitan
all declined the novella, which now carried the slightly shortened title “The Fireman.” Congdon then sent it on to Town & Country,
planning to submit it to Astounding
if it failed to find a home there.2
A variant opening page for “Long After Midnight,” the first complete draft of the Fahrenheit 451 concept. This page was probably composed around August 1950, close to the time that Bradbury produced the complete draft in the UCLA library typing room. The “Long After Midnight” stage of work opens with a vivid nightmare of discovery as Leonard (not yet Guy) Montag is turned in by a neighbor boy for hiding and reading forbidden books. This opening scene disappears from all subsequent versions of Fahrenheit 451.
But while “The Fireman” was under consideration at Town & Country
, Horace Gold, publisher of the recently launched magazine Galaxy Science Fiction
, expressed strong interest in the novella. In mid-October Town & Country
declined, and Gold immediately purchased serial rights for Galaxy
. Bradbury made some revisions to the first half of the novella during November 1950, but refused Gold’s suggestion to corrupt the memories of Montag and the Book People. Gold’s idea was to render Montag unable to recall his texts without massive, Joycean juxtapositions of commercial ads and unrelated literary fragments—corruptions that the other Book People would be unable to detect or repair. Bradbury was convinced that such a pessimistic turn would destroy th...