This Day in Writing History - October 19 - Ray Bradbury
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
October 19, 1953 saw the publication of what would go on to be Ray Bradbury's most famous work, his dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451". It depicts a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen are tasked, not with putting fires out, but burning any books along with the other possessions of those found to be keeping the books.
The protagonist Guy Montag is one of these firemen, content in his work until he meets his new neighbor Clarisse. She rejects the trappings of the hedonistic and shallow society they reside in, much unlike Montag's wife Mildred, who is obsessed with television. This ignites curiosity in Montag, who begins to secretly accumulate books. As he struggles with his decision to rebel, he must also avoid the suspicious eye of his boss, Beatty, who agrees with the popular belief that literature is a creeping menace threatening the fabric of civilization.
The seeds for what would become "Fahrenheit 451" were planted early. Bradbury was a passionate reader and writer from an early age and conducted a great deal of self-education at public libraries, as he could not afford to attend college following high school. Around that time, the repression campaigns of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia gained great exposure, deeply troubling young Bradbury.
This discontent was increased in the late 1940s by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which conducted sweeping investigations into artistic circles and blacklisted a number of Hollywood personalities deemed to be a threat. Bradbury gained a personal glimpse into government intrusion during an incident where he was stopped and questioned by a police officer while out for a nighttime walk.
That episode prompted Bradbury to write a short story entitled "The Pedestrian", which features a protagonist experiencing the same situation and then facing great psychological scrutiny from the oppressive society he lives in as a result of it. This was later expanded into the novella "The Fireman", where many of the familiar elements were added. At the suggestion of his publisher, Bradbury further expanded the novella into a full-sized novel, "Fahrenheit 451" - the title originating from the answer a fire captain gave Bradbury regarding the temperature at which book paper burns. The novel received only two modest printings at first, one in paperback and one in hardback, but gradually gained exposure in 1954, assisted by release as a serial in issues of then-fledgling Playboy magazine.
"Fahrenheit 451" went on to garner critical acclaim and gave Bradbury's writing career an immeasurable boost. Though spending time mostly on short stories, which would make up published collections in the style of his first release "The Martian Chronicles", Bradbury managed to complete several more novels, most notably the fantasy stories "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "The Halloween Tree". However, "Fahrenheit 451" remained the definitive work of Bradbury's career and one he would often discuss in interviews.
Ironically, the novel found itself subject to censorship at the behest of its publisher, who sought to make an edition deemed suitable for children. When Bradbury discovered this, he demanded the publisher cease producing the expurgated copy and release only the original version. The publisher complied and Bradbury contributed a new afterword to the re-release, explaining the circumstances and relating them to the novel's themes.
With a portrayal of a nightmarish world with some striking similarities to our own, "Fahrenheit 451" might be the best possible reminder not to take the free exchange of ideas lightly or for granted.