Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die

Re-thinking some of my own condescending opinions about Ray Bradbury’s work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and its surprisingly nuanced take on censorship. The kerosene-filled salamander trucks are the most dramatic, but not the most unsettlingly relevant image in the book. Instead, it’s the society that slowly and gradually gives in to our own fears and assumptions to the point where we think the firemen are a good idea in the first place.

I already wrote about Ray Bradbury’s Coda, which was included as an afterword to a 1979 edition of the book. Searching for the full text of his essay online, I could only find the occasional personal blog post, and then a full copy of it included in an obituary of Bradbury on the Cato Institute’s website. Which I won’t link to, because F the Cato Institute.

I don’t know what Bradbury’s specific and personal politics were, because I get the impression he was adamant about letting his work speak for itself. (An idea that seems forcefully underlined by his Coda). I only just started reading Bradbury’s work for the first time in the past couple of years — going roughly in order of “famousness” — and I’ve been struck by how he has a clear and undeniably specific voice, which he uses to describe concepts that are universal.

It’s that combination of universal concepts plus early-to-mid-20th-century-American mindset which initially left me with the overall impression that his works are “brilliant, but dated.” To me, they’ve seemed to communicate ideas that are immediately and crucially relevant to 21st century liberal progressives, despite their being shaped by the mindset of a period in American history that so many of us are now recognizing needs to be dismantled and un-learned.

I imagine it’s that same universality that lets people at a well-funded libertarian “think tank” interpret it as a “got ’em!” dismissal of social progressivism and inclusivity as assaults on free speech driven by frivolous special interests.

Bradbury’s Coda to Fahrenheit 451 suggests — insists, really — that neither of those takes is the right one. Except I’m a little bit more right than they are, and here’s why.

Here’s how Bradbury started the essay — which, remember, was largely a response to previous editions of Fahrenheit 451 that had been edited for school-age audiences, evidently by a team with no concept of irony.

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

It strikes me as deliberately provocative, and it was able to get as much of a rise out of me in 2021 as it was no doubt intended to in 1979. He goes on to list more of the requests or demands he’d received to edit, abridge, or revise his work, and then:

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? How did I react to all of the above?
By “firing” the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.

It seemed surprising to me for two reasons: first is that I’m so unaccustomed to seeing such full-throated rejections of a request made in the name of diversity or more inclusive representation. Second is that I’m so unaccustomed to seeing an author acknowledge his biases, prejudices, and convictions, with no hint of embarrassment or apology.

After reading his Coda, I couldn’t help but imagine the kind of outraged reaction it’d get from the online offenderati! How dare he show not just disregard, but outright contempt for the idea of diversity!

I started to wonder whether I was laying it on a little thick, though, assuming too little of modern audiences. Maybe I was being guilty of reducing the online Discourse to easy stereotypes. Maybe I was becoming one of those sneering white guys incessantly complaining about “woke culture” and even, ugh, “social justice warriors.” Surely readers of a book about the necessity of challenging ideas would take the time to fully appreciate what the work and its afterword were actually saying?

Turns out, I needn’t have worried, because with just a few seconds of Googling I found this review of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s Coda, and the 2018 movie adaptation on a site called “Electric Lit.” Proving yet again that there’s no such thing as a take that’s so bad that you won’t find it somewhere on the internet.

After a preamble in which the writer, for some reason, establishes her bona fides as a precocious reader misunderstood by her less-literate and disappointedly close-minded classmates, she tears into the book and Bradbury himself as regressive relics. Then she laments that the movie adaptation doesn’t go far enough to counteract the obvious failings of Brabury’s book, making token stabs at more diversity by casting non-white actors like Michael B Jordan and Khandi Alexander, and updating the crucial character of Clarisse (“who is played by the Algerian actor Sofia Boutella and who, thank God, is not a 17-year-old girl (as in the book), but a complicated double agent”), but reluctant to fully commit to breaking from the “old-school Western canon” in a way that minority-hating Ray Bradbury would’ve found irritating.

I mention the writer inserting herself into the review not just to make fun — although to be clear, I am absolutely making fun — but as an inadvertently ironic backdrop to Bradbury’s main point: the importance of the author’s unique voice. I don’t know what the writer’s intent was. Maybe it’s just that the current popular style of online writing, media criticism combined with personal journal, lowers the stakes, so you can just straight up call an author racist without fear of repercussion. [This post is, naturally, immune from such criticism, since this is a personal journal].

Much of it reads like the writer trying to absolve herself of any blame for ever having enjoyed such a regressive book. She was young, and she felt strongly about censorship! But now, re-reading her “yellowed and crumbling” edition (from 1993!) of the book, she realizes how the author’s voice has rendered it offensive: “Reading this passage now feels sickening. A story I once believed to be about the importance of staying open-minded and intellectually curious is unmistakably steeped in elitist, supremacist thinking…” I hope she remembered to keep the book safely hidden away behind an air conditioning grate!

The passage in Fahrenheit 451 the writer now finds sickening is from the end, in which [spoiler?] main character Gus Montag ends up in a band of well-educated hoboes who are part of a nationwide network who have memorized the great works of literature, making sure that even after the pages are destroyed, the work lives on in the oral tradition. In one of the essays about the making of the book, Bradbury mentions that an editor suggested that some of the passages should be irretrievably entangled with the earworm commercial jingles that the book describes elsewhere. Bradbury rejected the idea as too cynical; he insisted that the story end on a note of hope.

This review slaps some 21st-century pessimism on top of that note, demonstrating what happens when you’ve memorized all the words, but you’ve forgotten what the words mean.

Things have already started to go south in the second paragraph of that review, in which the writer encapsulates the character of Fire Captain Beatty as “ultimately, the bad guy.” Beatty is undeniably the antagonist of Fahrenheit 451, but Bradbury deliberately (and repeatedly) described his final scene and Montag’s reaction to it in a way that leaves Beatty’s motivations ambiguous. Was he a chauvinist, as we initially thought, or just a fatalist? Had he been describing this society as it should be, or simply as it is? He was no doubt complicit in it, but we’re left wondering whether he was ever truly in favor of it, or just consumed by it. (His exit could be a read as a pretty strong metaphor for being consumed by it). Had Beatty been giving Montag enough rope to hang himself, or had he been looking for an ally apart from the incurious dimwits who didn’t understand or care how badly the system was broken?

It’s a lot simpler to just ignore all of that, and treat Beatty as a direct mouthpiece for all of Bradbury’s own prejudices and fears. The writer of that review shows a glimmer of self-awareness before abandoning it in favor of the shallowest and most condescendingly dismissive interpretation:

Of course, this is a novel: the author’s ideas do not have to align with those of his characters. Based on his coda, though, I suspect these views are a pretty accurate picture of the inside of Bradbury’s head. The author was a legendary crank, and probably wasn’t a big fan of anyone who didn’t live up to his intellectual standards.

She goes on to cherry-pick lines from Beatty’s various monologues, using lines taken out of context from the Coda as corroboration for her conclusion that Bradbury himself was obviously a racist elitist. She concludes that Bradbury forcefully defended the supremacy of his own work while dismissing the voices of minorities. Even quoting from parts of the Coda in which Bradbury was saying the exact opposite.

(Not at all related to my main point, but I just read this part in the review and it slapped me in the face:

All the illiterate citizens left behind are obliterated: “the explosion rid itself of them in its own unreasonable way.” Literary types might call this a deus ex machina. It’s not exactly subtle.

No, literary types wouldn’t call this a “deus ex machina,” since it was foreshadowed multiple times over, starting from early chapters, with repeated reports of a war that all the citizens were too preoccupied with their own entertainment to care about. I mean come on. It’s not exactly subtle).

If readers actually read his Coda, instead of stopping when they “find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth,” or getting hung up on his mentions of “minorities,” “Chicano intellectuals,” “Mormons,” “Southern whites,” and “solemn young Vassar ladies,” they’d understand that Bradbury wasn’t dismissing unique voices, but calling them to action. It’s the simplest and most blunt call to action there is, essentially If you don’t like my book, write your own damn book. I hope you choke on it!

The writer of that review concludes it by inviting us to imagine alternate retellings of the concepts in Fahrenheit 451 that better suit our more enlightened and inclusive contemporary worldview (seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bradbury had commanded readers to do pretty much exactly that, 40 years prior):

Imagine, instead, a retelling that amplifies voices forgotten by the Western canon Bradbury championed. Imagine a story of a dystopian society where a person of color encountered the words of their ancestors for the first time — literature that has frequently been suppressed in real life — and found something that spoke to them personally. Imagine Khandi Alexander’s character telling us why Toni Morrison spoke to her so deeply that she committed every word to heart. Imagine Montag actually reading the words of Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass, and finding out for himself why they made white people angry.

And I mean, as long as we’re in the realm of wildly speculative fiction, I can even imagine a story in which black characters are well-rounded human beings, with interests that extend beyond just the works of other black people!

Again: the writer has memorized the words, but lost their meaning. She remembers to use the phrase “person of color,” but still writes about black people as if they had one identifying characteristic, as if the “of color” part were more important than the other part. (Hey, you’re a Black! What’s your favorite Langston Hughes poem?) She gets so hung up on the idea that the survivors in the book are well-educated men that she uses that as grounds to dismiss their role as arrogant elitism and therefore either reject or ignore everything the men actually say. Including the mention of an entire town of people that’s collectively memorized a book (a town completely made up of Ivy League grads, no doubt!), their insistence that they not engage in elitist pedantry, and the explicit reminder that they haven’t limited themselves to “the old-school Western canon” but specifically include Confucius and Buddha and Gandhi alongside the gospels, Darwin, Jonathan Swift, and Einstein.

It’s another case of thinking of diversity not as a means to an end, but as the end itself. That can lead to a more insidious form of censorship than outright book-burning, because it so thoroughly couches itself in the language of liberalism that the censors themselves don’t even realize what they’re doing.

There’s a reason, in his Coda, Bradbury mentioned the criticism that the black characters in The Martian Chronicles were “Uncle Toms” and he should do a “do-over,” then followed it immediately with a mention of the note from a “Southern white” accusing him of being prejudiced in favor of the blacks. One may come from a place of progress and inclusion, and the other comes from a place of bigotry, but they both have the same end result: silencing Bradbury’s unique voice for the sake of some special interest.

To be clear: I’m not letting myself completely off the hook, here. Bradbury insisted that readers like me, who looked for universal truths in his writing while making a mental note to disregard or re-contextualize the parts that we found jarring, were actually doing him a disservice, not a favor. His “jawbreaker sentences,” his digressions, and his opinions are what make the work his work. If you were to rip his prejudices, assumptions, affiliations, and blind spots out of Fahrenheit 451, it might be more palatable to contemporary audiences, but it would no longer be Fahrenheit 451.

Instead of leaving it as some vague, hand-waving defense of “free speech” in the abstract, look at a specific example of what happens why you try to politely ignore the “problematic.” Go back to his condescending description of the “solemn young Vassar lady,” and her request for a re-written version of The Martian Chronicles with more women’s characters.

Because, after all, SYVL had a point: in all of Bradbury’s work that I’ve read so far, at least, he rarely makes women characters prominent. Even when present, they’re often reduced to one of a predictable set of stereotypes or archetypes. Ingenue, object of attraction, disaffected housewife, nagging housewife, Mother, single mother, witch, crone. As I’ve been reading Bradbury’s stories and novels, I’ve been mentally putting an asterisk after his depictions of women. It’s a reminder to myself to set those aside as a product of his time, and to look elsewhere for the more universal meaning of his work.

Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 would seem to be one of the most positive and sympathetic female characters he’s written, but I think ultimately, she’s more like a virgin sacrifice. She represents the curiousness of someone who hasn’t yet had their spirit broken by society, and her role is really just to spur on the journey of the male narrator. (Aging her up and making her a “double agent” sounds like such a ridiculously clumsy misfire that it makes me even less interested in seeing the 2018 adaptation).

I think Mildred Montag in Fahrenheit 451 is the more interesting character from that book. On the surface, she’d seem to be right from the Nagging Housewife Starter Kit. In fact, she’s kind of a contemptible character. Not just incurious, but actively resistant to curiosity, and constantly discouraging Gus’s push for unconventional thought. I spent most of the book thinking of her as irredeemably shallow, self-centered, and lazy.

But Bradbury refused to hold her in complete contempt. In a lot of ways, she’s more the villain of the book than Fire Captain Beatty, but I don’t think Fahrenheit 451 really has villains. It’s more like a tragedy. It’s about people being consumed by a society that’s given up. Mildred is described not as if she were scheming, but as if she were drowning. And Bradbury writes as if it would be as churlish to condemn her as it would be to hold a drowning victim in contempt for not being a better swimmer.

Of all of Bradbury’s work that I’ve read so far, though, I think the story “The Next In Line” from The October Country was by far the most affecting. After I read that book, I described how it was the one story that left me shaken in a way that I have a tough time explaining. (I also repeated my own bogus idea that the book was dragged down by a specific and dated mindset).

The story is about a young couple, Joseph and Marie, who are vacationing in Mexico when car trouble strands them in a small town. They start by witnessing the funeral of what seems to have been a small child, and Marie immediately identifies with the child for reasons she can’t explain. Later, at Joe’s insistence, they visit the town’s “mummies,” bodies of the dead stored underground by families unable to pay the rent on their graves.

There are a couple of aspects of that story that seem jarring to a reader in 2021. First is the depiction of the small town in Mexico, and by extension, Mexicans. It can seem like they’re described not just as foreign, but alien. Their customs are weird, they’re mired in poverty and corruption, and their lives are cheap.

In fact, that’s how Joseph sees them. He thinks of the mummies as a ghoulish, fascinating tourist attraction. Marie, on the other hand, can’t not see them as people, no matter how much she might want to. And as the title implies, not just people, but people just like her.

The most shallow interpretation of the story is that it’s a creepy, Twilight Zone-style parable about how death is the great equalizer. But the real horror of the story comes from Bradbury’s relentless, extended passages describing Marie’s sense of isolation and dread, her preternatural certainty of her own doom. I’d say that out of all of his stories and novels that I’ve read, Bradbury inhabits the character of Marie more thoroughly than any other character apart from the father and son in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Which leads to the other aspect I found jarring: the dissonance between Bradbury’s intense empathy for Marie’s character, and his descriptions of her that come across as shallow, a sketch of How Men In The First Half of the 20th Century See Women. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s depiction of Lisa in the first half of Rear Window: beautiful, but kind of shallow, fragile, dismissive of any call to adventure, and just obsessed with her fashion magazines.

But when I go back to the story now, I’m more skeptical that it’s as much of a blind spot or tone deafness as I’d assumed. A key part of Marie’s dread is her sense of isolation from being so far out of her element, so desperate to distract herself with all the trappings of her comfortable life. The depth of the story comes from Bradbury’s insistence that we confront our own mortality, without being able to think of it in the abstract. Without being able to comfort ourselves with all the distractions we use to keep from having to think about it. The horror of the story comes from Marie’s profound empathy, the realization not that could be me, but that will be me. The core idea of the story is our shared humanity.

The reason I’m bringing up these examples is not to put forward the idea that Ray Bradbury — based on the stories and novels I’ve read — is a champion of feminism, or a voice for African Americans, or Native Americans, or Egyptians. But he was a voice for empathy for all people, and an adamant champion of the idea that those voices should coexist with his own.

Part of that is acknowledging that there’s still value in Bradbury’s un-marginalized, sufficiently represented voice, with his unique frame of reference intact. For me, it’s a reminder that I’m carrying my own condescending prejudices about white American men from a certain time in American history.

My perception of the first half of the 20th century has been sanded down into a simplified, Pleasantville-esque caricature of suburbia, by decades of television and other popular media. It’s resulted in a perception of that period sanitized by the Hays Code and network standards and practices, and assuming it was the truth would be as foolish as assuming that everything used to be in black and white. We know that the gatekeepers of popular media did a bad job of representing women, non-whites, and marginalized people, but we forget that they also did a bad job of representing themselves. Even people who weren’t genius writers were often much more complex and sophisticated than we give them credit for.

Keeping Bradbury’s voice intact means we get a much better and more accurate idea of the culture at the time he was most prolific. It’s a reminder that every time you think of people in terms of demographics, you’re making an oversimplified abstraction that robs them of their complexity and capacity for empathy and intelligence. That’s obviously most troubling for under-represented people, but this is a reminder that it’s a problem for groups we think are more than adequately represented. Reducing individuals to some bland idea of Ward & June Cleaver’s White America gradually chips away at the fact that issues of civil rights, race relations, or gender equality didn’t suddenly materialize in the late 50s; people have had complex ideas about them for as long as there have been people.

So Ray Bradbury’s unabridged, unedited, unapologetically unique voice is a reminder of how a different frame of reference doesn’t necessarily imply a drastically different worldview. He doesn’t need any of us making excuses for his being a product of his time, or mentally editing out the “problematic” parts. The work has to speak for itself, and the concepts will either connect with the reader, or they won’t. “And no one can help me. Not even you.”

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