by Gene Turnbow, station manager
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale of what happens when a society turns on itself and revokes its citizens’ right to knowledge. Bradbury wrote it originally as a sort of protest against government overreach. The novel – one of the few actual full length books Bradbury ever wrote – tells the story of Guy Montag, a man hired to burn books, along with the possessions of anyone daring to own one. Montag’s thorough indoctrination is gradually washed away as he begins to understand just how pushed out of shape society has become.
In 1949, Bradbury had a personal experience with an overzealous police officer which inspired him to write The Pedestrian, which inspired another story called The Fireman, which, in turn, inspired the novel Fahrenheit 451. In the novel, books have been outlawed and “firemen” go from house to house to make sure every last book is burned, “for the safety of society.” What started as a personal commentary, however, has become symbolic of fight against intellectual oppression everywhere. Bradbury was especially concerned about the trend of book burning, and in a 1956 radio interview he stated that Fahrenheit 451 was written, in part, to bring attention to the dangers of writer and artist censorship.
It was the McCarthy era, and by the late 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee had managed to whip much of the United States into a state of abject fear over the Soviet Union and the practice of Communism. Innocent men and women were being indicted by secret courts on the accusation of fraternizing or supporting the activities of Communists, put on trial with no possibility of defense, and sentenced without representation. Even the hint of impropriety could destroy an otherwise luminary career, and there was famously a Hollywood blacklist. Ten of the most powerful directors and producers were on it, among many many others. If you were on it, you didn’t work, and all it took was one person making a wild accusation. Bradbury was both incensed and horrified by the government’s desire to control artists and writers.
The book itself was subjected to various attempts to either bowdlerize or ban it entirely. Surprisingly, one of these attempts came from Bradbury’s own publisher, Ballantine Books. That the book itself expounds the dangers of intellectual censorship is an irony that seems to have escaped many:
- Starting in 1967, Ballantine Books began publishing an expurgated version with the words “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion,” with a number of passages rewritten. This was to make them more suitable for high school students to read, they claimed. This version was in distribution for 12 years until Bradbury learned of it and made Ballantine restore the book to its original form in publication.
- It was placed on a banned book list by the Bay County School Board in Panama City, Florida for “profanity,” but after student protests, a class action suit, and a fair amount of media attention, the school board relented and did away with the rating system that would have banned it and many other books.
- In 1992, Irvine, California’s Venado Middle School gave copies of Fahrenheit 451 to students with all the so-called “obscene” words blacked out. Parents contacted the local media and succeeded in reinstalling the uncensored copies.
- In 2006, parents of a tenth grade high school student in Montgomery County, Texas, demanded the book be banned from their daughter’s English class reading list due to profanity and their objection that the book depicts the burning of the Holy Bible. They were unsuccessful.
Fahrenheit 451 was originally published as a paperback in 1953 by Ballantine Books, and went to hardcover shortly thereafter. In a unique twist, the hardcover version not only contained a couple of additional short stories that the paperback did not contain, there was a special autographed version of it that enjoyed a very limited run of 200, and for good reason.
The books were bound in asbestos.
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