From the Flames | Newberry

From the Flames

It must be rough (he wrote, wistfully) to write a classic early in your life and spend the rest of your life explaining it. Especially when it’s a book which manages to be controversial decade after decade, for shifting reasons, and you manage to offend the Powers That Be every time you chat about it. Still read, still controversial…and all the guy really wanted to do was take long walks in the evening.

Someone has given us a massive collection of science fiction magazines from the middle of the last century. These are, in the main, storage for ideas that were once new and startling, than classic milestones in their field, then clichés, and now basically forgotten debris waiting for someone to buy them and find out they were also fun stories to read. Among these is the February, 1951 issue of Galaxy, which was one of several stepping stones on the way to fame for a short story called “The Fireman”.

Waukegan native Ray Bradbury, whose hundredth birthday comes shortly after this year’s Book Fair, had been bothered for a while by the whole concept of totalitarian government, which he had turned into a couple of short stories in the late 40s after being stopped by police for engaging in the suspicious strolling mentioned earlier. Book censorship worried him as well—the early fifties were busy with this—and he didn’t much care for the way television was taking over the leisure time of people who MIGHT have been reading, or taking an evening stroll. As he has told the tale, he took himself off to the public library, where he could write without interruption, and, using a coin-operated typewriter, wrote “The Fireman” in nine days, at a dime per half hour. This involved a man whose job it was to burn books for a government which had decided nobody needed them any more. The story sold, but he was asked if it could be expanded into a novel. Off to the library again with a pocketful of dimes, Bradbury took another nine days to write Fahrenheit 451.

Controversy begins on the cover. Scientists are not ALWAYS the biggest fans of science fiction, and the number of times I have had it pointed out to me that book paper does not necessarily ignite at a temperature of 451 degrees Fahrenheit is getting a little silly. How far would he have gotten with a book called “Fahrenheit 420 to 475”?

Reviews tended to be toward the top of the spectrum. A few reviewers felt Bradbury was just venting his dislike of the modern world again: his opinion on television never particularly improved, and he fairly accurately predicted a few aspects of the Internet age. But the book became a classic almost immediately: a fear of totalitarian government was not entirely out of step with public thinking in the mid-Fifties, and the fact that the book was worth reading as a story, and not just as a political tract, made it a bestseller.

Then things got weird. Bradbury was well on his way to becoming a mainstream science fiction author, and a tempting addition to school libraries eager to add anything new and well known. Schoolteachers started assigning Fahrenheit 451, and his earlier classic, the Martian Chronicles in class, and excerpts began to pop up in English textbooks.

Along the way, complaints started to trickle in. Bradbury was hardly a progressive when it came to permissive language, but he was a part of postwar American literature, and his characters would say “Damn” when they felt like it. This raised eyebrows in some school districts.

So without telling Bradbury, the publisher began to publish a carefully censored version of his book about book burning. The hells and damns disappeared, a drunk became a sick man, and other little changes were made which the publisher thought would make the book go down better. From 1967 until 19073, the publisher put out both the original and the censored version, but markets being markets and business being business, they stopped printing the original in 1973, and published only the safe-for-students version until 1979, when Bradbury finally found out what was going on. There were fireworks. Bradbury said a few more things about benevolent powers censoring books for our own good, and the story rolled on.

Anyway, I am assuming that we will have three versions of this controversial classic for sale in July: the short story of 1951, the high school version of which we get dozens of copies, and even the full novel. Buy all three: it’s the author’s centennial.

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