Joe Participated in a Colloquium on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
If you missed the Colloquium, you missed a very interesting introduction and analysis by Professor Todd Davis. You also missed the opportunity to hear more about the exciting ballet, by its composer K.T. Huckabee. You also missed an opportunity to hear many of the perspectives by the dancers. Hopefully, you did not miss the extravaganza itself!
But here are my talking notes for panel participation at the April 24 Colloquium, “Approaches to The Burning Book,” in preparation for the Ballet by K.T. Huckabee
Read More Here About the Dance Performance and Musical Composition, “Maddening Madness.”
Read about the Colloquium Here
Hello. Professor Todd Davis is an expert in looking at the literary value of this novel. I am always intrigued by what he can do with a piece of fiction, both as what the writer may have intended and as what a good reader can also do, quite legitimately, with the same text.
But I am here with him today to offer another take on this book. I will suggest that we consider this novel as a piece of historical evidence and as a philosophical warning about a slippery slope toward some authoritarian future that the author wanted us to somehow avoid.
So, first, the novel as a kind of historical evidence:
In some ways we might read this novel as an indication of what a young man feared in 1953 because he was born in 1920, and by implication, what we can read of the fears of the American middle classes during the Mid 20th Century. I will caution that in several important ways, Ray Bradbury’s own experience was not typical of most young American men during many of his formative years. So attempting to read this book as evidence of what the general American middle classes feared might be stretching the evidence in some ways. We will discuss this further in the appropriate places.
Bradbury was born in the Chicago area, moved with his family to Arizona at eleven, during the Dust Bowl. This makes him a novel kind of hybrid Okie, from Chicago.
His father finally got work in Los Angeles when Ray was 14 and they moved to California during height of the Great Depression.
When Ray graduated from high school, he continued his work selling newspapers. He did not go to college. This choice to not go on for a university degree was a very typical choice during the pre- World War II era. Instead, Bradbury spent three days a week in the library reading widely and teaching himself to write. This was not very typical of his generation. He didn’t think professors had much to teach him–he said later. Perhaps his expressed distaste for college education, stated during a later time in his life when the typical route to college, the G.I. Bill, had not been available to Ray, reflects more of his non-veteran status than his rejection of professors. But without more evidence we should, perhaps, take his later comments at face value.
So just imagine some of the headlines he would have read, sitting there in the library, during his formative years:
— When Ray 13 years old: Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. Joseph Stalin had been Premier of USSR since the early 1930’s.
— At 16 years old: Germany reoccupied the Rhineland and Hitler got 99% of the German Vote! This was not an endorsement for democracy.
During all of this: Americans were fixated on
- a kidnapping and subsequent trial
- the sleep secrets between the King of England and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American
— When Ray was 18: Germany took back the Sudetenland. Germany and US withdraw their ambassadors.
So, as Ray Bradbury approaches adulthood, the world slides into a seemingly unavoidable war, one we now call World War 2.
— After Pearl Harbor, Ray is saved from the draft by his poor eyesight. So he continues to isolate himself in the library for the duration.
— On VJ Day, Ray Bradbury would have felt like the only 25 year old young man in the entire US who was not in uniform. Ray was 26: All over the globe allies who had cooperated during the war now began to face off against each other. It seemed 50-60 million war deaths were not enough. For examples: Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, The Chinese Nationalists were at war with the Communists, East German Social Democrats allied with the Communist Party. The various sides seemed to be prepping for The Cold War.
— At 27: Returning Veterans (Not Ray) are eligible for GI Bill and enroll in college classes in unprecedented numbers. New housing subdivisions are springing up all over the US. First you get a wife, then a house, then a television, then a car… All but the wife on easy credit. And none of this for Ray.
— At 29: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is founded to contain and threaten the USSR, probably our most important ally in the last World War.
— At 30: Sen Joe McCarthy discovers convincing evidence (he said) that the US Dept of State and even the US military is riddled with communists and Red sympathizers, most of whom may be secretly working for Joseph Stalin!
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the US finds itself again at war, this time with North Korea and at times, even with China. This may have seemed what it might have become, a potential ground war against the most populated nation on the planet and which had also been an important recent ally in the war against the Japanese Empire.
But, this same year there had been 1.5 million TV sets sold in the US. (In the following year there will have been ten times that many TV sets sold, a few of the 1951 sets are even color TVs).
–At 33 in 1953: Ray publishes Fahrenheit 451 during the lowest ebb of the Stalin years in Soviet Union and the “Red Scare” in the United States.
The novel as prediction:
First: Bradbury understood that prediction is an effective form of prevention. Did his dystopian prediction help?
This is an unanswerable question. We can’t measure or know. How could we measure what the world might have been without this book. People read books and they change our paradigm. Perhaps not. I may think the world is shaped and changed by artists and authors. But how could we ever know?
But if Bradbury could convince his reader that it was authoritarian control itself and not any particular ideology that was the enemy of thoughtful and peaceful human life, then his work may be seen as an attempt to intervene in history.
He apparently understood that governments and administrations will do almost anything to preserve their own power. From the first level supervisor in the back office, to the head of the East German Ministry of State Security, unrestrained autocrats will be brutal when defending their own prerogatives.
Bradbury also realized that the published book would prove to be more of a threat to tyrants than was the temporary and easily manipulated broadcast media. A book is permanent. A TV or radio show can be more easily squelched, controlled, edited.
This makes one wonder about the current trend in modern libraries toward things called ebooks and online journals. The firemen in Farenheit 451 burned books while encouraging the opiate of the wall sized TV screens and the simplistic mind eating programming offered there to distract people from the jet bombers roaring overhead randomly throughout his narrative. Been in a library lately? Some have even taken to calling themselves some version of “media reservoir,” avoiding thereby the connotations of a library as a permanent storehouse of books and periodicals.
But Bradbury’s wall size TVs only drowned out the sounds of the bombers flying overhead. The lost humanity of the characters needed serious medication. Then the overdoses of medication needed horrific rehabs.
Lucky for us all today, Bradbury’s wall size flat screens and stupid “Reality TV” shows were only fiction. Weren’t they?
Our non-fiction version of these things today includes ear budded, snap chatted, Twitter fed, Youtubed, and pod casted varieties of mental anesthetic delivering programming like what the Kardashians are up to these days, how to dance with the stars, real housewives, Survivor, Bachelor, and some indescribable epics of our post literate world called Duck Dynasties and Jersey Shore. Won’t be long before politics itself devolves into a form of reality TV.
All of this has been playing in the background for us while real bombers have been flying overhead for more than a decade now, but this real war can’t easily be heard above the roar of the crowds applauding for the latest American Idol.
So, of course, the question is not “was Bradbury accurate?” The better question might be, “how did he ever know what was coming?”