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Spring 2013

The Pulpy Roots of ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Thomas F. Bertonneau

Ray Bradbury (1923–2012) early found his métier in two forms, the short story and the thirty-minute radio drama. Three excellent literary mentors advised and worked with him when he was in his twenties—Catherine L. Moore (1911–1987) and Leigh Brackett (1915–1978) for the short story and Norman Corwin (1910–2011) for the thirty-minute radio drama. The associations with Moore and Brackett came first, and of those two gracious ladies Brackett probably did the most to help Bradbury gain mastery over his craft. Brackett and Bradbury once even collaborated, with Brackett asking Bradbury to complete a novella that she had composed halfway through; the filmmaker Howard Hawks had just then recruited Brackett to assist William Faulkner (no less) with the dialogue for The Big Sleep, but she did not want to break her promise to the editor who had requested a contribution.

imageThe tale, which swiftly saw print in the pulp quarterly Planet Stories for summer 1946, bore the title Lorelei of the Red Mist. Bradbury, of course, knew where Brackett had left off and where he had continued, but when asked about it he liked not to let on at just what point. The story impresses readers as seamless, never betraying the fact that two writers worked on it in succession. Set on Venus and drawing on the medieval Celtic sagas that interested Brackett greatly at the time, Lorelei belongs to the subgenre of science fiction usually referred to as “planetary romance”—and that degree-holding scholars of the genre and professors of English-department science fiction courses typically regard not only as atavistic (harking back as the species does to the Mars and Venus adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs), but also as lacking in intellectual and artistic virtues. Indeed, Planet Stories itself was a conspicuous holdout in the science fiction field at mid-century when Lorelei appeared. A materialistic so-called “hard science fiction,” exemplified by such writers as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, who sought technical plausibility above all else, had come to dominate the field, displacing the Burroughs-type extraterrestrial quest-and-combat tale; the pulps in general were fading, to be replaced by “slick” magazines of digest-size, in one of which, Galaxy, Bradbury’s “Fireman” would acquire a venue in February, 1951.

I rehearse the foregoing bibliographical lore to emphasize that Fahrenheit 451—of which “The Fireman” provides the kernel, and which ranks with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the three indisputably great dystopias of the mid-twentieth century—came from the pen of a young writer, without a college degree, who in the years around World War II participated happily in the peculiar niche of Angeleno Bohemia consisting of impoverished writers who earned a meager income by catering at a penny a word to the vast range of “pulp” monthlies, in every genre and all, while displaying particular enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy. Brackett, Moore, and Moore’s husband Henry Kuttner (1915–1958), had all been “fans” before becoming writers. One recalls that Orwell in his youth had been a voracious reader of “boys’ papers,” to the vitality of which he devoted an essay. Bradbury’s case offers a parallel to Orwell’s, just as it resembles those of his mentor-friends.

In the foreword that he contributed to The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1981), the author writes concerning his artistic origins that, for him, “everything came together in the summer and fall and early winter of 1932” when, “stuffed full of Buck Rogers, the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the night-time radio serial Chandu the Magician,” he made the acquaintance of a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico, who introduced him to the weird world of the traveling tent-show. “A few weeks later,” Bradbury attests, “I started writing my first short stories about the planet Mars.” Bradbury’s authorship, including Fahrenheit, generates itself spontaneously in a soil richly compounded of diverse, and quite vulgar, vulgarities.

Elements of the Brackett-Bradbury collaboration, Lorelei, foreshadow “The Fireman,” and so also the later Fahrenheit. Consider Lorelei’s medieval atmosphere, its heroic “Echoes of Ossian” (so to speak), its bardic and supernatural themes: The scientific-sanitary regime of the book-burning dystopia condemns and relentlessly roots out and destroys just such things as unhealthy, disturbing to a positive outlook, and incompatible with a scientifically ordered society. The book-burning dystopia itself, which Fahrenheit develops in detail, first appears in Bradbury’s oeuvre in another story that likewise saw publication within the lurid covers of Planet Stories, “Pillar of Fire,” in the number for summer 1948. The story follows the posthumous career of William Lantry—“the last one, a rare item, the last dead man”—who climbs out of his grave, just before the hygiene engineers drag him out of it, in the sterile world of 2349 A.D. Bradbury gives no rational explanation for Lantry; only, rather, a moral one, corresponding to its author’s notion of moral order as intrinsic to the structure of reality. In Lantry, reality produces the only possible response to a pneumopathological society that thinks it can complete its project of bland rationalization by disinterring and committing to the crematories every corpse in every cemetery one earth and every new corpse to come out of every hospital. In the story’s driving paradox, Lantry, the walking corpse, is more alive than the living corpse-burners, who began their campaign, not incidentally, as book-burners.

Every city and town has its “Incinerator,” its skyline-dominating “pillar of fire.” Lantry investigates the one in “Science Town,” near where he emerges. “we that were born of the sun return to the sun,” reads the inscription over the altar, an allusion perhaps to Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), one of the original technocratic utopias—inspired by Joachim di Fiore’s Gnostic prophecy of a new earthly paradise. Lantry visits a library, hoping to discover in books how this new Puritan order had come into existence. He inquires on a whim after Edgar Poe. The librarian replies, “He was one of the authors in the Great Burning of 2265.” She adds that Poe “had some interesting barbarian ideas on death,” which were “abominable.” Her insouciant summary is, “Good thing he was burned.” When Lantry asks after H. P. Lovecraft, the librarian wants to know, “Is that a sex book?” The regime tracks Lantry down and corners him. As he perishes in the flue, he soliloquizes, “I am Usher, I am the Maelstrom, I am the MS Found in a Bottle,” and so on, ending in “nevermore.”

How did “Pillar” find a home in Planet Stories? It is tangentially one of Bradbury’s Martian tales. Lantry learns shortly before his demise that “the executive order went out yesterday” to disinter and cremate all the Martian corpses in the catacombs of the Red Planet. An implication of “Pillar” is that the dystopia finds its deepest motivation in its fear of the Pauline promise that the dead shall arise in their transfigured bodies; under its ultimately nihilistic dispensation, people who are dead-in-life wish to stay dead, once they have died. A bibliophobe regime necessarily assumes an antibiblical, anti-Christian stance because the Bible provides the basis of Western European literacy.

The incendiary, antiliterate dictatorship also constitutes the terrestrial status quo, and provides the background story, in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), some of the tales in that book also having first appeared in Planet Stories and some others in Thrilling Wonder Stories. Among the Chronicles, “Usher II” (TWS, April 1950) has a particular antecedent relevance to Fahrenheit, standing midway between “Pillar” and “The Fireman.” William Stendahl, so-spelt, the story’s protagonist, uses his immense wealth in the year 2005 to build on Mars a perfect replica of Poe’s fictional manse, complete with “machines, hidden, to blot out the sun” and to make the immediate surroundings properly “dreary.” The architect’s response to Stendahl’s question what the names Poe or Usher signify to him—“nothing”—attests that the hygienic polity has fully established itself. In thinking of “the rockets [that] burned down to civilize a beautifully dead planet,” Stendahl gives rhetorical flesh to the same grim irony that Bradbury displayed in “Pillar,” with its stark reversal of life and death.

Stendahl explains to the architect how the censors “began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures.” As Stendahl rehearses it, “There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” The program of censorship reached towards the goal of “Clean-Minded people.” The audioanimatronic house, with its synthetic tarn and its robotic denizens, is Stendahl’s bait for “Clean-Minded people.” Like Lantry, he cannot disestablish the falsely rational dictatorship, but he can make its agents pay a price. In swift order, the architectural peculiarity attracts the attention of “Moral Climates,” the oversight agency of political correctness in the ideologically afflicted world of the Chronicles.

Garrett, the inspector of Moral Climates who comes to investigate Stendahl’s “folly,” recites “the law”: “No books, no houses, nothing to be produced which in any way suggests ghosts, vampires, fairies, or any creatures of the imagination.” Stendahl knows it well. Moral Climates earlier ferreted out his hidden treasure of “fifty thousand books” back on earth “and burned them.”

In addition to policing clean-mindedness, Moral Climates relentlessly pursues its job of what would best be described as the deconstruction of transcendence. Stendahl rehearses the justification: “Every man, they said, must face reality . . . the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go.” Moreover, “All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air!” In the phrase “beautiful literary lies,” readers must take Stendahl as quoting an official formula, the zealous bigotry of which the third, so archly prejudicial element would indicate.

But Bradbury has executed a leap of rhetorical ingenuity. When purged of its prejudice, the phrase translates from Plato’s vocabulary. The real name for what the Moral-Climates mentality deliberately miscalls a literary lie is a true myth, a verbal-metaphorical construction representing something that resists representation in literal terms, most especially God and the soul, but which is constitutive of reality nevertheless. The assault on imagination is thus unavoidably an assault on moral insight in service of right conduct. Thus, alluding to the fate of Lewis Carroll in “the Great Burning,” Stendahl says, “They gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!” Literature, as the expression of free imagination, is a moral looking-glass, which is why totalitarian regimes strive so mightily to censor and suppress it.

By the time he came to write “The Fireman,” Bradbury had been mulling his themes for a number of years, and deploying them in numerous stories. It is worth asserting again that where these stories appeared is significant. They appeared in venues that, at the time and even today, strike a certain institutionally ensconced mentality as beneath dignity. Bradbury’s stories, beginning with Lorelei, are anything but beneath dignity, and the same could be said for the work of many authors who contributed to the same commercial periodicals. A remark made by Stendahl in “Usher II,” when put in conjunction with Bradbury’s autobiographical explicitness concerning the sources of his authorship, makes for a poignant implication. Stendahl says that among the few authors that the hygienic polity allowed, Hemingway did best. The author of the notorious inversion of The Lord’s Prayer (“Our Nada who art in Nada”) in the short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was congenial and non-threatening in the eyes of the state. Add to this that, in Fahrenheit, the most-forbidden book is the Bible.

One could plausibly infer that, as Bradbury sees it, Buck Rogers, Planet Stories, Poe, and Through the Looking Glass have something in common with the Bible, and that together they constitute healthy nourishment for a budding creative imagination; whereas, on the other hand, the explicitly modern literature, the hard, unsentimental, Hemingway type of literature, belongs heartlessly and soullessly to the looming immanent utopia, which is actually a dystopia, wherein all normative terms are cruelly inverted and transcendence is fanatically enjoined. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four belong to English letters. America’s great dystopia, equal in every way to those two, is Fahrenheit 451, a book whose pulpy roots dig their way deeply into the “escapist” soil of mid-twentieth century newsstand monthlies, whose contents—vigorous true myths–are quite the equal of the covers by which the clean-minded would judge them.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego's English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.

Posted: April 14, 2013 in Symposia.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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