Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury, 1953

I’ve recently read Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953), the 60th Anniversary Edition published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.

Written: 1950–1953, Los Angeles, California. Originally Published by Ballantine Books in 1953. A shorter version entitled “The Fireman” was published in 1951 in Galaxy Science Fiction.

Ray Bradbury never attended college, preferring to educate himself with the printed word of the countless pages of library books and constantly reading the 3-cent newspapers he’d sell at the corner of Norton and Olympic for four years after he graduated from high school in 1938.

What fueled Fahrenheit 451? Was it Orwell, maybe Huxley? No, the great cautionary tale that made Fahrenheit 451 inevitable was Darkness at Noon (German: Sonnenfinsternis), by Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. (p. 167, The Story of Fahrenheit 451, Jonathon R. Eller)

Bradbury started piecing together his seminal work in unpublished fragments about book-burning firemen in 1946 and 1947 with a working title of When Ignorant Armies Clash by Night.

Key characters in the following pages: Guy Montag, The Fireman, blindly going about his job until he meets Clarisse McClelland, The Girl, that opens his eyes.

Bradbury grabs you from the opening lines.

It was a pleasure to burn. … to see things blackened and changed.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame … while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. (pp. 1-2, Fahrenheit 451)

Then Montag encounters the strange little girl, Clarisse McClelland, on his way home from work.

“And you must be … the fireman.” Her voice trailed off. “I’d – I’d have known it with my eyes shut,” she said slowly.

“What — the smell of kerosene? … You never wash it off completely.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, in awe. (p. 4, Fahrenheit 451)

Clarisse: “You know I’m not afraid of you at all.”

He was surprised. “Why should you be?”

“So many people are. Afraid of firemen, I mean. But you’re just a man, after all …”

“Do you ever read the books you burn?”

He laughed. “That’s against the law!”

“Oh. Of course.”

“It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”

They walked still further and the girl said, “Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”

“No. Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it.”

“Strange. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames.”

He laughed.

“Why are you laughing?”

“I don’t know.” He started to laugh again and stopped. “Why?”

“You laugh when I haven’t been funny and you answer right off. You never stop to think what I’ve asked you.”

“You are an odd one.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m seventeen and I’m crazy.”

(pp. 5-6, Fahrenheit 451)

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