Sep 26 2013 11:30am

You are Guy Montag: Ray Bradbury’s #1 Censorship Concern

Rad Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 banned books

You can’t talk about banned books without talking about Ray Bradbury. Not so much because any one of his more than 500 published works have been banned or challenged more vehemently than other frequently challenged books, but because he wrote so passionately and urgently about societies without books, without intellectual freedom, and the dire consequences they faced as a result. But, believe it or not, Bradbury’s greatest fear regarding censorship, wasn’t crushing government laws or sweeping totalitarian regimes, it was you.

Bradbury, a staunch advocate for libraries and vocal opponent of censorship of all kinds, unsurprisingly had strong words for those who would amend books for greater mass appeal, or, more importantly, to avoid offending any one particular group of people or another. Though book banning was a common theme in his work, in real life, it wasn’t big-brother top-down censorship that concerned him most, but the kind of insidious censorship that is brewed from the bottom up, from apathy, or distraction, or pressure from special-interest groups.

Bradbury was worried, perhaps occasionally to a fault, that technology was dumbing down society, and this was decades before reality TV and pseudo-celebrity driven media. He presciently described futures where people disconnected from each other with technology that allowed them to block out the world around them. He wrote about societies that stopped perceiving the value of reading. As people’s attention is consumed by mobile devices, as support for public libraries across the country disintegrates and schools face crippling budget cuts, and as publishers shrink and consolidate and local bookshops disappear, it seems we are dangerously close to realizing Bradbury’s grim predictions of a world without books. But to Bradbury’s mind, we have only ourselves to blame.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”—Ray Bradbury, The Seattle Times 

Bradbury certainly had personal experience with traditional censorship. Many of his books and short stories have been challenged throughout the years, the most ironically, of course, being Fahrenheit 451. Though certainly not challenged as often as its dystopian brethren Brave New World and 1984, Fahrenheit 451 has had steady opposition since its 1953 publication. The irony of banning a book about banned books seems to be lost on the (let’s assume well-intended) parents and educators challenging it. However, the most egregious censorship of Fahrenheit 451 was actually committed by its publisher (more on that in a moment). 

The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories and perhaps Bradbury’s second most famous work, has also faced a lifetime of formal challenges. Complaints generally had to do with language, in most cases, “taking the lord’s name in vain” and mild swearing. Some challenges, however, concern incendiary language of a different sort. Complaints from parents at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Edison, New Jersey in 1998 cited racist language used (by racists) in “Way Up in the Air.” In “Way Up in the Air,” a story about a group of black citizens who want to start their own colony on Mars and the opposition they face from their white neighbors, Bradbury was trying to paint a picture of ignorant men and highlight the blatant hate and racial inequality prevalent in his time. To remove the language of the racists—one of their most widely wielded weapons—is to neuter the story’s emotional impact. Yet, versions of the story in later editions of The Martian Chronicles omitted the objectionable words.

Some of Bradbury’s other short stories have met opposition too, for example, “The Veldt” (1950), a grim story about the dark, dehumanizing underbelly of technology, with a dollop of parricide to keep you on your toes. In 2006, concerns were raised about the moral message of “The Veldt,” since there was no recourse for children’s homicidal actions. Basically, evil went unchecked and some parents thought that might send the wrong message to students. Because, you know, that never happens in real life (insert your own ironic links here or simply visit the news source of your choice for examples to the contrary). 

But Fahrenheit 451 remains Bradbury’s poster child for censorship. Though written during the McCarthy era, when mass censorship and the homogenization of thought was a very real threat, Fahrenheit 451 was not explicitly intended as political statement. It draws most of its critical heat for its “offensive language” (an assortment of “damns” and “God damns” that seem timid to my New York City-scarred ears) and for the fact that the Bible is one of many books burned in the novel. The rub here being that the Bible is so valuable an artifact on the black market in Montag’s world, that he is able to coerce an accomplice into cooperating by tearing just five pages from the book (threatening to destroy one of the only surviving copies in their world).  

In response to some of the objections, Ballantine (Fahrenheit 451’s publisher at the time) created a highly edited high school edition of the book in the late 1960s, removing words like “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion,” and changing some plot points. At first, both versions of the book were being printed, but gradually (through a publisher error) only the censored version was being printed by 1973. This continued for most of the 70s until a group of high school students wrote to Bradbury question the differences between their school editions of the book and older ones. Ballantine corrected the mistake, but Bradbury addressed this censorship, and censorship in general, in a fiery coda added to the corrected reprints:

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.”

In Fahrenheit 451, in his turning point speech to Montag, Captain Beatty follows this idea through to its natural conclusion—a society without books or critical thought, governed by self-censorship and cultivated ignorance.

“Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.” 

Bradbury is not advocating for the silencing of challenging voices or dissent, rather that those challenging opinions be answered with new art, new writing, “The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws…For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit.” 

To Bradbury, if artists catered to individual demands, trying to please and appease every man, woman, and child, the resulting sterility of their creations would be the biggest threat to intellectual freedom. Through his work and advocacy, he warns us not to succumb to the pressure of conformity, neither in the creation nor consumption of art, particularly in books.

Be it literal or metaphorical, only you can prevent a book burning...only you.

When Nancy Lambert doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she’s busy writing, procrastinating with a pupil-blowing mix of Dots and Pinterest when she should be writing, or putzing around online.

1. joyceman
Bradbury really nailed the future of literary criticism.

Every review seems to include an 'inclusiveness section' that reviews how certain groups are addressed in the book. Are they protrayed, is it negative, does this reflect the author biasis, etc...
Noneo Yourbusiness
2. Longtimefan
This is a really great post. I don't have much more to say than that. Perhaps it is a little thin to just comment "like" the post but I will say that I posted a link to this on my facebook page because I do feel that the people I know would appreciate this article.

and if they do not I will unfriend them. :)
3. tbob31
"Every review seems to include an 'inclusiveness section' that reviews
how certain groups are addressed in the book. Are they protrayed, is it
negative, does this reflect the author biasis, etc..."

Well thank God Tor would never do that in every single review they publish.
William Frank
4. scifantasy
There's a world of difference between pointing out that a book has a cast entirely of straight white male heroes and straight white female rescuees, and condemning that book to be banned.

For that matter it's not usually for insufficient diversity that books are banned.

Claiming that pointing out the privilege in a book is the same thing as censoring it is mental gymnastics that only the privileged can pull off.

I got pissed at Bradbury when he first went on this rant ("there's been no government censorship in this country," he said, straightfaced, while yelling at Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11 because Bradbury would never steal titles, nevermind I Sing the Body Electric and Something Wicked This Way Comes), and clearly I haven't come down from the anger high entirely.
5. boredwithpredicatability
Well, that didn't take long to become a fight. Cowardice on Lambert's part not to talk about Political Correctness in this context--how is #4's "pointing out the privilege in a book" different than what Bradbury described as the forerunner of actual censorship? I'm not being sarcastic--is it different? I think the author ought to say and not just leave it to the commbox flame war. When a publisher's associated blog regularly uses politicized criteria of evaluation, when does it become *suggestive* to the authors (and perspective authors) that they better meet those criteria? Because that's exactly the impression a few years of reading this blog gives.
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@5: This is a discussion, not a "fight." Please take a look at our Moderation Policy if there's any confusion on that topic; it's important to keep the conversation civil and respectful, and that includes not attacking bloggers or other commenters and accusing them of "cowardice" because you disagree with them.

To respond to your other point, we have various freelance reviewers, all with individual viewpoints, and we do not tell them what to think or what to write; they are participating and responding to ideas and arguments and discourses that happen everywhere on the internet, on Twitter, in reading groups, classrooms, and book clubs. If you don't appreciate their individual approaches and viewpoints, you have a right to your opinion, just as they do—but to pretend that it's the same viewpoint, and that addressing political, social, or cultural issues in the reviews on this site is a form of censorship is as baffling as it is insulting, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the community we've built at
William Frank
7. scifantasy
First, I believe that Nancy Lambert is accurately representing Ray Bradbury's ideas here. His own comments and that 1973 coda do pretty much sum up his position, and Lambert has done a good job of expressing it.

(And frankly, the nuanced form of "censorship is derived from political correctness, not oppression" is better than the original way I'd heard Bradbury express this idea, which were in short "Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship, there's never been censorship, the book is about the evils of television." More on that in a moment, as Lambert said.)

So Lambert's citing of various things Bradbury wrote in the book and the '73 coda, and incidents that may reinforce why he believed that, are perfectly valid. She's taking Bradbury's position, inasmuch as she's reciting it, so while I'm opposed to the position she's taking, I'm not frustrated at her or anything, my earlier comment about "rage" notwithstanding.

It's just that I think Bradbury's position is bunk, and problematic to boot--it's a slightly more erudite version of the usual "free speech!" drivel that you see at least twice weekly on the Internet. Censorship by its nature is enforced top-down. (Bradbury himself admitted in 2005 that book-burning was represented in his own mind by Hitler burning books and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; do we really think those happened because "the minorities" were offended about their lack of mention?)

Hell, even in the examples he cited, it's censorship because of the idea that someone else gets to control what you cannot read. Saying that Bradbury's stuff is not diverse is not censorship. A school board saying that it won't teach Bradbury is not necessarily censorship, if it's a matter of choosing a curriculum and the curriculum in general is not slanted. A school board saying that it categorically won't allow Bradbury, ah! That is censorship. So is a school board saying that Bradbury's work must be altered if it's to be allowed in the door.

So now we turn to the issue, which is that at some point Bradbury apparently started believing that the only form of censorship is "insufficiently-diverse" censorship.


Well, if you started out by siding, perhaps too strongly, with the forces opposing "insufficiently-diverse" censorship, and then those forces started pushing "anti-religion" censorship or "anti-government" censorship (or the like), and you were forced to admit you were wrong about your new pals, or else deny the existence of those forms of censorship...

10. SYAgnon
I find this discussion interesting and complex (although I agree with the point about not criticizing authors of articles by accusing them of cowardice). I like Bradbury's work, regardless of its "diversity" or lack of, but I see the point about his somewhat lopsided view of censhorship as being caused by aggrieved minorities. But the causes and origins of censorship are complex. It may come from the top, as with the Nazi book-burnings, but this may still come about because of ideological movements--which start as minorities--coming to power. How often this has happened in the history of religion--a religious group which has itself experienced censorship (and worse) may inflict the same thing when it has the power to do so.

In any case, I think Bradbury had a valid point in his afterword to Fahrenheit 451 written some time in the late seventies or early eighties, when he complained about people demanding that he rewrite his books to amend what they saw as failings of whatever kind, and told them that the only solution was for them to write their own books. He said something like, "It's my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch, I run the bases. At sunset I've won or lost. And no one can help me. Not even you." I think he was absolutely right about this.
11. SYAgnon
Just to clarify, when I referred to "minorities" above, I wasn't just referring to ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities, but to minorities of various kinds, including ideological or religious minorities (which I think is close to Bradbury's original usage in Fahrenheit 451).

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