Fahrenheit 451 | Critical Essay by George R. Guffey

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Fahrenheit 451.
This section contains 2,378 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by George R. Guffey

Critical Essay by George R. Guffey

SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451 and the 'Cubby-Hole Editors' of Ballantine Books," in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 99-106.

In the following essay, Guffey explores Bradbury's indictment of censorship in some of his early short stories and comments on the bowdlerization of Fahrenheit 451 for high school readers.

In April 1975 on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Ray Bradbury delighted an assembled audience with an uninhibited speech entitled "How Not to Burn a Book; or, 1984 Will Not Arrive." At one point in his wide-ranging presentation he reflected on the emotions which have typically impelled his fiction. "Sometimes I get angry and write a story about my anger. Sometimes I'm delighted and I write a story about that delight. Back in the Joseph McCarthy period a lot of things were going on in my country that I didn't like. I was angry. So I wrote a whole series of short stories."

One of those short stories, "Usher II," was first published in 1950. The hero of "Usher II" is William Stendahl, a wealthy lover of fantastic literature and an embittered enemy of censorship and book burning. At one time on Earth, Stendahl had been the proud owner of fifty thousand books, but the Bureau of Moral Climates, in league with the Society for Prevention of Fantasy, had destroyed his beloved library. Amongst the works burned were those of Edgar Allan Poe. "All of his books," Stendahl tells the architect he has hired to re-create the House of Usher, "were burned in the Great Fire. That's thirty years ago—1975…. They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1950 and '60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books …, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark…. Afraid of the word 'politics' (which eventually became a synonym for Communism among the more reactionary elements … and it was worth your life to use the word!), and … the print presses trickled down from a great Niagara of reading matter to a mere innocuous dripping of 'pure material.'"

To gain a measure of revenge against the psychologists, sociologists, politicians, and moralists responsible for the burning of his books, Stendahl has built on Mars a letter-perfect imitation of Poe's original House of Usher and has invited many of his own persecutors to a very special kind of house-warming. Over the course of the story, Stendahl lures his antagonists one by one into traps inspired by Poe's macabre stories. One miscreant is killed by a robot ape and stuffed up a chimney; one is beheaded by an enormous razor-sharp pendulum; one is prematurely buried; and, in the climactic scene, the worst of the lot is mortared-up forever in a cellar beneath that melancholy and dreary house. His revenge complete, a jubilant Stendahl helicopters away from Usher II, as the great house breaks apart and sinks slowly into the dark tarn surrounding it.

Approximately a year after the publication of "Usher II," Bradbury broadened his attack on censorship. In a novella entitled "The Fireman," he depicted a future society in which most kinds of books had been banned. The hero of this story is Guy Montag, a fireman. Ironically, in this heavily regimented world of the future, firemen no longer extinguish fires. Their primary duty is to start them. More specifically, their main occupation is the burning of books. At one point in the story, Leahy, a fire chief, delivers a short lecture on the recent history of expurgation and censorship.

Picture it. The 19th Century man with his horses, dogs, and slow living. You might call him a slow motion man. Then in the 20th Century you speed up the camera…. Books get shorter. Condensations appear. Digests. Tabloids. Radio programs simplify…. Great classics are cut to fit fifteen minute shows, then two minute book columns, then two line digest resumes. Magazines become picture books…. Technology, mass exploitation, and censorship from frightened officials did the trick. Today, thanks to them, you can read comics, confessions, or trade journals, nothing else. All the rest is dangerous…. Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. We burn it. White people don't like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it, too. Anything for serenity.

In spite of repeated warnings from Leahy, Montag becomes more and more fascinated by books and by reading. Eventually he is found out, and his small collection of books is burned. Angry and frustrated, he kills Leahy and flees to the open countryside. There, in a hobo camp, he meets a band of fugitives who have devoted their lives to the judicious memorization and communication of uncensored versions of the great classics. For years these "living books" have patiently awaited an inevitable, cataclysmic world war which will destroy all the oppressive bureaucracies inhibiting the free flow of ideas. At the end of the story, this long-awaited war comes, leveling the seats of government and, presumably, thereby making the world again safe for the dissemination of uncensored books.

Bradbury's rage against censorship and book burning reached its fullest and most eloquent expression in 1953 when he expanded "TheFireman" to novel length and published it under the new title Fahrenheit 451. During the following quarter of a century, Fahrenheit 451 was reprinted at least forty-eight times by Ballantine. In 1979 Bradbury discovered for the first time that, ironically, Fahrenheit 451 had in the past itself been systematically censored by its publisher.

At his insistence, the novel has recently been reset and republished, with a spirited Author's Afterword. In that afterword Bradbury emphasizes his continuing problems with publishers wishing both to reprint his popular stories and at the same time edit them for young readers. For example, his frequently anthologized story "The Fog Horn" was, he says, recently the proposed object of such treatment: "Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story 'The Fog Horn' in a high school reader. In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a 'God-Light.'

Looking up at it from the view-point of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in 'the Presence.' The editors had deleted 'God-Light' and 'in the Presence.'" But worst of all was what Ballantine had in the past, without permission, actually done to Fahrenheit 451: "Over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished … with all the damns and hells back in place."

Collation of a copy from the first printing of the novel in October 1953 with a copy from the forty-fourth printing in August 1977 reveals that by that date fifty-two pages of Fahrenheit 451 had been completely reset and that, in the process, ninety-eight nonauthoritative, substantive changes had been made in the text. Most of those changes, as Bradbury in his afterword suggest, simply involved the deletion of expletives or oaths. For example, the Ballantine editors at one place in the book altered "'Jesus God,' said Montag. 'Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there!'" to "'Every hour so many things in the sky!' said Montag. 'How did those bombers get up there!'"

But many of the changes made by the Ballantine editors fall into other categories. Nudity in the boudoir, no matter how abstractly described, troubled them. "His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold" became merely "His wife stretched on the bed." And parts of the body, particularly that innocuous depression we call "the navel," seem also to have offended them. They altered "All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean" to "All the minor minor minorities with their ears to be kept clean." Wherever possible, references to the consumption of alcohol were muted. For example, the passage "Did we have a wild party or something? Feel like I've a hangover. God, I'm hungry" was altered to read: "Did we have a party or something? Feel like I've a headache. I'm hungry." In another instance, "Are you drunk?" became "Are you ill?"

Space will not permit an exhaustive account of the kinds of changes Fahrenheit 451 suffered at the hands of the Ballantine editors, but I must, before moving on, call attention to at least two other examples. At one point in the book, Montag angrily says to his wife's superficial, narcissistic friend: "Go home and … think of the dozen abortions you've had, go home and think of that and your damn Caesarian sections, too." The Ballantine editors removed from the passage both the word "damn" and the reference to abortion, leaving only "Go home and … think of that and your Caesarian sections, too." Finally, at another point in the action, a vigorously delivered speech culminates in an emphatic, effective vulgarism. "'To hell with that,' he said, 'shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.'" Under the scalpel of the Ballantine editors, the passage died, leaving behind this poor, shriveled carcass. "He said, 'shake the tree and knock the great sloth down.'"

Although in the afterword to the 1979 corrected edition of Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury indicated that his novel had, "over the years," been censored "bit by bit," my own research suggests that the excisions and revisions we have been examining were the result of more concentrated efforts. Evidently, Bradbury is unaware (or has forgotten) that, in January 1967, Fahrenheit 451 was for the first time published in the Ballantine Bal-Hi series. Comparison of my copy from the fifth Bal-Hi printing of October 1968 with my copy of the first Ballantine printing of October 1953 demonstrates that all the variants we have been considering were in actuality the result of revisions made for this special high school paperback series. In addition, comparison of the texts of the fourth printing of October 1963, the seventh printing of September 1966, and the thirtieth printing of July 1972 with the first printing of October 1953 indicates that, although Ballantine was publishing a revised version of the book in its Bal-Hi series, from 1967 to 1973 an uncensored version of the novel was simultaneously being sold to the general public.

According to the copyright page of the corrected 1979 edition, the tenth and last printing of the Bal-Hi version of the novel occurred in October 1973. After 1973, instead of continuing to publish theunexpurgated and unrevised text of the first printing of October 1953, Ballantine, with no warning whatever to potential readers, published, until taken to task by Bradbury himself in 1979, only the revised text prepared for the Bal-Hi series. The text of my own copy from the fortieth printing of December 1975, although in no way labeled so, is identical to the bowdlerized text of my copy from the fifth Bal-Hi printing (as is the text of my copy from the forty-fourth printing of August 1977).

To understand Ballantine's treatment of Fahrenheit 451 during the latter half of the 1960s, we must be conscious of the intense social and political pressures brought to bear on publishers of textbooks during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. In 1958, for example, E. Merrill Root published his Brainwashing in the High Schools, an assault on eleven textbooks, which, in his view "parallel[ed] the Communist line." Inspired by Root's opening thrust, the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1958 began to compile a list of "unsatisfactory" texts, and a year later, in 1959, began to distribute it. By 1963, the advocates of censorship had widened their offensive. In that year in their influential book, The Censors and the Schools, Jack Nelson and Gene Roberts, Jr., wrote: "A vice-president of McGraw-Hill says all publishers must be wary in their treatment of birth control, evolution …, sex education, and minority groups." "In some parts of the United States," Nelson and Roberts added, "it is worth a teacher's job to put modern novels such as J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye or George Orwell's 1984 on a classroom reading list."

Although librarians and teachers fought back, the pressure for censorship increased. "The pressure of censorship is a growing part of school life today," wrote Professor Lee A. Burress, Jr., in 1965, the year the first book in the Ballantine Bal-Hi series was evidently published. "If articles on censorship in education journals," he continued, "constitute a reliable index, teachers are much more concerned today than thirty years ago. When Education Index commenced publication in 1929, one article a year on censorship was published. In the most recent issues of Education Index, there are lengthy bibliographies on censorship." Burress cites numerous recent examples of capricious and ridiculous censorship in his own state of Wisconsin, including actions against Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment, for allegedly containing "too much profanity," and the magazine Today's Health, for dealing with "the birth of a baby."

Although self-appointed censors presented real problems for publishers of school texts during the 1960s, the rewards were great for those who managed to produce "acceptable" books. Especially lucrative, according to article after article in Senior Scholastic and The Library Journal during that period, was the growing market for paperback. It was for this increasingly lucrative market that the Bal-Hi series was apparently designed.

A number of important questions now naturally come to mind: What were the titles of the other books published in the Bal-Hi series? Were the other books in the Bal-Hi series, like Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, bowdlerized in order to assure their marketability? And, if bowdlerized, did they, as in the case of Fahrenheit 451, eventually replace uncensored versions of the same titles in the regular Ballantine line? All these questions are, I think, well worth answering.

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This section contains 2,378 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by George R. Guffey