Arts & Tradition

Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Free Speech, and Modern Censorship

BY Walker Larson TIMEMarch 15, 2023 PRINT

In 2020, a group of time-honored American novels including Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” were banned from Burbank, California, schools over parents’ complaints of racism and racial slurs in the books. Back in 1951, Ray Bradbury predicted this type of censorship would happen and even offered hints about how to navigate it.

The prediction came in his futuristic dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) in which all books are banned, and the job of firemen, such as the protagonist Guy Montag, is not to put out fires but to set them: specifically, to burn books whenever a stash of them is discovered. Bradbury said he was inspired to write the book when he heard about the book burnings that took place in Nazi Germany and elsewhere; he imagined how such a thing could come to pass in America.

Farhenheit 451
The Nazi book burnings horrified Ray Bradbury and inspired him to write “Fahrenheit 451.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Public Domain)

Step 1: Pleasure, Only Pleasure

Over the course of the novel, Montag transforms from a book-burning fireman to a book-reading renegade, with the spark of conviction that books play an essential role in the welfare and even survival of a civilization. As his fire chief, Beatty, gradually learns of Montag’s shifting loyalties, he tries to talk him out of this “insanity.” He explains to Montag how books came to be contraband, breaking the process down into a few stages.

First, as people’s attention spans decreased and the desire for instant gratification and pleasure increased, the study of the humanities declined.

“Classics cut to fifteen-minute radio shows. …  School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected.”

The people in Bradbury’s dystopia live only for hedonism and the accompanying “serenity,” which really means freedom from any unpleasant thoughts, good or bad. Above all, they don’t think—in fact, they must not be allowed to think. As Beatty puts it, “Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.” That will disturb their “serenity.”

There is much here that may remind us of our own societal trends. Around the time I finished grad school, I learned that my college’s English department would no longer require English majors to read Shakespeare. Think about that for a moment: English writing and literature majors can now pass through four to six years of postsecondary education and never once open a Shakespeare play or contemplate one of the Bard’s sonnets. This is criminal.

Even if we agreed with the naysayers’ claim that Shakespeare isn’t a brilliant writer, his massive impact on literature and culture remains a historical fact that any English major ought to have a thorough knowledge of.

But we have seen not just a growing negligence of great writers and classic works, but a decline in interest in the humanities generally. From 2012 to 2020, the number of students majoring in the humanities plummeted 25 percent. COVID only accelerated the train wreck of humanities education. One of the liberal arts colleges near me recently cut most of its humanities programs entirely, turning its focus to nursing and business degrees.

Step 2: The Fear of Offending

Beatty’s description of the second step toward book banning also bears similarities to our culture. He continues:

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. 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 form 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. … It didn’t come from the Government down. … Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressures carried the trick.”

The example cited at the beginning of this article isn’t the only instance in which fears of offending a minority group have led to censorship. The interests of minority groups with some degree of victim status now often shape our public discourse and even our artistic and literary ecosystems.

Too often, the questions asked about a work are not based on its literary, moral, or artistic merits but on something like, “Does this book offend anyone whom we must not offend?” or “Does this book reinforce or challenge existing power dynamics?” Literature bows to politics in such cases.

While I understand the concerns of parents whose children might be upset by perceived racism in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the objection arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes for good or bad art. Art must begin by telling the truth, even when the truth includes reminders of historically racist actions or words. If those racist elements are present, surely, we must not pretend they never happened and let them sink out of sight in the river of time.

Fahrenheit 451
Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) begins to read books that he should burn, in the 2018 release of “Fahrenheit 451.” (MovieStillsDB)

Step Back: Remember the Past

More importantly, we can learn from the classics about human nature, including its errors and how to avoid those errors in the future. One of those errors that classics like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” can point out, after all, is the tendency of some people toward prejudice.

At one point in “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag laments the frequency of modern wars, injustice, and the like. But he understands that the solution is not to bury the past and what it has to offer just to avoid uncomfortable topics—quite the reverse. “Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!” he says. Exactly so. Great books offer us the collective wisdom of the past, which can guide our future.

This leads to the crucial point: Great literature directs us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. But sometimes, in order to do that, it must show us the opposite. What makes for a “bad” work of literature is not the presence of evil in the work, but whether or not the work depicts the evil for what it is. We can’t gain a firm grasp of the problems of free speech and censorship unless we make that distinction.

At the end of “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag, who has escaped from the epicurean city to the countryside, encounters a band of exiles and drifters, former intellectuals who have memorized various classic books to preserve them for the day when society will be rebuilt. Their preparations will be needed, for the city that Montag has fled vanishes in the flash, flare, and rumble of a detonated nuclear weapon.

In the post-apocalyptic landscape, Montag and his new friends cling to those forgotten fragments, those words of beauty and power and insight echoing up from the past for those with ears to hear. These hold the key to the future.

There are lessons for us here, too. We, like Bradbury’s exiles, could do worse than to gather up these scattered and neglected tomes, storing them up not just in our homes but also in our hearts against the day when humanity awakens from its present illusions and recalls, at last, the need to set aside our discomforts and embrace the wisdom of our ancestors.

Walker Larson teaches literature and history at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife. He holds a Master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.”
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