Fahrenheit 451 and the Fourth of July

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I have been taking some time off for personal reasons, but I recently had one of those strange coincidences that seem, in retrospect, ordained from on high by a supernatural power with a distorted sense of humor.

We were in Costco, my bride and I, a few weeks ago, and I was relegated to pushing a cart that would have wearied the patience and drained the endurance of a Missouri mule, when my bride announced she had forgotten something somewhere other than where we were. She must have seen my reaction because she immediately pointed to the book section and suggested I browse while she went and got… Whatever.

Costco does not sell the kinds of books I have any interest in reading. The books I enjoy reading are primarily sold in the kinds of rare bookstores I can’t afford to even enter, but looking at self-help books and celebrity cookbooks and romance novels and thrillers with famous authors’ names on them—though actually written by unknown assistants—all of that seemed preferable to imitating a mule. And as it happened, Costco was selling a 60th Anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I am not a science fiction fan. The only science fiction I have ever read was the late, great John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamers. I do have, somewhere, a very gracious note written to me by the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin in response to a question of mine about something she once said in an interview, but I have never read any of her work, so that’s it. But there was this 60th Anniversary edition, and there was my groaning cart.

Shortly after I finished reading it, I was watching once of those weekend “news” shows that includes a sort of “man-on-the-street” segment, in this case a reporter asking beautiful bronzed young things on a beach somewhere in southern California about the significance of the Fourth of July. I know there is always a disclaimer to the effect that these are real people giving real answers, but I suspect the reporters must go out of their way to recruit the lowest possible IQs to be found anywhere in the continental landmass of the United States. Certainly, in this case, it was hard for me to believe any of the beautiful bronzed bodies they spoke to could possibly be that ignorant. It would hard to believe your average five-year-old could be that ignorant, but gorgeous young thing after muscular young couldn’t answer a question as tricky, intricate, obscure, complex, and intellectually challenging as, “What is the significance of the Fourth of July.”

I kid you not.

“Christopher Columbus?” was one girl’s answer.

Again, I kid you not.

And that brings me to Fahrenheit 451.

Science fiction can be defined as a projection, by the author, of recognizable people and events of today into a future world with previously unimagined circumstances. If you’re not a science fiction fan, think of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. The science fiction writer’s job, essentially, is to take an ordinary man or woman confronting a relatively minor problem or challenge in today’s world, and to project that into the future while simultaneously expanding the scope and danger of the problem. At least, that is what Ray Bradbury did with Fahrenheit 451.

As I understand it, as a child, Ray Bradbury was one of those little boys drugged on books, a voracious reader who spent more time in libraries than anywhere else. When television came along, he was less than impressed, and projected his fantasies of the worst of what he saw into a world that is set roughly one-hundred-years ahead of the time in which he wrote, which would make the setting of the book about 2052.

I’m sure most people have read Fahrenheit 451, but just as a reminder, the premise is a horrible distortion of an America constantly engaged in some kind of never-ending war with some unnamed “other,” and a government that wants to keep its people both anesthetized and complacently happy so that they won’t ask questions or make trouble. Since books, good books with great writing by great minds—the Bible, Marcus Aurelius, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Love Peacock, Plato, Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin, Schopenhauer, Ortega y Gasset, Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Aeschylus…all those and many more are mentioned or referenced obliquely—can make people think, and if they think, people may possibly become dissatisfied, and then, oh horror, they may ask questions, therefore books must be destroyed. All books. Whenever books are discovered, any books of any kind, a group of men, so-called Firemen (no irony there), go around and burn not just the books, but the homes of the people who were hiding such contraband.

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less…” “…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 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. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

And, from an earlier draft (the novel was originally written as a short story under another title): “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy because there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon…”

Instead of books, in Fahrenheit 451 people are entertained constantly with a sort of interactive, four-wall, surround-television that can be specifically modified to the whims and desires of each individual viewer whose likes and dislikes are monitored and followed. The actors on the television are called, and become, the “family” of each individual viewer, keeping them so constantly and happily preoccupied they never question anything.

Sound familiar?

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is one of the team that burns books, but he is beginning to have suspicions something is missing, that there must be something more, and he has begun to cautiously steal books before they can be burned. And therein lies the story.

Bradbury writes in (to quote my son) “a dreamy, febrile, style” which, toward the end, I found to be influenced (I’m guessing here) by the New American Bible version of Ecclesiastes; at least it reads that way. And there is a sparseness to his dreamy, febrile style that leaves room for all kinds of questions, but none of that matters. It is the story that matters, and in light of beautiful, pampered, glossy young Americans on an American beach who didn’t have a clue as to the significance of the Fourth of July, one wonders what Ray Bradbury would have made of the ultimate narcissistic, interactive anesthetic: social Media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and countless other ways I don’t know the names of to peddle absolutely meaningless non-information or outright lies, or maintain ersatz friendships with ersatz “familes.” I think of William Faulkner’s famous quote from Intruder in the Dust:

“…thinking, remembering how his uncle had said that all a man had was time, all that stood between him and the death that he feared and abhorred was time, yet he spent half of it inventing ways to get the other half past…”

Ah, but Faulkner himself is dead now, and his books reduced to ashes.

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9 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 and the Fourth of July”

    1. I thought their decision was completely wrong. I made a comment on their website and they deleted it. Just pointing to facts showing why ma would be afraid of the Indians. There is a baby grave in Custer State Park the Indians killed. Along with the whole family. People still leave flowers on the grave. Melissa

  1. Thank you for writing this Jameson! I found it really interesting. It’ s really sad that the girl did not know the significance of the Fourth of July!! That’s like your college students not knowing anything about the Constitution. The schools just aren’t teaching the kids what they really need to know anymore. And most of the younger generation of parents (at least around where I live, Mansfield, Ohio) aren’t teaching the kids right from wrong either. It’s like they’re too busy doing their own thing to even spend time with their children.

    Thank you again for posting this!

    Love you and Darleen! Have a wonderful Fourth! May the Lord bless your whole family! You are truly a wonderful man and I love the way you still refer to Darleen as your Bride!

    Bonnie L. Whitlatch

    1. JP, wie schön, dass Sie wieder online sind und es Ihnen hoffentlich auch gut geht. Ich schließe mich dem an, dass die Jugendlichen von heute mit wenigen Ausnahmen nicht viel von Politik wissen wollen, selbst mir fällt es oftmals schwer der heutigen Politik zu folgen und diese ebenso verstehen zu können, aber das wichtigste Geschehen in der Geschichte sollten die Kinder in der Schule und auch zu Hause vermittelt bekommen, naja , die Generation meiner Eltern (also Ihre Generation) bestand noch auf das geschichtliche Grundwissen, welches an meine Generation unerbittlich weiter vermittelt wurde.

      Wie feiern Sie selbst den 4. Juli ?

      …. viele Grüße, meine Gebete sind mit Ihnen und Ihrer Familie…. Manuela

  2. Hello Mr. Parker,

    I am a big science fiction fan, especially authors such as Bradbury, Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. In my opinion they are experts at taking social issues of our time, and encouraging discussion and thought on these issues by presenting them in a future setting.

    Unlike the alternate draft that you mention in your article, the first step toward Bradbury’s dystopia was not brought by minority pressure, but by the USA Patriot Act passed 17 years ago. This Act gives the Dept of Homeland Security the right to know what you read, just in case you are a terrorist.

    The act seems like a good idea as long as a “terrorist” is someone like Osama bin Laden, but it would be quite simple to define terrorists as all Muslims, or all Mexican-Americans, or all ranchers who own guns for that matter.

    It is crucial to repeal this law so that the terrorists don’t take away our freedoms as President George W Bush promised.

    Gerald

    1. Good and valid points.
      Ranchers who own guns were, in fact, defined as terrorists. Witness the actions against the Bundy family, the ranchers at the Malheur NWR, or the abuses perpetrated against the Wayne Hage family for over twenty-five years (read The Transformation of an American, under my “Other Writings” tab).
      The prevailing attitude today in America’s polarized world seems to be that anyone who disagrees with me is clearly a terrorist. It is far past time to limit the powers of the FBI, not expand them, and President Bush’s Patriot Act reaction to the 9/11 attacks was as ill-advisedly knee-jerk as Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (internment) to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
      JP

  3. I have never read the book, but you have me intrigued. I may serreptitiously obtain a copy to read.

  4. “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy because there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon…”

    Wow! If this doesn’t sound like 21st century America I’m not sure what does! It is seen so clearly throughout history (both ours and the world), when you take away books you take away information. When you take away information, you take away dreams. When you take away dreams, you can make anyone say, do, and/or be whatever you want and you gain complete control. But let one person rebel and you have lost.

    Ginny
    PS I’m so glad to see new blog posts up, I’ve missed you.

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