Bradbury’s Intentionalism – Fahrenheit, Censorship, & Misinterpretation

Ray Bradbury died yesterday.  Few authors can claim anything like the depth and breadth of influence enjoyed by the author of almost fifty books written over a career spanning seventy years.  Behind Kurt Vonnegut alone, Bradbury stands as one of my most faithful companions with whom to share a solitary hour.  My first meeting with Bradbury’s work came, like many, with an assignment to read Fahrenheit 451 in ninth grade English.  In the edition I first read–1979 Del Rey edition–Bradbury had added a “Coda” that chronicled the text’s gradual “destruction” at the hands of his publishers to render it more child friendly and eventual restoration of  a handful of four-letter words that appeared in the original 1953 edition.  Despite having commented in that forward on the irony of the gradual laundering of Fahrenheit (a book about a dystopian future where “firemen” burn books because they contain dangerous ideas), Bradbury denied that his book was ever meant to be a warning against governmental censorship.  Instead, Bradbury claimed that most if not all the critical commentary on Fahrenheit had misconstrued the book’s purpose and that his most famous novel was really meant to be a warning against other media’s eventual supremacy over literature.

Now, the biographer will find Bradbury’s “revised” moral of the story adds yet another level of paradox to his protests against the anti-censorship interpretation. Bradbury himself adapted sixty-five of his stories for television’s The Ray Bradbury Theater and facilitated the adaptation of thirteen of his stories for the radio show Bradbury 13 in 1984–even contributing the opening monologue to each half-hour episode.  As early as 1951, Bradbury foreshadowed his fears concerning television, in a letter about the dangers of radio, written to fantasy and science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. Bradbury wrote that:

“Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.  This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.”

Now, I don’t believe that Bradbury’s anti-television interpretation of Fahrenheit coupled with the seeming contradictions of his own cooperation with others’ efforts to adapt his works in other mediums necessarily suggests that Bradbury was guilty of some sort of hypocrisy–in the popular sense of the word–or some strange retcon/revisionist agenda with regard to his own life’s work.  Bradbury’s concerns had more to do with the way media was programed–as hopscotching, isolated chunks that could not be unified–than with the film, television, and radio mediums themselves.  However, how can Bradbury’s frequent denials that Fahrenheit was about governmental censorship be made to accord with that work’s formal elements?  Briefly, doesn’t Ray’s strange anti-television interpretation of ‘451 prove the wisdom of anti-intentionalist criticism’s denial that the intentions of the author–communicated extra-textually–have any bearing a text’s interpretation?

As a moderate actual intentionalist, I’ve gone on the record as saying that author’s intentions for what their works mean do indeed shape the formal choices that they make and therefore must necessarily constrain the range of possible interpretations that critics and readers can ascribe to any given text.  Bradbury’s oeuvre–and Fahrenheit itself–does prophesy and satirize a culture obsessed with wall-sized flat panel displays and other visual media that distract them from deep concerns with trivial factoids and also address the theme of censorship.  Where interpreters and Bradbury, himself, differed is that in Bradbury’s vision of the future the population itself that would eventually call for censorship in order to better focus on the trivial and the banal without the distractions of jarring dissenting opinion.  While critics have long acknowledged the twin themes of popular visual media’s attempted suppression of literature and the censorship of texts, it takes Bradbury’s own extra-textual testimony to pull the two together in a way that makes any other dualistic anti-tv v. anti-censorship reading impossible.  My point is that Bradbury’s comments on what Fahrenheit was intended to mean do provide a valuable interpretive key that–though extra-textual–does accord perfectly with the material in that novel to show a unified purpose for the work.

Bradbury himself spoke powerfully against the idea that critics and commentators could “help him” with the meaning of his works or improve them against his protests to the contrary.

“The point is obvious. 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/ Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme (…).

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-defiations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whis­per with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.  All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.”  (Ray Bradbury. “Coda” in Fahrenheit 451. Del Ray, 1979.)

*****

I’m actually a little sick to see that on the day after Bradbury’s death so many blogs and news commentary pieces (like this one, this one, and this one) are still ignoring the author’s own explanations of what Fahrenheit 451 is about and casting the book and the man in the mold of some Rush Limbaugh-like uber-libertarian, anti-government kook.  You have missed the point.  The point of the “Coda” to the Del Ray edition, the point of Fahrenheit 451, and even the point of mentioning a great man the day after his death.  You are one of those Bradbury warned against who run about with lit matches “helping” him to make your political and ideological point.  Bradbury was concerned to defend an author’s right to mean as he intended not your anti-government agenda.

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