A few years before he died at the age of 91, author Ray Bradbury claimed that his 1953 novel of a dystopian society in which books are burned and individual thought strictly suppressed was less oriented towards an indictment of totalitarianism and the political hysteria surrounding the fear of communism – the so-called Red Scare – than it was an indictment of the dumbing down of society as new forms of communications technology eliminated the substance of literature. While one should take the late-Mr. Bradbury at his word, the probability that Fahrenheit 451 was heavily influenced by the era of McCarthyism is hard to deny, especially given his own comments throughout his career and the observations of his authorized biographer, Sam Weller, who spent many years with Bradbury and interviewed Bradbury often, frequently challenging the writer on the contradictions in his statements with regard to politics and the meaning of his most well-known work:
“Fahrenheit 451 is, without question, a book about the overreliance on technology in an increasingly pixelated society. Even in his letters dating to the early 1950s, when the idea for Fahrenheit 451 was germinating, Bradbury wrote of his concerns about the role television and even dramatic radio were playing in cultivating short attention spans. Fahrenheit 451 is a story that forewarned us all of the perils of a multitasking, ADHD-addled world where the written work is condensed to bullet points, punch lines and articles.”
Compare this observation by Weller with the following taken from an article Weller wrote after Bradbury’s 2012 death:
Even in a later introduction to Fahrenheit 451, published in 1966, Bradbury wrote about the influence of Hitler’s and Stalin’s book burnings, and his growing anger over the House Un-American Activities Committee and its inquisition into communists in Hollywood in 1946.
Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel. In theNation essay, Bradbury questioned “whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department [in an early version of Fahrenheit 451] will be old hat this time next week. … When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.”
Readers can certainly be forgiven for believing that, given the era in which Fahrenheit 451was written, with the Red Scare at its peak and the book-burning of Nazi Germany still fresh in people’s minds, that this story of a fireman’s revelation that his life’s work has been at the service of an immoral and repressive political system was heavily influenced by those development. Throughout the story, the suggestion that books pose a threat to the regime’s ability to control the population occurs throughout. Books are a danger to the government because of the knowledge they hold and the development of the human mind the reading of books provides. The substance of books upsets the political and social stability that the government holds up as a justification for its repressive policies. As Montag’s superior, Captain Beatty explains the situation to the increasingly disillusioned fireman,
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's
mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well?read man? Me? I won't stomach them for