Ray Bradbury Was the Coolest Non-Conformist on the Planet
An American original, Ray Bradbury will almost certainly enjoy a high reputation for centuries to come. The future will remember him for hundreds of short stories and at least four profound novels of gothic Americana: Fahrenheit 451; The Martian Chronicles; Something Wicked this Way Comes; and Dandelion Wine. Almost completely ignored by critics and, even by devoted fans, are Bradbury’s last several novels, many of them noir mysteries, often with a supernatural twist as well as author’s trademark humor and irony. All excellent, these include From the Dust Returned; Farewell Summer; Death is a Lonely Business; A Graveyard for Lunatics; and Let’s All Kill Constance. Yet, it is almost always the short story we think of when we think of Bradbury. Almost every one of his novels comes from his compiling short stories and tying them together through some narrative device. And, of course, most American students are introduced to Bradbury’s work through one or more of his short stories appearing in an anthology.
Two themes (among many) lurk behind almost every corner in his fictional soul: dystopian conformity and autumnal imagination. This piece will only deal with the first of these two themes, leaving autumn for another piece.
Dystopia is to be found whereever and whenever too much power has accumulated, destroying the honed order of our ancestors in favor of some matrix to promote individual or generational ego. Yet, Bradbury also believes in its opposite, utopia. Utopia graces our lives, however, only in the imagination, especially when we remember childhood, energy, magic, and love. And, it’s not enough merely to remember, we must contextualize and give order to our varied experiences of wonder. Bradbury’s utopia, then, is an ecstasy of imagination at its highest. “Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain,” Bradbury wrote in 1973. “But on the way, in your work, why not carry these two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto.”
Of all of his works, Fahrenheit 451 remains the most famously dystopic. Yet, when an interviewer asked him in 1996 if he had tried to present “a bleak view of the future” in the vein of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four and to “write a cautionary story,” Bradbury not atypically balked. “That’s fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you’re doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, I’m not going to go see it.” Much as Willa Cather had once tried to explain her art as art not as politics, Bradbury too rejected the idea that a good author writes with an intended purpose. Instead, he has an idea, something precious and magical, and he follows it, plays with it, nurtures it, and pursue its essence. In the end, good art will reveal a truth, but not always the truth an author originally desired to convey.
Still, even Bradbury could not fully disguise or dismiss his own political and cultural view of the world. When asked what the truth was that emerged from Fahrenheit 451, he admitted he wrote it in response to “Hitler and Stalin and China, where they burned God knows how many books, killed God knows how many teachers.” Add to this, he feared, the disaster of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, and free thought and free expression would collapse in America. Siding with Alexis de Tocqueville, Bradbury feared that true oppression in the United States would be a soft despotism, with the culture being run by progressive busy bodies, moralizing and oppressing with a myriad of rules and acceptable attitudes. Fahrenheit 451, thus, anticipated political correctness almost three full decades before it became a deadly and nascent issue in the late 1980s. As Bradbury explained decades after the Fahrenheit 451’s publication, he hoped to prevent the future more than to predict it. The medium of science fiction allows so many possibilities. “Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict,” he admitted in 1953. “When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.”
When pushed on the issue, Bradbury admitted that he was a civil and economic libertarian of some sort. He despised talking about or even thinking about politics, but he also hated that the political sphere was consuming all other spheres of life, it ruling over everyday lives and limiting everyday decisions. Though he might forgive and even encourage government funding for the sciences, he wanted a government that promoted (or left alone) the average person, believing that representatives and bureaucrats too easily abused their powers. Tellingly, as a young man, his favorite books were written by Ayn Rand, Albert Jay Nock, and Irving Babbitt.
In his Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, Bradbury had imagined another dystopian future in which all imaginative works had been destroyed, much as they would be in Fahrenheit 451.
Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 2006; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose— oh, what a wailing!— and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!”
Bradbury’s talents also interested the governmental agency set up to destroy the U.S. Constitution in the name of protecting it, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Demonstrating a level of buffoonery perhaps unprecedented in its history, the FBI opened an ongoing investigation of Bradbury, fearing his literature as subversive and, bizarrely, possibly communist. An informant told the FBI that Bradbury “was probably sympathetic with certain pro-Communist elements.” The evidence? At a meeting of screen writers, some members asked openly whether or not to ostracize members of the Communist Party as well as those who embraced the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from their discussion. In a not atypical fit of passion, Bradbury stood and shouted at his fellow members, claiming them to be a lot of “Cowards and McCarthyites.”
Further, the FBI informant claimed, Communists had embraced “the field of science fiction” as it was a “lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies.”
Bradbury, in particular, now declassified FBI documents claimed, wrote stories “slanted against the United States and its capitalistic form of Government.” One must wonder who these communist science fiction writers were, ready to pollute the minds of thousands of smart nerds: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Walter Miller?
It becomes rather clear in the FBI’s own investigation of Bradbury that “communist” did not mean Marxist or Leninist or Stalinist or Maoist. Rather, it meant anyone who did not support 1950’s conformist culture of corporate and crony capitalism, Washington’s soft despotism, and what Eisenhower would call the “Military Industrial Complex.”
For the FBI, “communist” also meant those who actually believed in the Bill of Rights, especially the Fifth Amendment. By this standard, Bradbury was indeed a “communist.” Perhaps a serious one. But, then again, so would Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and millions upon millions of other Americans. Imagine a world in which average citizens might carry a pocket constitution with them? Communists, all! In the Martian Chronicles, he had the audacity to criticize the robber barons of American history.
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth. But here [Mars], this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont Sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places.
As a piece of art, The Martian Chronicles offers a culturally conservative view of imperialism, hubris, and exploitation. The Martians, for Bradbury, serve as an allegory for the classical world of democratic Athens and republican Rome as well as of the noble and natural republicanism of North American Indians. Through a series of vignettes, all set on Mars, Bradbury examines some of the most important existential issues of the human condition.
If anything, Bradbury only grew more and more libertarian as he aged. He despised the censorship of soft despotism, and he found the “politically correct” movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s—then, only in its infancy—repulsive to the extreme. On the 40th anniversary of Fahrenheit 451, Chronicles asked the famous author what he thought of the movement.
Someone said to me recently, aren’t you afraid? No, I said, I never react in fear; I react in anger. As with graffiti, you must counterattack within the moment, not a day, a month, or a year later. All the politically correct terrorists must be driven back into the stands. There is no place for them in the open field of democratic ballplaying.
Amen, Mr. Bradbury. Amen.
His response should be the response of all right-thinking people.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.