Ray Bradbury, a soulful romantic and ardent lover of American civil liberties, was one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century.
Perhaps best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the earliest and most deserving works inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, and the many film and TV versions of his stories and novels, Bradbury continues to rank high in the pantheon of the greatest short-story writers and leading golden-age sci-fi/fantasy authors.
Yet, how long might his well-deserved reputation as a storyteller last amid the dismaying anti-liberal and authoritarian worldwide trends of the early 21st century?
A just-published essay in The Spectator, a British weekly magazine on politics, culture and current affairs, asks that worrisome question – while also making a powerful case for Bradbury as an enduring writer and champion of liberty.
The essay’s title seems to me excellent advice.
It’s also wonderful to see a prominent magazine with a worldwide readership reminding us of Bradbury’s greatness while defending his fiction (and that of several other major 20th-century writers) from the illiberal mob rule of today’s pernicious cancel culture.
Because his stories tend to focus less on futuristic technologies and more on the perennial themes of the human heart, Bradbury (1920-2012) continues to remain widely read and very much worth reading – a rare achievement, half a century or more after most of his classic stories, collections and novels were published.
Little makes a similar point. Bradbury, he writes, “committed to humanizing this newish (sf) genre by ensuring that the science came second to the fiction and the development of characters. (Indeed, Bradbury was not a fan of the term science fiction, preferring ‘fantasy’.)”
Little’s essay supports that perspective partly by comparing Bradbury with John Wyndham, another sf writer who Little read and admired in his youth. A dystopian British sf author, Wyndham was best known for apocalyptic works such as The Chrysalids; The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed as The Village of the Damned; and The Day of the Triffids, also made into a feature film in the early 1960s.
Little contrasts Bradbury’s themes and spirit with those of Wyndham, whom he identifies bluntly as an authoritarian “albeit a gentle one.”
“Bradbury had none of that,” Little adds.
“He reveled in order being perpetually disrupted, and those disposed to restoring order tended, in his stories, to be the bad guys. He was an antiestablishment libertarian. Stuff did not get solved with Bradbury. It was left hanging, shrouded in mystery.”
In this admirable article (at least as I read it), Little implicitly seems to suggest that freedom is preferable to tyranny even if it is superficially messier or allegedly more chaotic and unruly in addressing the inevitable issues and challenges arising in a complex world that, despite enormous human progress in science and other knowledge, still contains much that is unknown, imperfectly understood or misunderstood.
Such “chaos,” Little seems to imply, ultimately allows more choice, curiosity, discovery, adventure, innovation, passion, love and ultimately more life. Such is the stuff of life, really, and vastly preferable to the regimented so-called “order” imposed coercively by fascism, socialism, national socialism, or any other infectious variant of rampant statism and collectivism — including the less extreme but still intrusive meddlings of the modern Nanny State.
That’s a pretty standard perspective for libertarians (and many classical liberal writers), and perhaps not that surprising to find in spirit in The Spectator, a magazine that historically has embraced and defended many aspects of classical liberalism — a term often poorly understood in the United States and often mischaracterized in England as “conservative,” at least from an American perspective, which often fails to note that “liberal” and “conservative” historically have meant something quite different within a European context.)
Of course, as noted in essays on this blog, the Prometheus Award goes to the work, not the author, and has gone over the decades to many works written by writers whose political philosophies range widely across the political spectrum, including libertarians, but also liberals, classical liberals, conservatives and socialists.
Whatever Bradbury’s private politic views might have been in this or any alternate time-line universe, I’m confident that the Prometheus Award would still have gone to Bradbury in 1984, only the second year of the Hall of Fame. He deserved and deserves recognition for his classic novel Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve praised elsewhere on this blog as “an exemplary cautionary fable about an illiberal future society in which books are outlawed and burned to destroy them and any remnant of literacy, memory, deep culture and independent thinking.”
For those who haven’t read it (or haven’t read it in years), here’s a relevant excerpt from my Prometheus-Blog-published 2020 Appreciation of Bradbury’s novel: “The central character, who develops into an icon of libertarian dissent and rebellious individualism, is a fireman who begins to question his role in censoring literature, ultimately discovering the value of knowledge, however illicit, and quitting his job to join forces with an underground remnant of book-lovers.
“Originally inspired by the McCarthy era of the early 1950s and Bradbury’s concerns then about book-burning and other less explicit forms of censorship, the novel has become over the decades a beloved civil-libertarian classic embraced by generations across the political spectrum.”
Such a view has been pretty mainstream for decades – and I’d argue, remains influential and prevalent today.
After all, Bradbury has been widely recognized and praised for his civil-libertarian themes and his imaginative storytelling pretty much throughout the his literary and Hollywood career from the 1940s through the early 2000s.
(Just to mention a few of his film/TV credits, Bradbury’s stories inspired the TV anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theater and he wrote the screenplay, co-written with director John Huston, for the 1956 film version of Moby Dick. Many of his stories have been made into movies, including The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, It Came From Outer Space, The Illustrated Man and A Sound of Thunder.)
Little’s somewhat revisionist view of Bradbury surprises me because I’d always recognized Bradbury to be a liberal – a Jeffersonian liberal, roughly congruent with the more-consistent civil libertarianism of the A.C.L.U. during its mid-20th-century heyday, now sadly faded.
My understanding of Bradbury as a classic humanist and liberal were only reinforced when I did a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with Bradbury in the mid-1980s for a feature article/profile published in a regional newspaper.
I also was fortunate to spend much of a day with Bradbury when he was guest of honor and a keynote speaker at a major southern California libertarian conference in the 1980s. That’s where he made explicit his commitment to civil liberties, due process, the Bill of Rights and America’s broader culture of freedom, experiment and self-invention and referred to himself as a Jeffersonian liberal (a polite way, I think, of identifying himself and making clear the distinction between his liberal views and full-fledged modern libertarianism).
So I’m rather skeptical of Little’s argument that Bradbury, by the end of his life, was “as Thurber put it, further to the right than a fish knife.” I saw and heard absolutely no signs of that in my encounters and interviews with him.
I’d argue instead that Bradbury remained consistent with and loyal to his lifelong respect for civil liberties, and that consistency, combined with his obvious love of American culture (not just the small-town early-1900s American life that often inspired his wistful scenarios), may have made him falsely appear to be “conservative” only from the warped perspective of a politicized “progressive” faction that’s steadily and sadly moved to the authoritarian left in recent years.
I also disagree somewhat with Little’s criticisms of Fahrenheit 451 as lacking nuance. “There is right and wrong and that’s that, which is very unBradburyish,” Little writes about the novel. Yet, Bradbury’s novel offers an unalloyed and psychologically and historically persuasive defense of liberty, literacy, arts and culture as intertwined, which is deeply true, while condemning censorship from the “totalitarian government” in Fahrenheit 451, as Little concedes. Isn’t totalitarianism wrong? In fact, isn’t it evil? (And if that’s not evil, what is?)
Little is on firmer ground in acknowledging how shifts in popular culture over the decades have shifted how Fahrenheit 451 is viewed.
“At the time (1953) it was championed by the left as a biting critique of McCarthyism, which seems to me a bit of a stretch. More recently it has been disinterred by the right as a baleful warning about political correctness and cancel culture. I think the older Bradbury would concur with this latter assessment,” he writes.
In its most charming and personal passages, Little’s essay reads like a fan letter and incorporates Little’s personal coming-of-age reminiscences of how much Bradbury meant to him while he was growing up. Many readers will find this easy to relate to, since it parallels our own coming of age.
Responding to the “vague yet pervasive sense of unease” running through one of Bradbury’s small-town stories, Little writes: “Back then, in the 1950s, the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear annihilation were hovering in the background, just beyond the edge of our eyesight, which perhaps explains the author’s state of mind. Whatever, it appealed to me. As a teenager I yearned for there to be something more — something darker — to my own suburban existence.”
Bradbury, whose romantic spirit embraced the darker mysteries and tragedies of human existence, often imagined something more in his fiction – and in the process, for millions of readers of all ages and generations, opened up our own imagination and enhanced our sense of wonder about our own world and cosmos.
Some of Bradbury’s stories connect with our fears and some inspire us with renewed hopes about the possibilities for adventure, creativity, discovery and other possibilities of freedom lying just beyond the next corner of the unknown future.
So yes, let’s continue to read Bradbury, as Little urges – and let’s also continue to oppose censorship and totalitarianism and affirm the crucial value of individual liberty and dissent, no matter the shifting winds of politics and culture.
Note: The Spectator, first published in 1828, became the longest-lived current affairs magazine in history in 2020, and the first magazine to publish 10,000 issues. Spectator US was launched as a website in 2018 and a monthly U.S. print version debuted in October 2019.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in sparking positive social change and spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.