I’ve been reading Ray Bradbury since I was a kid growing up far from the literary mainstream in San Diego and Honolulu, but I never dreamed I would either meet him or, even better, wind up with the same literary agent. And yet it did happen.
My New York Post column today reflects back on Bradbury and his seminal novel, Fahrenheit 451:
‘Science fiction,” said Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, “is the art of the possible. I imagine the impossible.”
And the great American writer did give us impossible worlds in which telepathic Martians collide with colonizers from Earth (“The Martian Chronicles”) and a satanic circus (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”).
But the work for which he’ll forever be celebrated is all too possible: the book-burning dystopia of “Fahrenheit 451…”
A couple of years ago, I had a chance to publicly thank Ray for his years of inspiration after he addressed a large group of aficionados at the public library in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was in a wheelchair by then, but had lost none of the sparkle in his eyes as he discussed his work.
But his eyes really lit up when I mentioned our mutual agent. Every high-school kid knows Fahrenheit. But few think about its dedicatee, the great Don Congdon, Ray’s lifelong friend and indefatigable tennis partner.
I owe a huge personal debt to Don, who died (like Ray) at the age of 91, in 2009. He inherited me as a client when Richard Schickel and I co-wrote Carnegie Hall: The First One Hundred Years, and then kept me on for the next eleven books and counting. To be asked to join a literary stable that included not only Bradbury but William Shirer, William Manchester, Jack Finney, Thomas Berger, Evan Connell, and David Sedaris was the greatest honor I’ll ever receive.
Back to Fahrenheit:
“I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” Bradbury told John Miller in a 2003 Wall Street Journal interview, “I was trying to prevent it.” Yet, in too many respects, it’s happening.
Speech codes. Anti-“blasphemy” and anti-“bullying” laws. Human Rights Commissions, such as the one in Canada that went after writer Mark Steyn for the “crime” of hurting Islamic feelings.
The right to free speech, no matter how offensive, was once a bedrock principle of Western society, defended by both left and right — on the theory that ideas must be tested in the public arena in order for the truth to emerge. Now it’s a source of ideological contention.
Even the First Amendment, which absolutely guarantees the right of free speech, is under attack by those wishing to curtail speech in the name of a bogus public amity.
Written as a liberal plea against ignorance and conformity, “Fahrenheit 451” has in just over half a century become a conservative free-speech rallying cry.
And so it has. Bradbury wrote more beautiful books than this one (The Martian Chronicles), but none more perceptive regarding the fascist impulse that lies behind nearly every do-gooder project (Mayor Bloomberg, take note). Ray may not have been wise in some of the ways of the world — he never learned to drive, for one thing — but he was nearly infinite in his understanding of the human heart and soul. His message was delivered in flawless, visionary, lambent prose that never lost its childlike sense of innocent wonder, even in the face of incomprehensible evil.
Plus he adapted the Great American Novel, Moby-Dick, for the screen, directed by John Huston. What a career. What a writer. What a man.
It’s comforting to know that, right now, he and Don are playing tennis and swapping stories somewhere. Probably on Mars.