The mutilation and rebirth of a classic: Fahrenheit 451
“I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted to become a non-book.” Ray Bradbury, Author’s Afterword, Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 by Ballantine Books, immediately captured the reading public’s imagination. A shorter version in novella form, “The Fireman,” had appeared in 1951 in Galaxy, a science fiction magazine. The novel takes place in a society that bans books which, if discovered, are then burned by firemen. The protagonist, Montag, a fireman, progressively becomes a believer in the value of books.
Ironically, Fahrenheit 451, an indictment of censorship, was itself censored by its publisher for thirteen years before Bradbury himself became aware of that. In 1967, Ballantine published an expurgated version of the novel to be used in high schools. Such words as “hell,” “damn” and “abortion” were eliminated.
In a novel of approximately one hundred and fifty pages, seventy-five passages were modified. Two episodes were actually changed. In one episode, a drunken man is changed to a sick man. In another, cleaning fluff out of a human naval becomes, in the expurgated version, cleaning ears.
The expurgations went unnoticed because readers did not compare this version to the original. The copyright page did not indicate any edits. The expurgated version ran for ten printings. At the same time, the authentic “adult” version was sold outside of high schools to the world at large. In 1973, after six years of publishing both editions, the publisher decided to publish only the censored work, so from 1973 to 1979 only that version was sold.
In 1979, one of Bradbury’s friends showed him an expurgated copy. Bradbury demanded that Ballantine Books withdraw that version and replace it with the original, and in 1980 the original version once again became available. In this reinstated work, in the Author’s Afterword, Bradbury relates to the reader that it is not uncommon for a publisher to expurgate an author’s work, but he asserts that he himself will not tolerate the practice of manuscript “mutilation.”
In 1981, as a direct result of the Fahrenheit 451 incident, the American Library Association became actively involved in censorship issues. Bradbury, a fan of libraries since childhood, may have influenced this decision. The ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, Young Adult division, looked further into the censorship of books in the schools and discovered other books that had been censored, some of which were award-winning works.
The censorship of Fahrenheit 451 raises many issues: legality, copyright, a sense of responsibility to readers as well as the author, and the lack of forthrightness on the publisher’s part. Were the company publishers aware of this censorship? Apparently, the editors involved believed they were performing a public service.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 became a classic overnight. It remains a classic even though it has been through the censorship and expurgation wars.
For more on this topic, consult Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald and Dawn B. Sova’s 120 Banned Books (New York: Fact on File, 2005).
Contributed by Bill Greene; Fahrenheit 451 cover design by Joseph Mugnaini