Nothing so dangerous as an idea: Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Ray Bradbury needed somewhere quiet to write. His wife had given birth to a baby daughter and their neat home did not seem so large anymore. Bradbury couldn’t afford to rent an office, so he spent his writing time in the UCLA library. Then one day he heard the Morse code clatter of keys on rollers and discovered the library offered typewriters for hire in a basement typing room at ten cents per half hour. Loaded up with a bagful of dimes, Bradbury started work on his latest story Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury never liked to know what he was doing or where he was going when he wrote—he just hammered out the words from “the secret motives within.” It took him ten days to write Fahrenheit 451. Ten days to run up-and-down stairs and pull books off shelves to find random quotes for his book. Ten days not knowing what he was writing just following the course of the words that tumbled out of his head to tell their tale.

Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a future America where books are banned and firemen are professional arsonists who patrol the cities burning every book they find. The title Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns. Books are banned because they contain ideas that make people unhappy. The firemen burn the books to keep the people happy in their safe little spaces. Bradbury’s story could be our America today, where “politically correct” college students shut down ideas they cannot handle, and where “debate” means only talking to those who agree with you.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fahrenheit 451 in 2003, renowned artist Ralph Steadman was commissioned to illustrate Bradbury’s classic tale with his signature manic scratch and splatter style. Steadman had famously collaborated with Hunter S. Thompson on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and over a long career has illustrated numerous books, articles, and films as well as producing a vast collection of personal work. Though Steadman was said to be “jaded” about illustrating any more books, he was thrilled to illustrate Bradbury’s classic as he considered it “as important as 1984 and Animal Farm as real powerful social comment, because it’s about a fire brigade burning books.”

As someone once said, I think it was me: There is nothing so dangerous as an idea. Particularly one whose time has come…

When Bradbury saw Steadman’s vibrant illustrations, the author paid the artist the highest compliment:

You’ve brought my book into the 21st Century. Thank you.

Steadman’s flamboyant penmanship suits Bradbury’s style of writing “at the top of [his] lungs”—as both work intuitively, allowing accident and inspiration to lead them towards unknown destinations.

There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.


It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.


People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.


The mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the fire house. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber padded paws.


There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them.

Via Brainpickings and Spike Magazine.

Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:02 am



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