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.
More of Steadman’s fiery illustrations for Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ after the jump….

Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:02 am
Ray Bradbury has died

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, died yesterday, June 5th, at the age of 91. Bradbury was a colossus of modern fiction, writing everything form fantasy, science-, and speculative-fiction to comedy, crime and mystery. He wrote twenty-seven novels, several screenplays, most notably for John Huston’s film version of Moby Dick, as well as plays, and hundreds of classic short stories.

Bradbury was an immense talent, yet in the early part of his career, his success as a mass market “pulp” author often led critics to overlook the quality of his writing, and its seismic influence on others - his fiction formed the template for future speculative science-fiction and fantasy writers to follow. Bradbury had a beautiful, poetic and lyrical style of writing, most notable in Dandelion Wine, which made his authorial voice unmistakable.

Indeed the quality of Bradbury’s writing helped science-fiction out of the pulp ghetto into the hallowed groves of literature. Though most associated with that genre, Bradbury denied he was a science-fiction writer, instead claimed he was a fantasy writer whose work owed much to the traditions of classical literature:

“First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time—because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

Born in Waukegan, Illinois on August 22, 1920, Bradbury grew up in small town America - a world of dusty roads, with few cars, and tarmac avenues with old trolley buses ploughing the metal rails along main street. He also once claimed, in a BBC documentary, that his memory and experience was the source for much of his writing, and said his memory stretched back to his earliest experiences as a baby, being breast-fed in his mother’s arms.

He grew up reading books and watching Flash Gordon serials at the local cinema, and monster movies with Boris Karloff, while following the adventures of heroes in the early garish comics that later went on to deliver Batman, Superman and Tales from the Crypt.

“Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Reading inspired his writing and Bradbury started his own fictions, eventually submitting short stories to pulp magazines in his teens - his first published story was “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma”, which appeared in the fanzine Imagination! in January, 1938. He received his first check of $15 for his story “Pendulum” (co-written with Henry Hasse) in 1941, when it was published in Super Science Stories. By 1942, he was able to have a career as a writer, writing stories for the various pulp magazines that were then available.

He progressed from stories to novels, with first big success being The Martian Chronicles, which was aided by a chance meeting with author Christopher Isherwood, who admired Bradbury’s work, and passed the book onto a critic who gave it a glowing review. From there, Bradbury had a career befitting the talents of such a great and marvelous man.

Bradbury’s influence has infused much of our cultural world - from films to comics, science to the imagined landscape of small town America, which is still very much as he described it in his fictions. Indeed, Bradbury’s vision of small town America was a precursor to Stephen King’s Castle Rock.

I greatly admire Bradbury’s work, and like everyone else grew-up reading his books, and regularly returned to them in my adult years. It seems as we grow older that all we reap is death, and this year has been a harsh harvest. Still, we should perhaps recall Bradbury’s line from Fahrenheit 451:

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made up or paid for in factories.”

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury 1920-2012.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
01:13 pm