First Editions of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, 1953

Exhibit / June 5, 2017

Object Name: Hardcover and paperback editions of Fahrenheit 451
Maker and Year: Ray Bradbury, Ballantine Books, 1953
Object Type: Books
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

In the summer of 1950, Ray Bradbury chanced upon novelist and literary critic Christopher Isherwood in a Los Angeles bookstore, introduced himself, and gave Isherwood a copy of his first novel, The Martian Chronicles, which had been published earlier that year. In October, Isherwood’s sparkling review of the book in the literary journal Tomorrow gave Bradbury—along with the budding science fiction genre he represented—his first taste of critical respectability. Previous reviews of the The Martian Chronicles had been overwhelmingly positive, but the authors who wrote them—Anthony Boucher, August Derleth, Fletcher Pratt—were staid purveyors of what critics like Dwight Macdonald labeled “mass culture“: media produced “solely and distinctly… for mass consumption, like chewing gum.” Isherwood, a bonafide literati, changed the game. Bradbury was soon hobnobbing with the likes of Aldous Huxley, who called him a “poet.”

The ascension of sci-fi from pulp ghetto to potentially “serious” literature was not quite complete, however. Publisher Ian Ballantine, who had been developing the paperback trade in America since 1939, started Bantam Books in 1945 and Ballantine Books in 1952, the latter a direct attempt to engage the science fiction market. He knew of Bradbury, of course, a rising star—Bantam had published the first paperback edition of The Martian Chronicles in June of 1951. Bradbury’s agent, Don Congdon, approached Ballantine in 1952—or vice versa, based on other accounts—and a deal was soon made for Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman,” about a repressive future world in which all books are banned and, if found, burned by state-sanctioned “firemen.” The novella was expanded into Fahrenheit 451 and published in 1953.

Up to this point, science fiction appeared almost exclusively in the pulp magazine format. The first sci-fi paperback was 1943’s The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction, an anthology edited by Donald Wollheim that marks the first time “science fiction” is used in the title of a book. Paperbacks themselves were considered “low,” and thus not fit for educated readers. Ballantine’s solution was elegant and daring: two of the first three novels under his new imprint—The Space Merchants by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke—were published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback editions, the hardcover selling for $1.50, and the paperback for 35 cents. This meant that bookstores, which sold only hardcovers, would now carry what Ballantine labeled “adult science fiction,” resulting in more positive reviews by “reputable” authors like Christopher Isherwood, leading to a more sophisticated readership. Train stations and drug stores would continue to sell mass market paperbacks, which more than subsidized the cost of the hardcover run. Fahrenheit 451 got the same dual release, only the hardcover sold for $2.50, evidence of the 33-year-old author’s crossover success.

Fahrenheit 451 is well known today as an indictment of McCarthy-era censorship, and stands alongside Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) as an exemplar of the political dystopian novel. But the book was also an indictment of mass culture and anti-intellectualism, which Bradbury criticized in exactly the same terms as Macdonald and other defenders of “high art.” Here’s the protagonist’s boss describing how society came to be debased, and how the firemen became book-burners in a world of fireproof homes:

Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?

… Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

So Fahrenheit 451, while critical of the “chewing gum” or “paste pudding” culture of post-war America, defined in part by “the pumping hands of publishers,” would not have existed without it. Ian Ballantine was not a science fiction “fan” in any sense of the word, unlike Donald Wollheim; he was a publisher, and his only concern as such was to sell quality books and legitimize the paperback medium. Fahrenheit 451 had a strong debut, but the novel was controversial and didn’t take off until it was purchased by a young Chicago editor named Hugh Hefner—a future of censorship struggles ahead of him—and serialized in the second, third, and fourth issues of his new magazine, Playboy.

Ian Ballantine’s final victory came in 1965, when Ballantine Books published the first authorized paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, following the immense success of Donald Wollheim’s unauthorized (but legal, as the novel had fallen out of US copyright) edition. Tolkien, who had previously derided paperbacks as “cheap” and parasitic, was launched into celebrity status, and what we now call speculative fiction became embedded in the Western literary tradition.

One thought on “First Editions of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, 1953

  1. The local firemen burned the tall mud book in france in 12XX & willy reich had his bookies burned in the 50’s in the USA. 1956. I think maybe some book-burnings of climate change panic deniers were threatened this year, by some edgy educators or something. A brave book should come with it’s own match, and striker. He was a cosmic array of storyteller’s grit.

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