Many high schools still assign Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to their English students. This seems paradoxical since many of those same schools—or, really, the communities around them—do censor or ban a few books from libraries or classrooms. To be fair, Bradbury said it himself: the novel is not about censorship. It’s about television—mass media and the cheapest kind of entertainment, game shows, reality shows, celebrity shows—mushing up people’s brains so that the books don’t do anything anymore. Popular culture will take our minds, Bradbury said, not the government.
So perhaps schools aren’t teaching ironically after all: maybe they’re the last guard against cheap entertainment and advertising. Though Fahrenheit 451 is far from Bradbury’s best work (that distinction goes to The Martian Chronicles or Something Wicked This Way Comes, if you’re curious), it’s one of his most resonant, verified by the inertia of mass culture in the decades following its publication.
I read the text my freshman year of high school: the next year I read Milton, the Romantics—especially Blake and Keats—and Macbeth with gusto. These would be my fortifications against cultural assaults. High art could brace me against low.
Still, I wasn’t seduced by even the high art. I wrote poems occasionally and enjoyed class readings, but I still intended to be an engineer. English was something to excel at but not seek employment within.
This changed senior year. I took AP English, and despite reading Crime and Punishment over the summer, I was still looking forward to Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and The Stranger. But I didn’t expect to be completely blindsided by T. S. Eliot. I’d never read the man, not in the Brit Lit sequence or anywhere else. I knew Frost, Wilde, and Donne, but this modernist was something new. One day, Mr. Dage passed out a poem on four pages (no doubt while mumbling something incoherent) with instructions to write everything we could think of on its pages as we read.
I’d never done a close reading like this before: it was the first really critical look I’d ever taken of a poem—and what a poem to begin with, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Mr. Eliot’s tale of Mr. Eliot—sorry, Mr. Prufrock—resonated. The angsty, overthinking young man in a world he couldn’t comprehend would return later when I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but her it was rawer, purified, and it permanently altered my understanding of and experience of poetry. If this was a poem, then what was all that romanticist drivel I’d been reading?
Modernism hit me hard, and has only recently let me take a breath.
It was years later, in graduate school, when I read Eliot’s friend, Ezra Pound, write on a related subject. In his 1920 poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound describes a man like not unlike Prufrock, or any other literary modernist:
For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain “the sublime”
In the old sense. Wrong from the start—
No hardly, but, seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date;
Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn; (ll. 1-7)
I didn’t realize that poetry was a “dead art” until wrapping up a Ph.D. in English, so I’m something of a slow learner. I should have read the tea leaves. We touched on Plato in my junior year high school humanities course, and the old man certainly tried to warn me in advance. In his Republic, Plato details the ideal city for humanity, and one point he makes is to throw out the poets, to ban imaginative literature.
It’s easy to equivocate on this notion: elsewhere in Plato’s dialogues, he makes no such claim that literature is a corrupting force due to its fictional (false) nature, and thus its immorality and uselessness. But why does he make such a claim when he’s outlining the perfect city? How does literature threaten him? It’s the only thing that immortalized him—not Socrates, but Plato’s own writings.
There are plenty of great arguments for the humanities, and very few good ones against them. Art and literature opens our eyes to the experiences of others: reading can make us empathize and understand what is otherwise permanently beyond our purview. We understand the world through story and plot, through narrative and dialogue. Without analogies and metaphors, poetry and stories, we couldn’t grasp anything.
But something that humanities boosters don’t always note is that though literature is a necessary part of our education as humans, it is not sufficient. It is a building block of but not the entirety of our personhood. The world is bigger than the page.
Yet as I found out what worried Plato, and perhaps Pound as well: language is bewitching—and that’s a bad thing. The beauty of poetry changed the course of my life—it took me away from engineering and into researching and teaching literature, plucking me from the real world and depositing me within the university’s walls.
Now do I perpetuate the cycle? Do I teach literature and writing within the context of my university classes? Maybe after high school students should be pushed beyond the fictional, into the concrete universes of technology and engineering.
Perhaps literature is really what corrupts the youth: it can be a siren call for a world that has faded away. Is it enough really to enjoy something and study it?
I feel like the titular character in Ancient Mariner of Coleridge’s epic poem. I must repeat my story and save others from a similar fate.
Or perhaps I’m Ishmael in Moby Dick, or Job’s servant heralding dark news:
And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.