Ralph Steadman’s Hellish Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s Classic Dystopian Novel, Fahrenheit 451

Hunter S. Thomp­son and Ray Brad­bury would at first seem to have lit­tle in com­mon, oth­er than hav­ing made their liv­ings by the pen. Or rather, both of them hav­ing devel­oped as writ­ers in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, by the typewriter–though Thomp­son famous­ly shot his and a young Brad­bury once had to rent one for ten cents per hour at UCLA’s library. In one nine-day rental in the ear­ly 1950s, Brad­bury typed up Fahren­heit 451, still his best-known work and one whose cen­tral idea, that of a future soci­ety that method­i­cal­ly destroys all books, has stayed com­pelling almost 65 years after its first pub­li­ca­tion.

Thomp­son’s best-known work, 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, deals in dif­fer­ent kinds of fright­en­ing visions, some of them brought to illus­trat­ed life by the Eng­lish artist Ralph Stead­man. Thir­ty years lat­er years lat­er and with his name long since made by his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Thomp­son, Stead­man would bring his tal­ents to Brad­bury’s dystopia. Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va quotes him describ­ing the theme of Fahren­heit 451 as “vital­ly impor­tant.” Accord­ing to Dan­ger­ous Minds’ Paul Gal­lagher, when Brad­bury saw Stead­man’s illus­tra­tions, com­mis­sioned for a lim­it­ed edi­tion of the book around its fifti­eth anniver­sary, he said to the artist, “You’ve brought my book into the 21st cen­tu­ry.”

Stead­man repaid the com­pli­ment when he said that he con­sid­ers Fahren­heit 451 “as impor­tant as 1984 and Ani­mal Farm as real pow­er­ful social com­ment,” and he should know, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly poured his artis­tic ener­gies into a 1995 edi­tion of George Orwell’s decep­tive­ly sim­ple alle­go­ry of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and its con­se­quences. More than a few of us would no doubt love to see what Stead­man could do with 1984 here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, a time when we’ve hard­ly extin­guished the soci­etal dan­gers of which Orwell, or Brad­bury, or indeed Thomp­son, tried, each in his dis­tinc­tive lit­er­ary way, to warn us. Book-burn­ing may remain a fringe pur­suit, but the fight against thought con­trol in its infi­nite forms demands con­stant vig­i­lance — and no small amount of imag­i­na­tion.

You can see more illus­tra­tions of Fahren­heit 451 at Brain Pick­ings and Dan­ger­ous Minds. Also, you can pur­chase used copies of the lim­it­ed print edi­tion online, though they seem quite rare at this point. Edi­tions can be found on AbeBooks–for exam­ple here and here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury Reveals the True Mean­ing of Fahren­heit 451: It’s Not About Cen­sor­ship, But Peo­ple “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

To Read This Exper­i­men­tal Edi­tion of Ray Bradbury’s Fahren­heit 451, You’ll Need to Add Heat to the Pages

Gonzo Illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man Draws the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents, from Nixon to Trump

Ralph Steadman’s Sur­re­al­ist Illus­tra­tions of George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm (1995)

How Hunter S. Thomp­son — and Psilo­cy­bin — Influ­enced the Art of Ralph Stead­man, Cre­at­ing the “Gonzo” Style

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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