Literary daybook, March 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 21, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 21, 1868, Nautilus reaches the South Pole.
-- "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" (1870)
By Jules Verne

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1556 Thomas Cranmer, the Reformation-minded Archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake. As Henry VIII had executed Sir Thomas More for being too Catholic, so his daughter, Queen "Bloody" Mary I, executed Cranmer for being too Protestant -- over 300 such being put to death in her five-year reign. Cranmer's promotion of the English Bible and his authorship of "The Book of Common Prayer" are his most significant connections to Christian literature, but for fiction readers he is known through his connection to Ray Bradbury's book-burning novel, "Fahrenheit 451."

Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester), Nicholas Ridley (Bishop of Rochester) and Cranmer were the "Oxford Martyrs." All three had been arrested by Mary, and imprisoned together at Oxford. Latimer and Ridley had so enthusiastically rejected the idea of recanting their Protestant beliefs that they were burned in October 1555. As the bigger plum, Cranmer's recantation was more prized, and he was softened up over the next six months -- a process which included being forced to watch the burning of his friends, and which resulted in a handful of recantations and retracted recantations. The last retraction, just moments before going to his death, came with a vow: "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." Those who watched reported that he made good on the promise, one adding, "His friends sorrowed for love; his enemies for pity; strangers for a common kind of humanity, whereby we are bound one to another."

But the more famous burning was the earlier one of Latimer and Ridley, made so by Latimer's last words as the two were given the mercy of a bag of gunpowder around their necks, and the fire was lit:

"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never by put out."

Bradbury quotes these words in "Fahrenheit 451" and has his hero, Guy Montag, resist all persuasions to recant a belief in books. These persuasions include not merely the punishments and the alternative pleasures -- reality TV shows on the wall-screens, etc. -- but the Fire Captain's argument that the post-book world and the magazine mentality are inevitable, given the speed and sloth of modern living:

"... Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bang, Boom! 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!"

At the end, when Montag searches his mind for a special story to tell the book-loving rebuilders of the city, he decides upon a passage from the Bible, a nod to the Oxford Martyrs and the others who had, during another dark time, pushed to translate and distribute it.

The 83-year-old Bradbury continues to work every day, but so does Hollywood, with a new version of "Fahrenheit 451" due out next year.

-- Steve King

For the official website of "Today in Literary History," click here.

By the Salon Books Editors

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