Literary greats answer high-school student's survey on "symbolism," 1963


When science fiction writer Bruce McAllister was 16, in 1963, he decided that his English teacher's insistence on seeking out symbolism in literature was a tedious exercise. McAllister, who had just sold his first story, was skeptical of the whole idea of symbolism in literature, so he typed out an ungrammatical, mimeographed questionnaire about symbolism in literature and mailed it to 150 authors. 75 replied. Some were secretarial responses on the lines of "Go away, I'm busy," but substantive responses came in from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, Jack Kerouac, Judith Merril, John Updike, Fritz Leiber, and others.

Some were dismissive of Bruce’s project, or his methodology. MacKinlay Kantor chided, “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.” Others, like William Melvin Kelley, cite the work and characters of other authors rather than their own. Kelley names Faulkner, Robbins, Hemingway, Twain, and Salinger: “Holden Caulfield is a person, but enough of us felt that we were like him to make him a symbol. But if he’d been a symbol, Salinger would have been an unknown writer living in Vermont.” Henry Roth mentions Dante, Blake, Joyce, and perhaps Malamud as writers who intentionally incorporate symbolism (Updike names Joyce and Dante as well, along with Homer). Roth notes that the Greeks, Elizabethans, and Cervantes were “interested in a type of what existed rather than symbols of abstract ideas, forces, beliefs.” For himself? “My own feeling at the time I wrote CIS [Call It Sleep] was that the symbol was well-surrendered or abandoned for the greater verity or the more striking insight.”

Document: The Symbolism Survey (via MeFi)