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)


  1. I really liked reading Bradbury’s response. He seemed really enthusiastic and generally had a pretty swell opinion on the whole thing.

  2. Always similarly annoyed by the demand to “find symbolism” in works of fiction. As if just reading and enjoying it is never enough. There’s gotta be some secret meaning, which the author deemed important enough to cleverly hide within the narrative, but not important enough to just, like, SAY.

    1. I know that playing “hunt the symbol” is frustrating, but the idea behind teaching literary interpretation is that students learn to read for meaning and develop skills leading to greater pleasure. Additionally, it’s worth consider literature as a historical artifact that can enlighten us about the culture from which it emerges. That is, reading in class isn’t necessarily about pleasure reading. You can do that at home, alone, and you should. (Disclosure: I am an English professor.)

  3. I am informed that getting high and parsing the symbolism of Pink Floyd lyrics leads to a deeper appreciation of their works.

  4. Hah!  Ralph Ellison misspelled “humorous.”  Liked the bit about placing symbolism in a work subconsciously, and then discovering it.

  5. All I can think of is if he really lived at 577 Rosecrans out on Point Loma that’s a nice area.

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