Document: The Symbolism Survey
December 5, 2011 | by Sarah Funke Butler
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?
McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.
His project involved substantial labor—this before the Internet, before e-mail—but was not impossible: many authors and their representatives were listed in the Twentieth-Century American Literature series found in the local library. More impressive is that seventy-five writers replied—most of them, in earnest. Sixty-five of those responses survive (McAllister lost ten to “a kleptomaniacal friend”). Answers ranged from the secretarial blow off to a thick packet of single-spaced typescript in reply.
The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.
Even if he approached them en masse, with a form letter.
And failed to follow up with a thank-you note.
The answers to the questionnaire were as varied as the writers themselves. Did Isaac Asimov plant symbolism in his work? “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?” Iris Murdoch sagely advises that “there is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.” Ayn Rand wins the prize for concision; addressing McAllister’s example of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, she wrote, “This is not a definition, it is not true—and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” Kerouac is a close second; he writes, “Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.” The apologies Bruce received from secretaries—including those of John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Ian Fleming—explaining that they were traveling and unable to respond were longer than that.
Science-fiction writers—most notably Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Judith Merril, and A. J. Budrys—were the most expansive. Biggle sent a lengthy letter and then, nearly a year later, sent further thoughts. In the second letter, he advised McAllister to read an essay by Mary McCarthy, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” saying, “You will not want to do any kind of article on symbolism until you have read [this] … You will find much good material there, as well as an emphatic reinforcement for your viewpoint.” (McCarthy sent the same advice herself.) Judith Merril’s response is heavily mired in linguistics; she offers McAllister a chart to illustrate her semantic overview.
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.”
I recently spoke with Bruce McAllister by phone about his recollections of his literature survey. There is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the one-time student seeking knowledge has devoted most of his career to teaching. McAllister, who has published widely and been nominated for some of the most prestigious genre fiction prizes—his 1988 “Dream Baby” was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards—taught literature and writing at the University of Redlands in southern California for nearly twenty-five years. For the past dozen years he has run McAllister Coaching, helping writers of books and screenplays shape their manuscripts. McAllister at sixteen? Self-described as full of “the arrogance of high schoolers” he felt beyond his classroom assignments, and was, as he put it, “tired of symbol hunting.”
Though McAllister now claims, “It never occurred to me that [the writers] would answer,” once they did he was delighted—as was his English teacher: “a sweet, teacherly soul,” impressed by his industry but unable to absorb the import of its result. The search for symbols would continue, at least until the end of the 1964–65 school year.
In reflecting on the project, McAllister feels “caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” The question remains: Why did they answer? McAllister claims no credit, describing his survey form as “barely literate.” He recalls that in his cover letter (no examples of which exist) he misused the word precocious—he meant presumptuous—and in hindsight he sees that he was both, though few writers seemed to mind. “The conclusion I came to was that nobody had asked them. New Criticism was about the scholars and the text; writers were cut out of the equation. Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.”
Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc. She is curator of the exhibit, "Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time," now on view at the Forbes Galleries in New York.