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Document: The Symbolism Survey

December 5, 2011 | by

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.

Kerouac p. 1

Kerouac p. 2

Norman Mailer

Ayn Rand

John Updike p. 1

Updike p. 2


Ralph Ellison

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.”


Saul Bellow p. 1


Bellow p. 2

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.”

Ray Bradbury p. 1

Bradbury p.2

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.

 

162 COMMENTS

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  1. Joe Carlson | December 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Dig Ralph Ellison’s signature. Alice Weiser and Associates, we need your help!

  2. GZ | December 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    The naivete of young Bruce notwithstanding, these are fascinating and unexpected glances on the thoughts of these writers. All of those quoted have spoken at greater length on matters literary in more sophisticated venues, but the peculiarity of the survey gives a homely but intimate access which I relished.

  3. Virgnia | December 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    These are amazing. The reactions are a research project in themselves, each and every one of them very telling about the writer’s attitudes and personality: Bradbury-wise and insightful; Kerouac-dismissive and pompous. Priceless!

  4. Jenny Ma | December 5, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    So wonderful! And quite embarrassing for Ayn Rand…

  5. Dennis Johnson | December 6, 2011 at 11:14 am

    What a gem, on so many levels. Was that intended?

  6. Bruce Reeves | December 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

    “The kid”‘s project shows how education has changed. In the 60’s I too had my students write to “the outside” and most received replies — in this case, from corporate executives defending their advertising claims (or in some cases agreeing with the student’s charges!). The letters were signed, often with a fountain pen. Even the most defensive weren’t snarly like Ayn Rand, above. Today? Technology has allowed thousands to write; yesterday, hundreds — it took much more effort to craft an inquiry, but had a real human payoff.

  7. JoeyH | December 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    What pompously snotty responses from Rand and Kantor. She couldn’t be bothered to make use of a teachable (even preachable) moment, and he apparently doesn’t know what primary research actually is. I love the honesty and audacity of this project, and the huge range of responses. I bet this gentleman is a terrific teacher.

  8. eli | December 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Fantastic – Thanks!

    Not to be too picky, but it looks like Kerouac says he writes about “people I knew” (not people I know).

  9. Sarah Funke Butler | December 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Dear Eli, thanks for the eagle eye, I’ve corrected that typo! Cheers, Sarah

  10. JBH | December 6, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Bradbury…what an awesome guy! A great letter too that all English readers/writers should read.

  11. Doug | December 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Wow, amazing! I want more though – any chance of you putting the rest of the responses online?

  12. JMR | December 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    In college I took two fiction writing classes that almost ruined me. We were tasked with writing stories and then the teacher would work as editor/critic and the class would also take part in the banter. I had one good story come out of that class. I would have had more, but the teacher tended to like stories that had to do with free-bleeders having sex and other created “symbolism.”
    I really admire McAllister for having the tenacity to do this. I am not sure that you could do the same thing today. Writers are sometimes more closeted these days and are hard to get to act like human beings.

  13. Ilya | December 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Wow — I remember hearing about what must have been this episode from my high school English teacher in San Diego in the early 80s. Was the teacher in question Mr. Grove, by any chance?

  14. Nick | December 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with Ayn Rand’s reply. Butler was correct in calling it concise, which was all it was.

  15. Obbop | December 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I wrote the Mafia Godfather (un0named for safety reasons) and obviously offended him.

    He sent three La Cosa Nostra soldier-level goons and had them break my knee caps and while doing so told about another visit would require something they called “cement over-shoes.”

    Some lessons are hard-learned.

  16. Nicki | December 6, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    I met and spoke with Ray Bradbury when I was a freshman in college. His reply reflects the man – wise, kind, genteel and sincere. Ayn Rand strikes me as an insufferable jerk.

  17. Kevin | December 6, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Ray Bradbury’s response brings a smile to my face. I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes in my 9th Grade English class. The whole lesson was centered on symbolism – we were quizzed on the symbolic meaning of just about every single person, place, or thing in the book – from the wooden Indian outside the cigar store to a barber pole.

    I remember thinking “this is really a stretch. There’s on way this guy meant every little thing to be a symbol.” I really felt like people were putting words in authors’ mouths. It’s amusing to see Mr. Bradbury back 14-year old me up.

  18. Jon Ciliberto | December 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    I would love to see Fritz Leiber’s response !

  19. Lenny | December 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Once again Rand reveals herself to be a colossal ass.

  20. TM May | December 6, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Among other things, we now know for certain Ayn Rand really was a psyco *&tch.

  21. Morbane | December 7, 2011 at 2:51 am

    This is lovely. Your quote from McAllister really sums it up for me: “caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” On the one hand, this is fascinating data, on the other, these are human responses. I don’t want to take too much from your article, but it has caused me, personally, to reflect that much cultural research is like that. It is often easy to miss the trees for the forest, but not here.

  22. Deric | December 7, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Such a pleasant, heartwarming read, Bradbury sound like a person I’d love to have tea with.

  23. Adrian S | December 7, 2011 at 7:44 am

    How did Ray Bradbury respond in that font in 1964? It is a proportional font unlike the Courier used in the survey. I have to ask whether it suggests forgery.

  24. Sean M | December 7, 2011 at 8:35 am

    @Adrian S – You’re mistaken. If you follow the columns down, you can see clearly that the replies are monospaced. Compare, for instance, the ‘etc’ and ‘…’ in the final and penultimate lines of the last full paragraph. A proportional font would not render those in the same amount of space.

    Mr. Bradbury does seem to have owned a better typewriter, however!

  25. Peshmerga | December 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

    @Adrian S: It is not a proportional font. Characters are still of a fixed-width, but they are now taller in relation to the width. However, since 1944 IBM Executive electric typewriters typically had the option to use a ball with a proportional-width font.

  26. Sarah | December 7, 2011 at 9:25 am

    What an interesting and thought provoking topic! I have recently started writing a novel and found myself wondering the very question– should I be trying to put symbolism into it.

    This article has given my lots to ponder.

  27. Drew MF | December 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I quite enjoyed this, but I’m afraid my ability to read cursive has atrophied to the point that I can’t tell what half these people are even writing. I wonder if I’m alone in this or if future generations are going to find cursive particularly runic.

  28. Allison | December 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I want a book made out of these ASAP!!!

  29. Hannah | December 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    This is fabulous. I would love to see the results of this survey in book form! I am just finishing a crit class this semester in which we spent each week entrenched in a different school of theory and had to reject the assumptions and approaches of all other types of theory, and I love how many different theoretical approaches this study brings up.

  30. Melitta Smith | December 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I felt like I was sitting at the feet of the greats! The ambiance was provided by the handwritten form and signatures or even the xx and overwriting that gave the responses their human touch. Computer generated responses just don’t convey the spirit of the person behind the thoughts as well. Thank you to McAllister for sharing.

  31. mary lee | December 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    As Doug has asked (and others clearly agree) could we see some more of these? It’s just such a treat! Thank you.

  32. Ad absurdum per aspera | December 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Drew MF: “I quite enjoyed this, but I’m afraid my ability to read cursive has atrophied to the point that I can’t tell what half these people are even writing.”

    I think you are merely looking at evidence that penmanship is no great predictor, either positive or negative, of stature and achievement. (Please don’t tell Sister Mary Agnes.)

    Fortunately, some of the typewritten responses (and a few of the handwritten ones that I can decipher) are quite profound. I like Ralph Ellison’s answer best (by a slight margin) and certainly my hat’s off to Norman Mailer for tossing off such a good answer as an aside in the course of ostensibly declining to answer.

    Taken together, the responses certainly point to great variety in how creative people go about their business, don’t they?

  33. thedude | December 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I wish they he’d written to Kerouac earlier than 63/64….He was all drunk and grumpy and sad then, to bad he didn’t write him around the time of his first novel before “On the Road”

  34. Mr. Mister | December 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    It’s a shame Rand is dead, or I would tell her where she can shove her typewriter.

  35. Jessie | December 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    “Ayn Rand wins the prize for concision”

    That was a phrase I’d never thought I’d hear uttered without sarcasm.

  36. Chris Benson | December 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    As to Ayn Rand’s reply. I agree with her statement: “it is not a definition.” But what indifference there is in her tone. She couldn’t be bothered, so why did she respond at all except to put the boy in his place.

  37. Chadwick Hagan | December 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    I love it, especially Mailer’s response.

  38. BD | December 8, 2011 at 12:25 am

    This is brilliant; I would have liked to have met Ray Bradbury.

    And aside from what everyone else has said, I would love to know why Ayn Rand even bothered to send the form back.

  39. David J. Peterson | December 8, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Do you take requests? I want to see Judith Merril’s response!

  40. Sam | December 8, 2011 at 6:27 am

    In defense of Rand, he doesn’t actually provide a definition.

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10 Pingbacks

  1. […] You’ll never know until you try postlude: In 1963 a high school student sent letters to a bunch of authors asking them about the use of symbolism in their work.  Several responded. […]

  2. […] replies he received offer a handy way to compare the writers' personalities. The Paris Review published a handful of the responses on Monday, pasting scanned images of the aging pages between a little bit of what-it-means commentary from […]

  3. […] 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? Paris Review – Document: The Symbolism Survey, Sarah Funke Butler […]

  4. […] them whether they consciously planted symbolism in their work and three other related questions. The Paris Review published details about this fascinating project and even posted digital copies of the responses. […]

  5. […] In 1963 a high school student mailed out a survey to 150 popular authors of the time (no easy feat getting the addresses and making copies). The central question was if the authors consciously created symbols in their literary works; apparently he was trying to settle a bet with his English teacher. The article claims 65 responses still exist, although it only displays eight in full and some snippets from others. The answers vary substantially and give insight into the writers’ personalities, many of which are, humorously, exactly as you would expect. […]

  6. […] that it happened in 1963, well before email, and the surveys were mimeographed and mailed out. And this is what Bruce McAllister had in mind: McAllister had just published his first story, […]

  7. […] The Paris Review has published a number of these responses and an accompanying article on their blog, and I strongly recommend taking a look.  The responses are fascinating to think about in regard to the authors’ work, and also provide interesting insights into each writer’s personality.  Click here for the article. […]

  8. […] Part of a great write-up at The Paris Review. Some context (from the article): 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? GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "333333"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "791c11"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "b2270a"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "791c11"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "books"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "books"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "literature"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "writers"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "ayn-rand"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "bruce-mcallister"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "paris-review"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "san-diego-high-school"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  9. […] Paris Review – Document: The Symbolism Survey, Sarah Funke Butler 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”). […]

  10. […] http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/12/05/document-the-symbolism-survey/ This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged bradbury, kerouac, literature, rand, survey, […]

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