Famous Writers on Symbolism in Literature


“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?”

Getting the authors themselves to do your homework for you? Sure, why not. But I have to say, what caught my attention was that half of the one hundred and fifty writers solicited actually replied to then-sixteen year old high school student Bruce McAllister. Not too shabby at all.

“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.” 

Below are a few of my favorite replies (Ayn Rand might have the most amusing and dismissive response, while Ralph Ellison and Ray Bradbury win points for taking the time to generous and expansive replies. I could even imagine Ray Bradbury sitting at the UCLA Library typing out his letter). Well worth visiting The Paris Review to see scanned documents straight from the source.


“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.”


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