A high school student, by the name of Bruce McAllister, sent 150 well-known literary, commercial, and science fiction authors a four-question mimeographed survey. In his survey, he asked if they use symbols in their work on purpose? He also asked about who witnessed symbols emerge from their subconscious, and who saw them arise unexpectedly in their writing, produced in the brains of their readers.
In 1963 Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 authors to settle a disagreement with his English teacher about textual symbolism. Ray Bradbury, John Updike, and Saul Bellow were among the more than 75 authors that responded. McAllister went on to become a well-known author and a professor of literature.
How Was Bruce McAllister’s Survey Received?
Bruce McAllister was confident, if not outright arrogant, in his belief that the surveys he sent out would resolve a disagreement with his English teacher. He intended to show that by demonstrating that symbols weren’t buried beneath the texts they were reading like buried gold waiting to be discovered.
This task of his required a lot of work, especially before the Internet and before the e-mail, but it wasn’t impossible. Several authors and their representatives were included in the local library’s Twentieth-Century American Literature series, and McAllister was able to reach out to them
What was even more impressive is that 75 writers responded back. Most were very sincere. Sixty-five of those responses have survived but ten were lost to a kleptomaniacal friend by McAllister. The secretarial blow-off was followed with a large package of single-spaced typescript in response.
The questionnaire responses were as diverse as the authors themselves. Is there any symbolism in Isaac Asimov’s work? Consciously? No way, no how! Unconsciously? Is there any way to avoid it? There is considerably more symbolism in regular life than some critics realize.Iris Murdoch, Novelist, and Philosopher
This is not a definition; it is not true and, therefore, your inquiries do not make sense.Ayn Rand, Writer and Philosopher
Symbolism is alright in fiction, but I tell true-life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.Jack Kerouac, American Novelist
McAllister also received apologies from the secretaries of John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Ian Fleming. They explained that they were traveling and unable to respond. (Source: The Paris Review)
McAllister says that it never occurred to me that the writers would respond. Still, when they did, he was overjoyed, as was his English teacher, who described himself as a beautiful, teacherly person who was impressed by his industry but unable to comprehend the significance of its outcome. At least until the end of the 1964 to 1965 school year, the search for symbols would continue.
McAllister felt stuck in between the intimacy of each reaction, and the pattern of the cumulative replies as he reflected on the project. However, the question remains: why did they answer? McAllister takes no credit, describing his survey form as barely literate.
He recalls misusing the word precocious in his cover letter. What he actually meant was presumptuous. In hindsight, he was both. But some writers seemed to disagree with the notion.
I concluded that no one had questioned them. Scholars and texts were the focus of New Criticism; writers were left out of the equation. Scholars would discuss symbolism in literature, but no one had questioned the authors.Bruce McAllister
(Source: The Paris Review)