Bruce McAllister, a 16 year-old student, in 1963 wrote to 150 authors to settle a dispute with his English teacher about textual symbolism. More than 75 replied, including Ray Bradbury, John Updike, and Saul Bellow. McAllister later became an acclaimed author and literature professor.

Document: The Symbolism Survey

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 l… Continue Reading (5 minute read)

7 thoughts on “Bruce McAllister, a 16 year-old student, in 1963 wrote to 150 authors to settle a dispute with his English teacher about textual symbolism. More than 75 replied, including Ray Bradbury, John Updike, and Saul Bellow. McAllister later became an acclaimed author and literature professor.”

  1. twiggez-vous

    The Paris Review article has images of replies written by Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer.

    In addition, the article briefly mentions answers given by Isaac Asimov, Henry Roth, Iris Murdoch, and various SF writers (Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Judith Merril, and A. J. Budrys).

  2. Dagoncrowgg

    Ray Bradburry’s response is thoughtful and insightful. I love that he chose to talk about moby dick as its EXACTLY the work I thought of when I read the title of the post. One of the books where symbolysm really shines and enchances the story.

  3. FellatioFellas

    This was delightful. I was asked recently, “What is a symbol?” I ended up talking for twenty minutes. If only I could have been as succinct as these professional writers.

  4. SuperSecretSpySquid

    Half way through Ray Bradbury’s reply I started to get such a happy nostalgic feeling, and realized how much his tone and style, his voice, was familiar and good, though the last time I’d read one of his novels was neigh on to 40 years ago. Crazy that the neatly typewritten paragraph, and his way of stringing words together could speak to a boy so gone from my memory he could have been long dead, but lo, there he is.

    What a happy, interesting read.

    Thank you due posting this.

  5. robbycakes

    The variation among personalities is probably the most fascinating thing here. These writers are so iconic, as a student of literature you feel like you have a small relationship with each one of them.

    Kerouac is sassy but somehow affable. Updike is hurried but courteous. Mailer replies that he could go on forever about this topic (we know you could, Norm!). Ellison and Bradbury are engaging, helpful, and avuncular. And Ayn Rand decides the quickest route to truth is to simply be a c***.

    (EDIT – you guys found some typos!)

  6. ChesswiththeDevil

    The Ray Bradbury one was really good. Some of those writers were absolute dicks.

  7. sirhambeast

    So Ayn Rand was an obnoxious pre-youtube reactionary logic pedant and it looks like Ralph Ellison’s cat walked on his typewriter. Some things never change.

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