In 1963, science fiction writer Bruce McAllister was 16, taking high school English courses where he was told about a mysterious thing called "symbolism" in literature. Trying to get a grip on what his teacher was talking about, the enterprising McAllister wrote to 150 of the most famous writers of the day asking them about symbolism in their work. Surprisingly, nearly half of them answered, including Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Isaac Asimov, John Updike, and Ray Bradbury.

Now McAllister has dug up their replies, scanned them, and put them online. Paris Review has a fascinating article about what the authors said, and what McAllister thinks about the project decades later. One interesting detail is that the science fiction authors were apparently the most lengthy and detailed in their replies.


According to Sarah Funke Butler in Paris Review:

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. . . . 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."

Here are Ray Bradbury's responses to McAllister (click images to expand).