A Precocious Start to an Academic and Literary Career

In one of my posts yesterday, I gave a plug to Mental Floss, highlighting three items that I found of interest that were posted on a single day in February. In another post to that site on that same day, “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional,” Lucas Reilly chronicles a brainstorm by a high school student in 1963:

“16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded.

The brief introductory note provided by McAllister read as follows: “’My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.’”

At least two authors responded to this working definition and nothing else. Ayn Rand wrote: “’This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.’” And MacKinlay Kantor, most well known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel Andersonville, wrote: “’Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.’”

But the 73 other novelists who did respond included everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Updike.

These are McAllister’s four questions:

1. “’Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?’”

2. “’Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? Annoying? etc.?).’”

3. “Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? … Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”

4. “’Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study? [Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?]’”

Lucas closes the piece for Mental Floss by noting:In case you were wondering, McAllister eventually became an English professor.”

In fact, McAllister has achieved considerable success as a novelist and writer of short stories. If you are not familiar with his work, you might start with the fairly detailed profile of him at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_McAllister.

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2 thoughts on “A Precocious Start to an Academic and Literary Career

    • In an age without copying machines, making 150 extensive letters is a rather heroic effort–not to mention expensive to mail.

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