Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 famous authors to ask if symbolism — or apparent symbolism — in their work was intentional. He was apparently frustrated with the way his English teacher analyzed each novel they read for symbolism McAllister felt wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the author.

First of all, what a brilliant reaction to an experience most of us probably had as high school English students. I certainly did, only I went home and complained about it and used it as a reason to procrastinate on my English homework. The over-analyzing of novels even made me sidestep English as a major in college. Going right to the source to challenge one’s English teacher! Bravo, Bruce McAllister, bravo. What’s even more lovely about this story is that McAllister went on to become an English professor and writer.

The survey responses revealed (surprise, surprise!) that most authors did not feel they consciously made use of symbolism in their novels. But the answers young McAllister received were also full of wisdom (Ray Bradbury: “self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act”) and watch-out-young-whippersnapper advice (MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”).

After reading McAllister’s questions and the authors’ responses, I felt strangely relieved —vindicated even, after all these years, that high school English class did contain some level of absurdity. Saul Bellow himself says in his response, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” But aside from a weird feeling of personal satisfaction that my teenage cynicism had merit — these responses are wonderful and instructive. For example:

McAllister: “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?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

McAllister: “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.?)”

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Ray Bradbury: “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches I cannot prevent it can I? … Still, I wish people … did not try so hard to find the man under the old-maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.”

McAllister: “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”

Ray Bradbury: “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Copies of many of the original surveys and responses are in the Paris Review, here. A summarized version of the responses appears here.

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One thought on “Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

  1. I love Ellison’s answer about the reader collaborating. :)

    And yeah, I was always pretty skeptical too. But I never bothered to contact writers because (a) most of the ones I had to write papers about were dead (i.e., Dickens, Hawthorne, Homer) and (b) it wouldn’t have gotten me out of writing the paper anyway.

    I do know that contemporary writers get tons of emails and tweets from students. Jamie Ford retweets the ones that amuse him.

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