Symbols in Literature

In high school and a few undergraduate literature classes, I remember my professors would instruct the class to identify and analyze the symbols in the texts we read. Poems, especially, were apparently so packed with symbols that I’d stumble through looking for meaning: was that parrot really a parrot, or was it actually the squawking spirit of America? Now, in graduate school, however, professor after professor has proclaimed that there are no symbols — or that if there are symbols, they are more the work of the reader than the writer.

At the Paris Review, literary archivist Sarah Funke Butler looks at a young writer who’d hoped to resolve the question of whether symbolism actually exists in literature and whether it was indeed the intention of the writer. “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. … Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself — symbolism in literature — as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.”

Although Bruce’s survey may not have settled the issue once and for all, the letters on display at the Paris Review (from the likes of Bellow, Ellison, Updike, and Mailer) also prove to be wonderful insights into the habits, intentions, and personalities of the most important writers of the time. Ayn Rand chastises young Bruce, claiming his questions don’t make sense. Jack Kerouac claims, “Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.” And Ray Bradbury offers a few elegant insights, saying that he doesn’t consciously insert symbols into his work: “That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. … Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

For more on literary symbols and a look at the letters themselves, head over to the Paris Review.

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— Benjamin Samuel is the Online Editor of Electric Literature. He is pretty certain that’s meant to be taken literally.

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