Saturday, March 20, 2010

An 110-Year-Old Rejection Letter


My grandfather gave me this framed piece of correspondence shortly after I started working as an editorial assistant. It's from William Dean Howells, the eminent American novelist and editor, politely turning down the novel of a "Mr. Shedd" on November 26, 1900 -- an 110-year-old rejection letter! The text reads:

Harper & Brothers
Publishers
New York and London

Franklin Square, New York City

Nov. 26, 1900

My dear Mr. Shedd:

Your story is developed well on the political side, which is important and novel, but without a strong love-interest it would not go. Your men are boldly struck out, and the situation is good; and yet it is not the close, strong study of Western conditions which I had hoped for from your work in the "Kiote." I still hope for that from you.

Yours sincerely,

W. D. Howells
A little research reveals that the likely recipient of this letter was Harry G. Shedd, who wrote short stories for and published The Kiote, a Nebraska literary journal. An 1899 notice in The Publishers Weekly says "The Kiote is the title of a fad or freak magazine, fantastically described as 'a new venture by a new folk in a new field, being a literary monthly dedicated to the prairie yelper.'"

Professionally speaking, I find this an admirable example of the rejection-letter form: It identifies and praises the things the writer does well (the men "boldly struck out," "the situation is good") or makes new ("the political side"), but likewise explains why it wouldn't work commercially ("it would not go") and why it doesn't work for Howells personally, given his expectations. It's interesting that he apparently wanted to see a "close, strong study of Western conditions" combined with a love story. . . . I'm guessing that even in 1900, publishers wanted a love story to bring the drama of a nation down to a personal level, and to hook a female readership, perhaps. Still, the letter ends with the invitation for Mr. Shedd to send more manuscripts, and that is about the best an aspiring writer can hope for from this genre of letter.

33 comments:

  1. This is amazing! I too love that the editor/writer apparently wanted a close study of the western condition.... and oh yeah a love story in there too.

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  2. That is awesome. So much more constrcutive than the last one I had in my inbox!. I love reading how people communicated 100 years ago--very cool. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. wow that's really incredible. even more incredible is that you'd receive this as a gift! what a great memento of the publishing world. also goes to show that rejection has always been and will continue to be.

    (oh, and love stories never get old, hehe.)

    something to remember. :D

    thanks for sharing!!

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  4. What a classy rejection. I would pay to recieve a rejection letter that read as succinctly, still illuminating my weak points.

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  5. Wow. That's quite cool. I'd love to hear that from an editor!

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  6. I came here via Nathan's tweet about your blog. What a lovely gift from your grandfather to you, and from you to your readers! Thank you.

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  7. So much better than "NO" scrawled on the original query.

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  8. We are studying rejection and acceptance letters in an editing/publishing class I am taking at my university. This is definitely a cut above some of the rejection letters out there! Thanks for sharing.

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  9. This is really, really cool! Thanks for sharing :-)

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  10. You are doing my archivist heart such good with this post! A lovely example of the value of archival materials (both historically and sentimentally). I can't imagine a more well chose gift for such an occasion!

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  11. I find it interesting that 110 years ago they wanted a love interest in the story. People are the same all over the world no matter the time period.

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  12. That's cool!

    And speaking of rejection letters, I was just wondering where you are with SQUIDs?

    Many thanks,
    T

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  13. What a beautiful example of a rejection letter and unique gift to have received from your grandfather.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  14. Such a different era they lived, yet so much the same.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  15. That is awesome. Everyone wants a love interest!

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  16. Such a treasure, for so very many reasons. Thank you for sharing. Love endures, even in rejection.

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  17. There are so many books and blogs on how to write a query letter, but this is definitely a model for how to write a rejection letter.Rule #1: They must all begin with My dear author's name.

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  18. Emotional me is more touched by the fact that your grandfather gave this to you than the actual letter content, which is also amazing. You've got the love story going on here between grandfather and granddaughter. Very sweet.

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  19. That's incredible. Thank you so much for sharing!

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  20. This is just fascinating! Makes you think some things haven't changed all that much.

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  21. Stephen ProsapioMarch 26, 2010 2:28 PM

    This is awesome! Thanks for the link, Nathan.

    1900. Wow. I feel for the poor writer. It wasn't like he could open his PC to chapter 3, introduced a love interest and then copy and paste some things around! A real rewrite needed from scratch on expensive paper and hard keystrokes. Makes me appreciate the amazing tools we have today!

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  22. What a great gift.
    A very encouraging rejection as it sets out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the novel.

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  23. How cool is your grandfather for even having this!!!

    I love this. What an insight - not much has changed, really! I guess it shows how so much of what makes a book good is its connection to the human condition, which will probably never change. Thanks for this! (And props to Nathan Bransford, who directed readers of his blog here.)

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  24. Now that's a rejection letter that makes you want to keep trying. I love hand written letters. I miss them, actually.

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  25. Interesting to see that not much has changed.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  26. Yes - what a lovely rejection letter. And it would be just as relevant in today's world. Thanks so much for sharing!
    :)
    e

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  27. Amazing! I love all things historical, and I'm fascinated by this old letter. Thanks for sharing.

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  28. I think it says something that Mr. Shedd kept this rejection letter. He must have valued it.
    Thank you for sharing!

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  29. How nice. I'm soon to graduate and am applying for many jobs... only one company has ever sent me a rejection letter. I don't understand why people think it's now okay to simply stop talking to someone rather than courteously rejecting them. Today's human resources people need some lessons in manners.

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  30. How awesome. Nothing changes, does it?

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