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 & BrothersA 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.'"
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.
W. D. Howells
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.