Get it while it lasts!
This week I have chosen a letter sent to one of the greats of American literature, Ernest Hemingway. However, this may not be the type of letter you’d expect. It is a rejection letter from a publisher who appears to have hated Hemingway’s submission titled The Sun Also Rises. Rejection is a common occurrence in artistic fields, especially in literature but few rejection letters are as notorious as this which calls his manuscript “tedious and offensive.” Hemingway’s novel was eventually published in 1926 and became one of the most translated novels in the world.
“June 14th, 1925.
Dear Mr. Hemingway:
If I may be frank, Mr. Hemingway — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other. Your bombastic, dipsomaniac, where-to-now characters had me reaching for my own glass of brandy — something to liven up 250 pages of men who are constantly stopping to sleep off the drink. What Peacock & Peacock is looking for, in a manuscript, is innovation and heart. I’m afraid that what you have produced here does not fit that description.
A great story, Mr. Hemingway, is built on a foundation of great characters. I had trouble telling yours apart. Remind me, which is the broken-hearted bachelor who travels aimlessly across Europe? Ah, yes! They all do!...
...Of course, I doubt it’s possible to create a three-dimensional character with such two-dimensional language. Have you never heard of crafted prose? Style? Complexity of diction? It’s hard to believe an entire novel’s worth of pages could be filled up with the sort of short, stunted sentences you employ here. Let me be specific: at the start of the novel, you sum up a key character, Robert Cohn, with just five short words, “I was his tennis friend.” This tells us nothing. Later, when Jake is looking out on the Seine — the beautiful, historic, poetic Sein — you write, “the river looked nice.” Nice? The river looked nice? I dare say my young son could do better!
In short, your efforts have saddened me, Mr. Hemingway. I was hopeful that by 1925, the brutes would have stopped sending me their offerings. We at Peacock & Peacock, are looking to publish novels that will inspire. God knows, it’s what people need at this time. Certainly, what is not needed are treatises about bullfights and underemployed men who drink too much.
In 1905 an advertisement for a fake, cure-all, medicine was sent to Mark Twain by the salesman, J.H. Todd. The salesman claimed that the medicine could cure meningitis and diphtheria which happened to be ailments that took the lives of Twain’s daughter and nineteen month old son. Furious at the salesman’s attempt to peddle false cures, Twain dictated this letter in reply.
1212 Webster St.San Francisco, Cal.
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!