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A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

By Richard Oram

Timothy Ferris has recently blogged about Edmund Wilson’s “decline letter,” a form postcard listing all of the things the crotchety literary critic refused to do: read manuscripts, advise authors, address meetings, donate and inscribe books—the list goes on and on. The same postcard may be found in the Ransom Center’s collections, and on our copy Wilson has checked “WRITE ARTICLES OR BOOKS TO ORDER” and added “I have nothing interesting to say about Pound and haven’t been influenced by him.”

I have “collected” such items in the Center’s collections for several years without a pigeonhole (the catalogers like to call them “genre headings”) to throw them into, but now I do. The term “decline letter” has a certain rightness and precision about it. In my view, a decline letter shouldn’t be confused with a rejection letter (Ferris himself goes on to make this error in his blog). The purpose of a rejection letter is to turn down book manuscripts or deflate one’s aspirations of attending an Ivy League university. A decline letter, on the other hand, is a form letter used to decline all the various impositions on an author’s (or celebrity’s) time.

Authors are subjected to many annoying demands from various quarters, but the autograph collector is probably the most feared. In P. G. Wodehouse’s story “The Autograph Hunters,” the esteemed novelist Mr. Montagu Wilson “was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women.” Mr. Wilson could have employed a decline letter or postcard, sparing his secretary many hours of work.

Most of the examples of the genre I have seen in the Center’s manuscript collections are actually postcards. A printed postcard answer to an appeal is, by its very nature, a putdown even more offhanded than a form letter. The George Bernard Shaw collection contains a whole folder of these postcards, many of them with autograph revisions. Because of his fame and strong views on all topics, the playwright was constantly solicited by journalists and fans and had an entire repertoire of brightly-colored decline postcards. A form postcard on vegetarianism, though not a decline card, carries a handwritten addition to the printer: “Any color except pink!”

Evelyn Waugh spent most of the later part of his career escaping from London literary life and importunate autograph seekers, aspiring authors, and Americans of all descriptions. Yet the mail still had to be dealt with, and Waugh eventually developed a card carrying this notice: “Mr Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed.”

Even more mild-mannered authors, such as Marianne Moore, could be driven to the use of decline postcards. Moore’s list* includes “recommend editors favorable to verse by children or work bequeathed for publication,” suggesting that she had received more than a few requests along this line.

I expect that few contemporary writers use decline postcards; they simply ignore annoying requests or have a form email on file for the same purpose. Too bad—at its best the decline postcard is a small gem of negativity.

*This example is from an entry in a dealer catalog.

"Publishing isn't just about contacts; it's equally a matter of human relationships"

By Richard Oram

Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.
Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus in a tragic car accident. Yet, as the online review The Daily Beast observes, he remains “the most widely read of all the postwar French writers and [is] hip enough to inspire a comic-book series.”

In addition to the manuscript of his novel The Misunderstanding and other items in the Carlton Lake Collection of French Literature, the Ransom Center holds several fascinating few folders of correspondence between Camus and the publisher Blanche Knopf, to which a couple of additional letters have recently been added.

Few of the firm’s authors were closer to Blanche Knopf than Albert Camus. After Blanche’s death, her husband Alfred recalled that “she became very, very friendly with Camus…They were frequently closeted in our room discussing and working over his book-in-progress. I think she had the right to feel that she was part of his work, and I don’t think she ever got over his death.”

The special nature of this publishing relationship is also apparent in Blanche’s 1960 memoir “Albert Camus in the Sun,” in which she writes, “That he was a writer, I knew. In short, I believed in him from the very beginning.” Blanche Knopf even gave him the trademark tan trench coat that the author wore in his most famous dustjacket photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

Blanche Knopf played a significantly larger role in shaping Camus’s career and promoting his reputation—and not merely in the English-speaking world—than has been recognized. Three weeks after V-E Day, Blanche swept into France (one journalist commented, “I knew the war was over when [she] turned up in Paris”) and almost immediately signed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus. During her first meeting at the Ritz Hotel, she and Camus “talked about his writing, his future, his past, his plans, young writers in France, Pasternak, English writers, American writers, ourselves, everything, in these curious sessions we had together.”

The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert, was published by Knopf on April 11, 1946. Camus was in New York at that time for his first and only trip to the United States, and the Knopfs threw a large party in his honor. The novel initially sold fewer than 10,000 copies and was in the short term only a modest success, although it’s now regarded as a classic of modern literature. He and his publishers had agreed that his second novel, The Plague, would be published in the United States before any of his earlier dramatic or philosophical works were translated. Later, Blanche put in a plea for intensive marketing of the novel, and her faith in The Plague was borne out: the hardback went on to sell 50,000 copies up to 1960. Camus was now able to go out and purchase a motorcycle.

In the middle years of their relationship, Blanche Knopf insisted on publishing translations of his more philosophical works, such as The Rebel, although they generally did not sell well in the United States. She desperately tried to steer the author, who was distracted by his theatrical pursuits, back to novel-writing—in particular The First Man, which was not published until forty years after his death. Near the end of his life, the firm published his short novel The Fall. It was in part due to active promotion by Blanche Knopf that Camus received his Nobel Prize in 1957. Alfred and Blanche Knopf accompanied him on a snowy train ride to see him accept the award and deliver a memorable speech.

As Alfred Knopf said, Blanche could be a “bulldog” when it came to advancing the case of authors she particularly admired. This was certainly the case with Camus, who may have owed much of his international success to her. Research in the Knopf archive shows that publishing isn’t just about contracts and balance sheets; it’s equally a matter of human relationships.

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.