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.