In 1975, Norman Maclean‘s book, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, was rejected by publishers Alfred A. Knopf after initially being green-lit — thankfully it was eventually released by University of Chicago Press, to much acclaim. Six years after the rejection, in 1981, an editor at Knopf named Charles Elliott wrote to Maclean and expressed an early interest in his next book.
The following letter was written by Maclean, to Elliott, soon after. Maclean later called it, “one of the best things I ever wrote […] I really told those bastards off. What a pleasure! What a pleasure! Right into my hands! Probably the only dream I ever had in life that came completely true.”
(Source: Francis Burr, via Al Pinetree; Image: Norman Maclean in 1970 by Leslie Strauss Travis, via.)
Dear Mr. Elliott:
I have discovered that I have been writing you under false pretenses, although stealing from myself more than from you. I have stolen from myself the opportunity of seeing the dream of every rejected author come true.
The dream of every rejected author must be to see, like sugar plums dancing in his head, please-can’t-we-see-your-next-manuscript letters standing in piles on his desk, all coming from publishing companies that rejected his previous manuscript, especially from the more pompous of the fatted cows grazing contentedly in the publishing field. I am sure that, under the influence of those dreams, some of the finest fuck-you prose in the English language has been composed but, alas, never published. And to think that the rare moment in history came to me when I could in actuality have written the prose masterpiece for all rejected authors – and I didn’t even see that history had swung wide its doors to me.
You must have known that Alfred A. Knopf turned down my first collection of stories after playing games with it, or at least the game of cat’s-paw, now rolling it over and saying they were going to publish it and then rolling it on its back when the president of the company announced it wouldn’t sell. So I can’t understand how you could ask if I’d submit my second manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, unless you don’t know my race of people. And I can’t understand how it didn’t register on me – ‘Alfred A. Knopf’ is clear enough on your stationery.
But, although I let the big moment elude me, it has given rise to little pleasures. For instance, whenever I receive a statement of the sales of ‘A River Runs Through It’ from the University of Chicago Press, I see that someone has written across the bottom of it, ‘Hurrah for Alfred A. Knopf.’ However, having let the great moment slip by unrecognized and unadorned, I can now only weakly say this: if the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.