Fun history: Great blunders, literature division

September 12, 2007

People in literature are different from you and me.

University of Texas history professor David Oshinsky pulled back the curtain on some of the biggest blunders in the history of literature, in an article for the New York Times a couple of days ago: “No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov.”

He documents rejection letters that, in retrospect, perhaps publisher Alfred A. Knopf would rather had not been written — despite the fact that Knopf was enormously successful otherwise. For example, about a book on teen-aged angst:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

The goof examples roll out of the files:

Nothing embarrasses a publisher more than the public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega best seller has somehow slipped away. One of them turned down Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” Another passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” (It’s not only publishers: Tony Hillerman was dumped by an agent who urged him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”)

Thousands of high school students would agree with the difficulty of selling animal stories.

Oshinsky is working from the files of Knopf, recently donated to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas, in Austin. University libraries push and shove each other to get troves of private correspondence, and the HRC has worked to get special grants to help things along. Sometimes these treasures lie buried in library archives. In this case, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund the cataloging operation.

And Oshinsky, who won the Pulitzer for his book Polio: An American Story, has done a bit of history mining. The few nuggets of history gold he reveals in the newspaper will be “classic examples” of why authors, and students and people in the pews of a church, should keep trying in the face of adversity. You’ll see these examples in Readers Digest and inspirational speeches for years to come, count on it.

Literature teachers should find these quotes useful in comforting students who don’t like the classics they are assigned to read. Preachers will find them useful for a variety of reasons. Others of us will like them for the goofiness, and sheer acidity of harsh criticism that, often, proved wrong. We’re Americans; we like it when the underdog wins, and when the pundits get so exactly wrong.

More examples from Oshinsky’s article, below the fold.

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