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A Dear John Letter
In 1899, Atlantic editor Bliss Perry received a manuscript entitled "An Odyssey of the North." Perry and his young assistant, William B. Parker, found the writing to be "vigorous" and "essentially healthy" and decided to publish it in the July issue. The author, Jack London, who had never had his work accepted for national publication, told a friend that he was pleased with the arrangement: the editors, he wrote, "seem nice... and I understand that they pay well."
A few months later, however, Parker irked the writer when he took issue with London's byline: "We venture to suggest the use of the more frequent form of the Christian name," Parker wrote in a memo, "—John seeming to us better suited than Jack to literary purposes."
In 1900, Perry and Parker rejected three of London's stories, among the "The Law of Life," now one of London's best-known tales. The editors found the story of an elderly man devoured by wolves too depressing for publication. The competing magazine McClure's was, however, only too happy to publish the piece and offered London a generous advance on his next book. (Houghton Mifflin, then the publishers of The Atlantic, had already agreed to print The Son of the Wolf, London's first collection of short stories.)
London continued to send manuscripts to The Atlantic, but by now, his fiction was earning him better rates at other magazines. His Atlantic submissions were now non-fiction articles defending labor unions and advocating an overthrow of the United States government. In a 1905 letter, Perry explained that London's radical writings were not suitable for The Atlantic's audience:
Forgive me for saying that many passages of the paper read precisely like editorials in one of the Hearst papers. These editorials are very ably and brilliantly adapted to the kind of people who read Hearst papers, but it is not the style of address which we can profitably adopt in The Atlantic. I know that you will forgive this unasked criticism, for I do not wish to take refuge behind the conventional editorial formula in your case.
London answered Perry's letter, making it clear that he saw the rejection as essentially class-based. However, he made a point of thanking Perry for his respectful note: "Now this is not sarcastic at all," wrote London, "and I am thanking you for the best and most genuine rejection I ever received in all my life."