All round them, ten, scores, it seems like hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and bellying up the stairs with arterio-sclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novel items as Joy Buzzers, Squirting Nickels, Finger Rats, Scary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them, past Fred’s barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the kind of baroque haircuts one can get in there, and up onto 50th Street into a madhouse of traffic and shops with weird lingerie and gray hair-dyeing displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings and a pool-playing match between the Playboy Bunnies and Downey’s Showgirls, and then everybody pounds on toward the Time-Life Building, the Brill Building or NBC.
In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.
Before he was known as O. Henry and the author of “The Gift of the Magi,” William Sidney Porter wrote another yarn about a husband and wife who miscommunicate. Instead of trading Christmas presents in a touching tale of self-sacrifice, they exchange “some hard words” over breakfast. A little later, they regret their remarks and seek to make peace. When they meet again, however, they fire off a new round of accusations—painful to them in their fictional world but amusing to readers who recognize a comic mixture of spite and affection in a marriage.
Porter never published this piece of apprentice work from about 1895, titled “The Return of the Songster.” It has languished in an archive at the University of Virginia, and it might be there still (or never archived at all) except for the fact that, under the name of O. Henry, Porter went on to master a form of the short story that featured a surprising conclusion. “The Return of the Songster” is now collected, along with two other previously unprinted pieces, in “101 Stories,” the Library of America’s comprehensive edition of this popular writer’s work, edited by Ben Yagoda. The book’s appearance in this distinguished series provides fresh evidence that, despite occasional skepticism from critics and scholars, O. Henry has secured a place in the country’s literary pantheon.
Born in North Carolina in 1862, Porter worked as a pharmacist, ranch cook and land-office clerk. In Texas, he took a job as a bank teller but fled to Honduras in 1896 following an accusation of embezzlement. He returned to the U.S. after a few months to care for the ailing wife he had left behind. It didn’t go well: She died, and he was sentenced to a federal prison in Ohio.
Behind bars for three years, Porter took up his pen name, published from the penitentiary and started his decadelong run of success. After his release in 1901, he moved to Manhattan and contributed to newspapers and magazines, scribbling under deadline pressure as he invented stories about ordinary people in his adopted city.
If he had written only “The Gift of the Magi,” which appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Sunday World in 1905, he’d still be read today. Although cynics may sneer at what they consider the aesthetic equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas movie, this 2,000-word celebration of unconditional love and holiday spirit remains one of the most beloved tales in American literature.
Yet O. Henry was more than a one-hit wonder, and a handful of his stories continue to appeal. “The Last Leaf” begins with a deathbed scene and ends with a message about the power of art. “The Cop and the Anthem” involves a vagrant who tries but fails to get arrested. “After Twenty Years” chronicles a reunion of friends who have fallen out of contact. Each features an agreeable jolt in its final sentence or paragraph. Harvard professor Hyder E. Rollins described the effect in 1914: “Children play ‘crack-the-whip,’ not for the fun of the long preliminary run, but for the excitement of the final sharp twist that throws them off their feet.” The pen name “O. Henry,” in fact, may be read as an exclamation of delight.
Although his characters are usually forgettable and his plots often turn on coincidence, O. Henry compensated for these weaknesses with several strengths. One is deadpan humor: “My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.” Another is a playfulness with words, such as “jagerfonteins” (a reference to diamond-like eyes, borrowed from the name of a South African mining town) and “philoprogenitiveness” (a tendency to produce offspring). When O. Henry wanted a colorful way to label a Central American nation, he came up with a term that has entered our vocabulary: “banana republic.”
He could also render the details of ordinary life in evocative prose. In “The Furnished Room,” one of his better stories, he depicted the dimly lighted steps of a low-rent boarding house: “It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
Basing fictional characters on people we know carries both distinct risks and unique rewards.
The risks include potentially offending the person inspiring the character, especially if unflattering facts are revealed and the characterization is not adequately camouflaged—or poorly executed.
That said, a great many writers I know have reported that the people on whom they’ve based characters have seldom if ever recognized themselves, if only out of misguided vanity.
On the other hand, the rewards of basing characters on people we know include the ability to use personal, real-world knowledge and observation in the characterization, with the added plus of being able to use one’s own distinct intuitive impression of the person.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that knowing someone assures that you know them well. How much of someone’s life goes unnoticed by even intimate companions? Absent clandestine surveillance, we can’t know the secrets of others unless they’re divulged to us, either by the person herself or by someone betraying a confidence. And the violation of trust revealed in the latter circumstance is only enhanced if the secret is passed along by us, fictionally or otherwise.
I first began thinking of these matters when I was working on The Art of Character, specifically in response to the question of where our characters come from, i.e., are they created or discovered. (Answer: they’re a little of both.)
And while I was working on that section of the book, I happened upon a poem John Updike wrote late in his life, titled “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth.”
. . . .
In that poem, Updike remarks:
Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you, scant hundred of you, for providing a sufficiency of human types: beauty, bully, hanger-on, natural, twin, and fatso—all a writer needs
These thoughts came crashing back to me recently when I returned to Columbus, Ohio, to attend my 50th high school reunion. (Yes, I really am that old.)
In particular, I was repeatedly struck by how much or how little many of us had changed, and in both instances why.
“Snow blew down the Royal Gorge in a horizontal blur. With Ollie’s sleeping head in her lap and a down comforter around them both, she tried now and then to get a look at that celebrated scenic wonder, but the gorge was only snow-streaked rock indistinguishable from any other rock, all its height and grandeur and pictorial organization obliterated in the storm. The dark, foaming, ice-shored river was so unlike the infant Arkansas that she used to ford on her horse that she didn’t believe in it. The circles that she blew and rubbed on the window healed over in secret ferns of frost.”
Can’t you just see the “snow streaked rock,” the “dark, foaming ice-shored river,” the “secret ferns of frost?”
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Notice how she takes this simple object, a fig tree with all its fruit, and uses it to reveal her character’s aching, overwhelming, and despairing quest for identity?
“I don’t tell Ma about Spider. She brushes webs away, she says they’re dirty but they look like extra-thin silver to me. Ma likes the animals that run around eating each other on the wildlife planet, but not real ones. When I was four I was watching ants walking up Stove and she ran and splatted them all so they wouldn’t eat our food. One minute they were alive and the next minute they were dirt. I cried so my eyes nearly melted off. Also another time there was a thing in the night nnnnng nnnnng nnnnng biting me and Ma banged him against Door Wall below Shelf, he was a mosquito. The mark is still there on the cork even though she scrubbed, it was my blood the mosquito was stealing, like a teeny vampire. That’s the only time my blood ever came out of me.”
Donoghue, through the eyes of a little boy, finds extra thin silver spiderwebs a thing of beauty, and imagines tiny mosquitoes, like vampires, stealing blood and leaving permanent smears on cork. One minute the ants are alive, “the next minute they were dirt.”
Each of these three passages is keenly observed. In order to write like this, you have to be in the habit of really LOOKING and seeing things. And in translating these descriptions to the page, making them specific and visible and magical somehow, revealing the deepest parts of your character.
“My luve is like a red red rose,/That’s newly sprung in June,” wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1794, creating an inexhaustible revenue stream for florists everywhere, especially around Valentine’s Day. But why a red rose, you might well ask.
Longevity is one reason. The rose is an ancient and well-traveled flower: A 55 million-year-old rose fossil found in Colorado suggests that roses were already blooming when our earliest primate ancestors began populating the earth. If you want to see where it all began, at least in the New World, then a trip to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, roughly two hours’ drive from Denver, should be on your list of things to do once the pandemic is over.
In Greek mythology the rose was associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love, who was said to have emerged from the sea in a shower of foam that transformed into white roses. Her son Cupid bribed Harpocrates, the god of silence, with a single rose in return for not revealing his mother’s love affairs, giving rise to the Latin phrase sub rosa, “under the rose,” as a term for secrecy. As for the red rose, it was said to be born of tragedy: Aphrodite became tangled in a rose bush when she ran to comfort her lover Adonis as he lay dying from a wild boar attack. Scratched and torn by its thorns, her feet bled onto the roses and turned them crimson.
For the ancient Romans, the rose’s symbolic connection to love and death made it useful for celebrations and funerals alike. A Roman banquet without a suffocating cascade of petals was no banquet at all, and roses were regularly woven into garlands or crushed for their perfume. The first time Mark Antony saw Cleopatra he had to wade through a carpet of rose petals to reach her, by which point he had completely lost his head.
Rose cultivation in Asia became increasingly sophisticated during the Middle Ages, but in Europe the early church looked askance at the flower, regarding it as yet another example of pagan decadence. Fortunately, the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, an avid horticulturalist, refused to be cowed by old pieties, and in 794 he decreed that all royal gardens should contain roses and lilies.
The imperial seal of approval hastened the rose’s acceptance into the ecclesiastical fold. The Virgin Mary was likened to a thornless white rose because she was free of original sin. In fact, a climbing rose planted in her honor in 815 by the monks of Germany’s Hildesheim Cathedral is the oldest surviving rose bush today. Red roses, by contrast, symbolized the Crucifixion and Christian martyrs like St. Valentine, a priest killed by the Romans in the 3rd century, whose feast day is celebrated on Feb. 14. In the 14th century, his emergence as the patron saint of romantic love tipped the scales in favor of the red over the white rose.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)