O. Henry: 101 Stories

From The Wall Street Journal:

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.)

1 thought on “O. Henry: 101 Stories”

  1. Many years ago, I picked up a complete O. Henry short story collection at a garage sale. I have often delighted in spending some time with his work.
    He’s funny, and has a sharp eye for characters that are memorable. No one who has read The Ransom of the Red Chief can doubt that he viewed his fellow man with love and amusement.

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