O. Henry’s Afterlife: Thoughts and Ephemera

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There are worse things to do this Saturday than to read or re-read William Sydney Porter—O. Henry—who died one hundred years ago today. If you are in New York City, you might even visit Pete’s Tavern–where Porter supposedly wrote “The Gift of Magi.” Given the small number of alcohol-serving establishments where masterpieces were composed, it may be worthwhile.

Of course, the anniversary year properly belongs to Tolstoy and to Twain (Porter was not Tolstoy, nor Twain) but O. Henry is deep in our storytelling, deeper than we often talk about or admit. At his best he was one of the writers who most resemble us, and sometimes he was even one of our most interesting, something like our Chekhov and our Dickens (he wasn’t Dickens, nor Chekhov).

Yet to most writers—maybe even most readers—his pen-name is now the name of an award and an anthology, trapped by history (founded in 1919) into their passé moniker, anthologizing writers unlikely to have read many, if any, of his hundreds of stories.

To the general public his surest claim is smaller still and unattributed—he coined the term “banana republic” in the loose novel-in-stories that began his career, 1904’s Cabbages and Kings—set in Anchuria, the stand-in for Honduras where Porter fled to avoid trial for embezzlement.

But second only to those that unknowingly use that slight contribution, would be those who still know, in some form, adaptation, or theft, Magi, his most famous story, the American answer to A Christmas Carol, only supplanted in the last generation by It’s A Wonderful Life, a film whose debt to O. Henry is apparent.

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I’ve read a fair portion of his stories and puzzled over how intermingled the remarkable and inventive are with the flat and the pat.  But reading him is always easy and always a pleasure—his facility is very hard to deny.

Part of the enjoyment is in realizing just how vital the magazine culture had to be to produce and sustain a writer like O. Henry.  To realize that his work—and the work of writers like Saki, Conan Doyle, Conrad, James, Kipling, and, just a few years later, Wodehouse—was appearing week-by-week in large-circulation magazines—and that no one was passing them over for the cartoons.

Part of the challenge is adjusting to the idea that O. Henry was one of the last writers from the wilderness of pre-modern American literature, before the onset of a literary culture more-or-less contiguous with our own.  Where each writer or editor leads to another and so on to the living, the name still somewhat remembered, the context intact.

Before that every writer we care to remember has become unstuck from their forgotten contemporaries, isolated features in a landscape we don’t care to otherwise discern.  Take the three going great writers of the 19th century: Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman, all freaks in their time—but we no longer know the world that made them seem freakish.  Even Twain was a special case, albeit far more accepted.  Like them, O. Henry is surrounded by figures famous in their own day, but we are left to make sense of his work on its own.

So, sitting here, wondering how to make Porter’s case, I’ve assembled a pile of O. Henry artifacts on my desk.  I’m a little surprised to have a collection of O. Henriana, no matter how small.  I didn’t set out to collect these few things, but picked them up as they happened by.

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There’s a copy of bank robber Al Jennings’ Through the Shadows With O. Henry—a tall tale memoir of Texas and prison life with O. Henry.  Jennings, whose dates alone seem a tall-tale (1863-1961) relates his transformation from cowboy to lawyer to bank robber to prisoner to O. Henry confidant—a remarkable life that he never ceased to embellish. Through the Shadows was published in 1921, while Jennings was capitalizing on his lies and experiences in Hollywood (as an advisor and bit player on early Westerns), and breezes through those early adventures before settling into the Ohio Penitentiary.  It isn’t a great book, but it’s a fascinating read: belaboring small incidents then hurtling through years in a sentence or two.

In prison, Jennings settles into a mode I can only call cartoon Solzhenitsyn or dime-store Dante.  That said—if you can allow for his dramatic flair—the picture Jennings draws of the Ohio penitentiary (where he knew Porter best—if you believe him) is unforgettable.  Harrowing when it describes prison morgues and beatings but farcical when it comes to sentimental redemptions.  When the narrative lapses into Jennings’ high style, things can get a bit thick,

The door sprang open, and a spectacle to freeze the heart with its terrific and grisly horror was before us.  I saw the Prison Demon.  Hulk-shouldered, gigantic, lurched forward, he towered above the dozen guards like a huge, ferocious gorilla-man.  I could see his face.  The hair was matted about him, the clothes torn in ragged strips…

As a fake-memoir it can stand with anything our own era has produced but since the book is largely unconcerned with the inner life of Al Jennings, it’s considerably more bearable.  Perhaps what gives Jennings and his book their bona fides is the nearly open sense of being on the make—contemporary memoirists take note.

Writing well after Porter’s death, Jennings was not only free to make up whatever made the friendship more interesting (and to take credit for relating to Porter the originals of such then-famous characters as Jimmy Valentine of “A Retrieved Reformation”) but to freely relate Porter’s prison experiences.  Although it may seem strange to think of it now—it’s one of the first things you think of once you’ve learned anything about O. Henry—the fact that he was in prison at all played no part in his fame while he was alive.  He was deeply ashamed and took pains to downplay the episode.

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Although Jennings doesn’t respect this, the next item from my pile does, the “Special O. Henry Issue” of a general interest, proto-New Yorker magazine called The Mentor. Hitting newsstands in February 1923 at 35 cents a copy, the issue is full of soft-focus portraiture: “Hours With O. Henry,” “O. Henry—The Man And His Work,” “O. Henry, Boy and Man,” “The Discoverers of O. Henry” and a reprint of “The Only Interview O. Henry Ever Gave,”

When I first came to New York I spent a great deal of time knocking around the streets.  I did things I wouldn’t think of doing now.  I used to walk at all hours of the day and night along the river fronts, through Hell’s Kitchen, down the Bowery, dropping into all manner of places, and talking with anyone who would hold converse with me.  I have never met anyone but what I could learn something from him; he’s had some experiences that I have not had; he sees the world from his own viewpoint.  If you go at it in the right way the chances are that you can extract something of value from him.

Instead of mentioning prison, O. Henry only says, “After drifting about the country, I finally came to New York about eight years ago.”

Even the advertisements join in the gentle celebration: Theodore Roosevelt is quoted, “It was O. Henry who started me on my campaign for the shop girls.” Porter’s daughter gives an affectionate portrait.  In the biographical sketch, prison is passed over lightly—mentioned obliquely in a single paragraph in the entire issue—in favor of the New York that Porter knew and made famous.  A portfolio of brown-tinted photographs of New York make the case that the city was O. Henry’s city.  But New York has never let any writer hold it for long, and even by 1923, the stories must have seemed a portrait of a different city entirely.  One wonders if The Mentor was signaling its own unforgivable irrelevance—although the magazine tottered along before folding for good in 1930.

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Then there’s a copy of Nine Humorous Tales by Anton Chekhov, published in 1918, a period when Chekhov was still filtering into English, and translators were just as likely to bring us his early comic sketches as “Lady with Lapdog” or any of the other stories we now know.  Constance Garnett, who never seemed to see the humorous thread that runs through even the bleakest Chekhov, wouldn’t have touched these squibs, but the translators who did introduced their choices by saying “If O. Henry may be called the American Chekhov with a ‘punch,’ Chekhov may equally be termed the Russian O. Henry with a caress.”  It’s worth noting that O. Henry’s stories found a large readership in Russia.

But the Chekhov comparison strikes me a stretch no matter how generous I want to be to O. Henry.  Much closer is another formerly famous now generally neglected 19th century short story master, Guy de Maupassant, a writer whom Chekhov has supplanted for us in many ways, and whose reputation advocates are always trying to revive.  When they make their case, it’s often cast in terms of how Maupassant was moving away from his summarizing plots and toward a more modernist, psychological approach.  When NYRB books brought out Richard Howard’s translation of Alien Hearts, this was the tenor of the reviews, “Look not at what he was, what made him famous, but where he was headed.”  It’s a little perverse to try to revive a figure as large as Maupassant for what he was not, to insist that Maupassant value what we value, or be forgotten.

(For a more thorough take on this look at Lorin Stein’s recent, excellent Harper’s essay on Alien Hearts.)

But if that is what we are required to do to rehabilitate a faded, near-19th century writer, to make the case that they, too, noticed that something had changed on or about December 1910, then let’s note that that the case has also been made for O. Henry.  Admirer Guy Davenport made it in his introductions to both Penguin O. Henry paperbacks.  He found this passage in Porter’s letters, where Porter discusses the kind of novel he would like to write,

“Around 1909 O. Henry was discussing with his publisher the possibility of a novel.  ‘My idea,’ O. Henry wrote in a letter he never mailed (but that is included in Rolling Stones, published in 1912),

‘is to write the story of a man—an individual, not a type—but a man, who, at the same time, I want to represent a “human nature type” if such a person could exist.  The story will teach no lesson, inculcate no moral, advance no theory.

‘I want it to be something that it won’t or quite be—but as near as I can make it—the true record of a man’s thoughts, his descriptions of his mischances and adventures, his true opinions of life as he has seen it and his absolutely honest deductions, comments, and views upon the different phases of life that he passes through.’”

Whatever sea-changes our writers will be expected–by those judging in 2110– to have readily recognized in 2010, they should hope they have left plenty of evidence and so will not be found wanting.

All aboard for the avant-garde, the train that is always leaving.

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But to take only one Maupassant story, “The Necklace,” as much like an O. Henry story as is possible—and a story that makes clear just what the American owed the Frenchman. “The Necklace” is a cruel mirror to “The Gift of the Magi.”

In “The Necklace” an unpleasant French couple borrows a diamond necklace to attend a social event on which they are pinning their hopes for advancement.  When they leave, they notice that the borrowed necklace is missing and resolve to replace it.  After years of penury, scrounging and saving, they do bring a diamond necklace to the woman, only to be told that the lost original was made of paste.

In “The Gift of the Magi” scarcely 2,000 words and as letter-perfect as any story by Lydia Davis, a young working-couple sacrifice their great treasures to buy Christmas gifts which, of course, are chosen to augment the very treasures that have been sacrificed: Della sells her long Gibson-girl hair to buy a platinum fob-chain for Jim’s watch, Jim sells his watch to buy tortoise-shell combs for her hair.

In both stories, huge sacrifices are made for the possessions of the scrambling not-quite-poor: a necklace, a watch, some combs, a fob chain, Della’s hair.  But whereas the sacrifice is “The Necklace” is in vain and cruel besides, the cruelty of O. Henry’s story is gentle, his insistence that their foolishness is wisdom, that their doom is mitigated (for what is often passed over—and never adapted—is that the story seems to hint that they are on their way down).

At the bottom of the pile on my desk is a DVD, a copy of O. Henry’s Full House, the bizarre 1952 omnibus of O. Henry stories transformed into cinematic proto-television.  With a cast that couldn’t be more of its moment (Marilyn Monroe, Farley Granger, Charles Laughton, Richard Widmark) the whole is loosely overseen by John Steinbeck, who, from a generic book-lined studio study, gives gravel-voiced introductions to five stories: “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Clarion Call,” “The Last Leaf,” “The Ransom of Red Chief” and, inevitably, “The Gift of the Magi.”

The superior segments run on humor rather than sentiment—the two con-man pieces, “The Cop and the Anthem” and “The Ransom of Red Chief” being the strongest.  The latter is a perfect snapshot of comedy circa 1952.  Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, the story plays—for better or worse—like any episode from the next forty years of television.

Watching, you can’t help but be struck by how much O. Henry is present in television writing; suddenly you see his hand in every sitcom misunderstanding and reversal.  Narrative vertigo ensues.

On the other end of the spectrum and not very surprisingly, “The Gift of the Magi” is the worst of the bunch, and demonstrates not only how light O. Henry’s touch is in the original, but how badly American scriptwriting will handle love, marriage, and sacrifice in the television decades to come.  The happy endings will be all violins and toothy grins, everyone cheek-to-cheek.

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Yet before blaming O. Henry or easily writing off forty years of sit-coms, rom-coms, and the rest, it’s worth remembering that this is a register with which all writers have terrible difficulty.  For all the contempt lavished on stories which crudely bring on the tears, my nagging sense is that the skills to traverse the terrain of “The Last Leaf” or “Magi” are widely lacking—and so we hide behind the “happiness shows white on the page” excuses.  It’s hard to think of happy stories.

Take the Lish-ing of Carver, which is coming to be understood as Lish’s attempt to rein in the sentimentality that Carver couldn’t pull off.  “Cathedral”—one of the stories that Lish did not touch—is successful, and must qualify as a successful, sentimental, and happy story.

One of the few others I can think of is also one of the funniest, and one I think O. Henry would have admired, Mark Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas” which is, on top of everything else, a Christmas-gift story to stand alongside “Magi.”

But the recent short story writer closest to O. Henry is certainly Donald Barthelme, who employed his tools in the same gentle, wry fashion.  The postmodernist with the least austere, most forgiving vision of the world, Barthelme’s stories have post-modern twist-endings and—in a free-floating, pop-culture saturated empire of signs—a series of terminus that must qualify as happy endings.

But mostly it’s not an easy influence to trace.  There’s some of O. Henry in the New York ramblings of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling—the New Yorker operated for many years on a vision of the city built atop O. Henry’s.  But even in the city whose image he helped author, O. Henry doesn’t loom large, he doesn’t loom at all; he is neatly pigeon-holed.  Which begs the question: would we know O. Henry better if had worked longer into the new century?

He only had roughly ten years as a writer, and as Davenport asked, what that never-to-be-written novel would have been like is as peculiar a question as any in American letters.

But he had drunk far too much, kindled cirrhosis of the liver, poured alcohol onto his shame of prison if you believe Al Jennings, who liked pat endings even more than his friend.  Porter managed his own end as well as any of O. Henry’s, opted for lightly sentimental.  In hospital, at the end of a late night visit by friends, the nurse tried to turn out the light.  Porter’s answering, last words are fitting enough to be doubted,

“No,” he said, “I don’t want to go home in the dark.”


Drew Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009. Against his better judgment, he is working on a novel set partly in the Hindu Kush. More from this author →