Posts Tagged ‘O. Henry’

Reading the short stories of O. Henry today

August 17, 2020

In search of some pleasant reading while waiting for the current crisis to unfold, I picked up a copy of THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF O. HENRY.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who flourished from 1902 to 1910 and was possibly the USA’s most popular fiction writer in his day.

He was noted for his good-natured interest in people on all levels of society, and his knack for surprise endings.

He wrote more than 600 stories, not all of them of top quality, but his best hold up well.

His two best-known stories are “The Gift of the Magi,” about an impoverished newly-wed in New York looking for money to buy a Christmas present for her husband, and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” about two men who kidnap a hellion of a 10-year-old boy and get more than the bargained for.

I still found the first one still sweet and touching and the second still hilariously funny, even though I knew how they were going to come out.

O. Henry’s stories were not brutally realistic.  Rather his characters reflected regional and ethnic stereotypes—desperadoes along the Texan-Mexico border, penniless ex-plantation owners in the Deep South, feuding clans in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky and hoboes riding the rails.

His beloved New York was full of rich socialites who fretted about standards of etiquette, genial Irish politicians, policemen and bartenders and struggling shop girls fantasizing about marrying millionaires.

He had a special sympathy for shop girls.  He knew just how much they were paid, how they budgeted to pay for food and rent, and how many meals they had to go without to buy a theater ticket or pretty blouse.

One of his best stories is “A Trimmed Lamp,” about a couple of young women who seek their fortunes in New York.  One gets a job in a ritzy Park Avenue shop; the other gets a higher-paid job in a laundry.

The first thinks taking the lower wage is a fair exchange for the chance to see high society and meet rich young men. But the fate plays a trick on both of them.

“An Unfurnished Room” is about a girl trying to decide whether to go out with a man she despises just for the sake of having a good dinner in a restaurant and an evening’s entertainment.  At the end, the narrator dreams he is in heaven and faces judgment.

The angel Gabriel asks him if he is an employer who paid working girls five or six dollars a week to live on.  No, replies the narrator, “I’m only a fellow that set fire to an orphanage and murdered a blind man for his pennies.”

I don’t think anybody in that era felt insulted about O. Henry’s portrayal of different ethnic and regional types.  Stereotyping is not necessarily malicious; it can be just a crude form of sociology.

Only one of the 38 stories in this collection has an African-American character.  Uncle Caesar in “A Municipal Report” is a carriage driver for hire in Nashville.

He is an ex-slave, but reportedly the grandson of a Congolese king.  He speaks in an exaggeratedly subservient and playing-the-fool manner, which I heard many times in real life in the 1940s and 1950s and which, thankfully, exists no more.  But at times the mask slips and the narrator can see the concealed sense of pride and dignity underneath.

Remarkably, Uncle Caesar murders a white man for justifiable reasons and gets away with it.  This is all right because his motive was to protect a sweet, helpless white woman from her exploitative and abusive husband.

Another short story, “The Last Leaf,” is about a pair of nice young women artists who, it is plainly hinted, are lesbians.  In a couple of respects, O. Henry may have been ahead of this time.

On the other hand, he wrote “A Harlem Tragedy,” in which Mrs. Fink, whose husband is indifferent to her, envies her neighbor, Mrs. Cassidy, because Mr. Cassidy regularly demonstrates his masculinity by beating her up, then shows his affection by making love and buying things that she wants.  Mrs. Fink tries to rouse her husband to violence and passion, with unexpected results.

O. Henry’s stories are a picture of a vanished America, not that America as we see it today, but as Americans of the time saw it.  He called his beloved New York City “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.”   Back then, the name Baghdad evoked thought of Scheherazade and the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, not a violent, devastated war zone

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is what I would call a good waiting-room book or bathroom book.  The stories were good enough to hold my interest, but not so compelling that I couldn’t bear to put them down.