Review of 41
Stories by O. Henry
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/07
O. Henry is famed for his ‘twist’ endings, and as such, many of his short stories fall into a formula. That said, it’s a pretty good formula, and if more writers that are published could find themselves a formula that works as well it would be alot better world to read in. Yet, even the best of formulae lend themselves to needless repetition and predictability. While there are a handful of tales that are great, most are merely solid, for O. Henry lacks a modern feel to his character development. In one tale he can be as realistic as turn of the Twentieth Century fiction can be and in the next he can give merely slight caricatures and corny sight gags.
Among his greatest tales are some of his most famous, like The Social Triangle which humorously skewers classism by having a down and out protagonist named Ikey Snigglefritz end up the object of affection to a gratuitous, social climber. Here is that tale’s classic end:
The big pale-gray auto with its shining metal work looked out of place moving slowly among the push carts and trash-heaps on the lower east side. So did Cortlandt Van Duyckink, with his aristocratic face and white, thin hands, as he steered carefully between the groups of ragged, scurrying youngsters in the streets. And so did Miss Constance Schuyler, with her dim, ascetic beauty, seated at his side.
‘Oh, Cortlandt,’ she breathed, ‘isn’t it sad that human beings have to live in such wretchedness and poverty? And you- how noble it is of you to think of them, to give your time and money to improve their condition!’
‘It is little,’ he said, sadly, ‘that I can do. The question is a large one, and belongs to society. But even individual effort is not thrown away. Look, Constance! On this street I have arranged to build soup kitchens, where no one who is hungry will be turned away. And down this other street are the old buildings that I shall cause to be torn down and there erect others in place of those death-traps of fire and disease.’
Down Delancey slowly crept the pale-gray auto. Away from it toddled coveys of wondering, tangle-haired, barefooted, unwashed children. It stopped before a crazy brick structure, foul and awry.
Van Duyckink alighted to examine at a better perspective one of the leaning walls. Down the steps of the building came a young man who seemed to epitomize its degradation, squalor and infelicity- a narrow-chested, pale, unsavory young man, puffing at a cigarette.
Obeying a sudden impulse, Van Duyckink stepped out and warmly grasped the hand of what seemed to him a living rebuke.
‘I want to know you people,’ he said, sincerely. ‘I am going to help you as much as I can. We shall be friends.’
As the auto crept carefully away Cortlandt Van Duyckink felt an unaccustomed glow about his heart. He was near to being a happy man.
He had shaken the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.
Another excellent story is The Last Leaf, in which a symbolic article of hope becomes another’s doom. Best-Seller comments on the then gloomy state of publishing. And The Gift Of The Magi, his most famous tale, set at Christmas, is as good as it’s made out to be, recounts a poor young couple who give up their own prized possessions so the other will get their heart’s desire, only to have each gift, intended to complement the other’s treasure, be the thing the other relinquishes. And other classics like Brickdust Row- a social commentary, and The Furnished Room- a tale of suicide, are as good as billed.
However, this book would have been better were it halved to twenty-one tales. There is an essence to O. Henry tales that are too plot-driven. The characters are mere accoutrements to tell a tale, rather than having the appearance of the tale willing to serve them. The best writers make a reader feel like we’re merely glimpsing in on the private lives or thoughts of a character, not having a stage play put on for us. Many of O. Henry’s lesser tales, the bulk of the book, read like mini Our Towns. That is not to deny the humor, nor the inventiveness of the stories, but, especially read one after another,and after the first four or five tales, a good reader can see the plot’s machinations and twists from a mile away. This is why even his best stories do not have the intellectual and artistic heft of truly great short story writers like a Raymond Carver or Russell Banks. Yet, that very obviousness is not always a disadvantage, as any Vaudeville comedian could tell you. Still, a book with half as many tales would be twice as enjoyable, if many of the lesser tales were pruned, especially those set outside of New York. William Sydney Porter, O. Henry’s real life persona, just did not have a feel for the non-urban, and his formulae, honed on city hustlers, does not work on amigos nor cowpokes. What would have been interesting was if O. Henry had NOT done a twist ending on every tale, and played into that assumption of a twist ending, then twist the tale with a no twist, or an off-twist. Irony loses its edge in the cacophony of its company.
It is believed that Porter, a career hustler, and ex-con, wrote at least 270 stories under his pseudonym, so this represents about one seventh of his output. It is not difficult to say that a Complete O. Henry would bore even his most ardent fans, and the dated nature of some of his stylistic writing and their subject matter will not win over many young readers. Still, there are lively creations, such as the rapscallious Jeff Peters of several stories, including The Ethics Of Pig, collected here. Look at this bit of wordplay: ‘Jeff is in the line of unillegal graft. He is not to be dreaded by widows and orphans; he is a reducer of surplusage. His favorite disguise is that of the target-bird at which the spend-thrift or the rockless investor may shy a few inconsequential dollars.’ This is an example of excellent lingual skills, that makes even the dullest of his tales worth reading, if not ever reading again. He is also a master of gentle humor, and often shows an insight into the lower classes that far more serious writers utterly missed, in favor of screeding.
As proof, just reread the end of The Gift Of The Magi, and note how wise and calm Jim is portrayed, in contrast to many contemporary depictions of the poor as little more than savages who deserved the poverty they were shunted to:
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
‘Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.’
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
‘Dell,’ said he, ‘let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.’
The magi, as you know, were wise men- wonderfully wise men- who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
The last paragraph also details one of O. Henry’s strengths, as well- his ability to seamlessly intrude into a tale, rewind it, or even restart it, as in Springtime A La Carte. His tales are always primally plot driven, as are Guy de Maupassant’s, but that does not mean he didn’t occasionally limn great characters- they’re just few and far between. Good, bad, or in between, O. Henry is an American original- just make sure you take him in lite doses.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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