O. Henry Essay - Critical Essays

O. Henry American Literature Analysis

In the first decade of the twentieth century, O. Henry was the most popular short-story writer in the United States. By 1920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the United States. What was the secret of his success? Partially, it was the personality of the man whose voice was heard in the stories, a personality with which readers could identify and who spoke to some universal human need. Author William Saroyan once wrote that Americans loved O. Henry because “He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who was also a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” One of the underlying assumptions of O. Henry’s stories is that there is some order in the world, some poetic justice that follows a plan. Everything happens for a reason in an O. Henry story, and everything fits into the overall pattern. Furthermore, O. Henry exploits a universal romantic wish that people are basically good and unselfish and possess an inherent dignity.

O. Henry combines two different aspects of the short story that contributed to his success—the oral voice of the raconteur derived from frontier humorists and a highly patterned structure originated by Edgar Allan Poe. Combining the local color and melodrama of Bret Harte with the ironic reversals and empathy for ordinary people of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry staked out his own territory of New York City and developed a storytelling voice more polished than the usual barroom wag who always seems to have one more tale to tell. He was a talented storyteller who would slap people on the back and stand them to a drink as well as a marketing specialist who knew exactly what buttons to push to make his audience react. He never really took himself seriously as an artist, preferring instead the title “journalist.”

O. Henry polished and formalized the kind of ironic reversal stories that Giovanni Boccaccio innovated during the Renaissance. Boris Èjxenbaum, a Russian Formalist critic of the 1920’s, was one of the first to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form. In his brief 1968 study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. Basing his theories largely on the stories of O. Henry, he suggested that the short story was constructed on the basis of some contradiction or incongruity and amassed its whole weight toward its ending. Whereas the novel ended with a point of letup or unraveling, the short story “gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded.”

The late nineteenth century focus on realism that made novels so popular and well respected marked a decline of interest in the short story that early nineteenth century writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Poe had stimulated. However, O. Henry’s facility in creating snappy, comic, and sentimental stories renewed the public’s interest in the form. As a result of his success, many other writers sought to emulate him, and many academics began to study the characteristics of the form. One result was the creation of short-story handbooks—quasi-academic treatises that attempted to teach others how to write a short story. In the best early history of the form, Fred Lewis Pattee listed “ten commandments” of the short story codified in these handbooks and taught in college courses and correspondence schools, all of which were derived from the stories of O. Henry.

As a result of O. Henry’s success and the handbooks that sought to reveal his method, the short story became formalized and static. Finally serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the “decline,” the “decay,” and the “senility” of the short story. Even Edward J. O’Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form that the United States has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machinelike short story that both sprang from it and reflected it. The short story did not recover from this O. Henry formalization until the seemingly unstructured stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson gained popularity during the 1920’s.

“The Cop and the Anthem”

First published: 1905 (collected in The Four Million, 1906)

Type of work: Short story

A likable and literate bum tries unsuccessfully to get himself arrested.

The first thing one notices about “The Cop and the Anthem” is the storyteller’s use of elevated language typical of the central character, Soapy. Indeed, the character of Soapy is as important to this story as its ironic structure, in which every action that he takes creates a reaction opposite to the one he wishes. The basic irony of the story is that as long as Soapy is “free,” that is, loose in the city, he is not free at all, because of the coming winter. If he were in prison, however, he would indeed be “free” to enjoy life without fear. Soapy is a proud man; he does not want something for nothing and is willing to “pay” for his room and board by going to some effort to commit an act that will get him in jail. He rejects charity, for he knows that he will have to pay for philanthropy by being preached at and lectured to.

The additional problem is that although Soapy breaks the law, he does not act like a criminal. Moreover, although he tries to be a “crook,” he keeps running into real criminals who thwart him, such as the umbrella thief, from whom he cannot steal what is already stolen, and the streetwalker, whom he cannot offend because she considers him a potential customer. Thus, Soapy seems “doomed to liberty.” A story with an ironic, mocking tone such as this one, in which a bum who talks like a gentleman tries to get himself thrown into jail but continually fails, can only end one way. The ultimate irony is that Soapy, who does not want something for nothing and who goes to a great deal to get thrown into jail, finally does get thrown into jail for doing precisely nothing.

“The Gift of the Magi”

First published: 1905 (collected in The Four Million, 1906)

Type of work: Short story

A young couple sells their most valued possessions to buy Christmas gifts for each other.

O. Henry’s most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” translated and reprinted every Christmas around the world, was written in three hours to meet a deadline that O. Henry had ignored for several days. The plot alone—a young woman sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoiseshell combs for her vanished hair—is sufficient to make the story a classic about the spirit of Christmas. However, it is also O. Henry’s avuncular storytelling voice and his use of a scenic film style that makes it so accessible and irresistible. The story opens on a scene right out of a pantomimed melodrama of the young woman, Della, in her modest apartment crying because she has no money to buy her husband a Christmas gift; that is, until she thinks of the brilliant yet terrifying idea of selling her long beautiful hair to a wig maker.

When the young husband comes home and sees his wife with her hair cropped off, the reader has no way of knowing that the peculiar expression on his face is not shock at her changed appearance but rather bemused recognition that she will be unable to use the gift he has purchased for her. When she opens the combs, the reader sighs at Della’s grand but seemingly worthless sacrifice. When she gives him the watch fob, Jim flops down on the couch, puts his hands under the back of his head and smiles, telling her simply that he sold the watch to get the money to buy her the combs. The story then ends with O. Henry’s little homily about the wise magi, who invented the act of giving Christmas presents, suggesting that the two “foolish children” of his “uneventful chronicle” who unwisely sacrificed for each other the “greatest treasures of their homes” are indeed the wisest of all, for “they are the magi.”

“The Furnished Room”

First published: 1904 (collected in The Four Million, 1906)

Type of work: Short story

A young man unsuccessfully searches an unsympathetic city for his sweetheart.

This is perhaps the bleakest of O. Henry’s best-known stories. Although the basic ironic plot can be summarized in a sentence—a young man commits suicide in the same room where a young woman for whom he has vainly searched killed herself—it is the musty atmosphere of the room and the suggestion that every place bears the traces of the lives that have inhabited it that makes the story so compelling. It is a story of transience, of lives that move through a bleak, indifferent world, leaving only bits of themselves, which the young man uncovers as he searches through drawers and pokes into every corner and crevice of the room looking for something that remains of the woman he seeks. However, all that is left is an illusory sweet familiar smell, which melodramatically becomes the sweet smell of the gas he turns on in despair, as she did only one week previously. Although the fact that the young man ends up in the very same room in which his lost sweetheart took her life is one of the most extreme coincidences in all of O. Henry’s fiction, the power of the atmosphere of the story is so strong that readers are willing to accept it.

The story ends with two old Dickensian landladies prattling over their beer about the death of a young woman in the room the previous week, which the landlady has kept secret because she did not want to lose the young man’s rent. As the young man lies dead upstairs, the ending of the story, with its focus on the mendacity of the old women, reinforces the squalor of the room, further suggesting the unfeeling city that has no room for the romanticism of the two lovers.

“A Municipal Report”

First published: 1909 (collected in Strictly Business, 1910)

Type of work: Short story

A noble African American carriage driver protects a Southern lady from her abusive husband.

Most critics agree that “A Municipal Report”—set in Nashville, Tennessee, as a challenge to Frank Norris’s assertion that the only “story cities” in the United States are New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans—is O. Henry’s best. It is often singled out to suggest that O. Henry could have written better stories if he had tried harder, took himself and his writing more seriously, and had more discipline. The story is more sophisticated than other O. Henry stories because of its complex narrative structure and its creation of two compelling characters—the southern lady writer abused by her husband and the African American carriage driver who rescues her. As a result, the story is more ambitious than merely an illustration that an exciting story can be based in such an ordinary place like Nashville.

Alternating quotations from encyclopedias and atlases about the geography and history of Nashville with the first-person narrative of one man’s discovery of a little personal drama of cruelty, avarice, endurance, and loyalty, O. Henry creates what some have called his masterpiece. Although it makes use of the conventions of melodrama, it exceeds those conventions. The villain of the piece is Major Caswell, the worst kind of cardboard southerner who bangs his fist on the bar and replays the Civil War from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. The hero is Uncle Caesar, a noble African American man with a regal bearing who tries to protect a southern lady. The heroine is Azalea Adair, a genteel, educated, and gentle lady of the old South. What Alfred Hitchcock once called the maguffin, a key device that eventually reveals the secret that propels the plot, is a torn dollar bill held together with blue tissue paper and a button from the carriage driver’s coat. The story ends with the narrator’s complicity in the death of Caswell by picking the button up at the crime scene and tossing it out the window into the Cumberland River as he leaves town.