O. Henry Analysis

Discussion Topics (Masterpieces of American Literature)

What are some of the universal human wishes that make “The Gift of the Magi” such a classic Christmas story?

How can you justify O. Henry’s dependence on coincidence and poetic justice in his stories?

How would you describe the personality of the typical O. Henry storyteller?

What characteristics of “The Cop and the Anthem” make it something other than a story about the plight of the homeless?

Compare and contrast the importance of “place” in “The Furnished Room” and “A Municipal Report.”

O. Henry Other Literary Forms (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111207193-Henry.jpgO. Henry Published by Salem Press, Inc.

While almost all of O. Henry’s literary output is in the short-story form, he contributed verse and anecdotes to Rolling Stone, the humorous weekly magazine which he founded and edited in 1894. He also experimented with play writing, collaborating on a musical comedy based on “He Also Serves,” with two other gentlemen; the play was staged once, in mid-1909. He also prepared a play based on “The World and the Door.”

O. Henry Achievements (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A widely read and published writer, O. Henry’s short stories influenced not only the development of magazine fiction as a popular form but also the evolution of modern narrative. Indeed, even very diverse European and South American writers adopt the devices O. Henry perfected. This phenomenon is no accident: His short stories have been widely reprinted and translated, especially in Russia and France, and have been adapted for radio, stage, and television performances.

O. Henry was, however, especially popular in the United States. Extremely humorous, clever, and entertaining, he also managed to capture all that was recognizably and uniquely American—the variegated language, attitudes, spirit, geographical locations, social environments, and, most important, the inclination to identify with the downtrodden, the underdog. O. Henry’s contribution to American letters was so obvious that a long-lived literary prize—the annual O. Henry Memorial Award for Prize Stories—was established in 1918 by the New York Society of Arts and Sciences.

O. Henry Contribution (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

ph_0111226242-Henry_O.jpgO. Henry Published by Salem Press, Inc.

According to Dorothy L. Sayers, surprise is a hallmark of mystery and detective fiction and the setting forth of riddles to be solved is the chief business of an author in the genre. In this sense, almost all the nearly three hundred stories that O. Henry wrote might broadly be labeled “mysteries,” though there is also a narrower selection (several per volume of short stories, and nearly all of Cabbages and Kings, 1904, and The Gentle Grafter, 1908) that are more obviously of this mode. O. Henry is a minor classic of American literature; he fares best when judged on the whole of his artistic accomplishment rather than on the merits of individual stories. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, O. Henry’s are brief and immediate; like Guy de Maupassant’s, they end suddenly and surprisingly. O. Henry’s unique contribution to the mystery and detective genre is the whiplash ending within the context of a vivid and varied depiction of American life and manners.

O. Henry Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Arnett, Ethel Stephens. O. Henry from Polecat Creek. Greensboro, N.C.: Piedmont Press, 1963. Described by Porter’s cousin as a delightful and authentic story of O. Henry’s boyhood and youth, this entertaining biography of the early years goes far in illuminating both the character-shaping environment and experiences of Porter and his fiction. Supplemented by illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Bloom, Harold, ed. O. Henry. Broomal, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999. Collection of essays that constitute a study guide and handbook of O. Henry criticism, assembled by leading scholars in the field. Bibliographic references and index.

Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to O. Henry’s stories, largely drawn from Current-Garcia’s earlier Twayne volume. Focuses on O. Henry’s frequent themes, his romanticism, and his narrative techniques, such as his use of the tall-tale conventions. Includes critical excerpts from discussions of O. Henry by other critics.

Eichenbaum, Boris. O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story. Translated by I. R. Titunik. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1968. Originally published in Russia in 1925, this study reflects both the Russian interest in O. Henry as a serious writer and the brand of criticism known as Russian Formalism. Because Formalism was more concerned with technical achievement than thematic profundity, O. Henry, who was a technical master, is a perfect candidate for the exercise of this kind of analysis.

Evans, Walter. “‘A Municipal Report’: O. Henry and Postmodernism.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 101-116. Recognizing modern criticism’s either trite interpretation or complete indifference to O. Henry’s work, through the fiction of postmodernists like Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass, Evans embarks on a radical revisioning of Porter’s literary contributions.

Gallegly, Joseph. From Alamo Plaza to Jack Harris’s Saloon: O. Henry and the Southwest He Knew. The Hague: Mouton, 1970. By investigating contemporary photographs, literature, popular pursuits, news items, and personalities—both real and fictional—from the contemporary scene of the author, Gallegly provides significant insight into the southwestern stories.

Jennings, Al. Through the Shadows with O. Henry. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2000. Reprint of a classic O. Henry study, with a new introduction by Mike Cox and afterword by Patrick McConal, who consider the reception of Henry’s work in the twentieth century.

Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sidney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. A well-documented biography that considers in detail Porter’s marriages and the evidence used in his embezzlement trial. The foreword provides a brief but penetrating overview of O. Henry’s critical reputation (including overseas) and his place within the context of American literature. Supplemented by illustrations, an appendix about Rolling Stone, notes, and an index.

Monteiro, George. “Hemingway, O. Henry, and the Surprise Ending.” Prairie Schooner 47, no. 4 (1973-1974): 296-302. In rehabilitating O. Henry and his most famous technique, Monteiro makes comparisons with Hemingway’s own—but very different—use of the same device. This significant difference Monteiro ascribes to Hemingway’s essentially uneasy reception of Porter’s work and to the two authors’ divergent outlooks on life.

Pattee, Frederick Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923. Although this is an old study of the short story, the O. Henry chapter represents an influential negative criticism of his fiction.

Stuart, David. O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. Chelsea, Mich.: Scarborough House, 1990. A good, updated edition of a portrait of O. Henry. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Watson, Bruce. “If His Life Were a Short Story, Who’d Ever Believe It?” Smithsonian 27 (January, 1997): 92-102. Biography of O. Henry strewn with anecdotes and some literary criticism. Includes photographs.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Discusses the distinctively southern aspects of Henry’s stories, as well as his influence on other southern American authors. Bibliographic references and index.