When, in 1919, the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories was inaugurated, the work of O. Henry was the standard by which other short stories were evaluated. In the space of about a decade, William Sidney Porter, writing under the pseudonym O. Henry, produced almost three hundred short stories. Wildly popular, his stories were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed from 1908 until 1930. Sadly, O. Henry’s death in 1910 prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his labor and its attendant praise. Mercifully, perhaps, it also prevented him from witnessing the critical crucifixion his work endured from 1930 until around 1960.
O. Henry’s stories were noted for their thoroughly American spirit. His stories were always sympathetic to the underdog, and his characters, rooted in the grind of making a living, managed to transcend their humdrum existence by dint of love, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. A smart-alecky, brash humor, which is also typically American, also fills his stories.
O. Henry’s stories were once lauded as the highest form of short story, but his mechanized plot structure was considered contrived after 1930. Fraught with sentimentality, the stories rely heavily on the use of irony in their paradoxically predictable surprise endings. While there may have been a strong commercial and critical appetite for this work in pre-Depression America, after 1930 the critics’ taste for it soured. A new era in literature was emerging; it was an era that had no use for the previous generation’s moralism. Critically acclaimed short stories now embrace subtlety, indirectness, and the symbolic. Next to them, O. Henry’s stories’ overstatement, predictable plots, and clear moral messages are deemed shallow and...
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