Varying Critical Opinions About O. Henry's Work
It would be difficult to find a reader of short American fiction who does not have at least an acquaintance with O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi." This story, penned for the Christmas edition of a weekly magazine, is essential O. Henry. It is as synonymous with his name as its technique of the surprise ending.
O. Henry, pseudonym for William Sydney Porter, reached great fame in the first decade of the twentieth century as a writer of some 300 short stories. They are known for their pervasive sense of humor, their quick, chatty beginnings, their confidential narrator, and, of course, their inclusion of one of several types of surprise endings. O. Henry's fame traveled beyond the borders of the United States; his short story collections have been translated into many foreign languages and can be found throughout the world. Some stories have also been adapted for television, screen, and stage. Such exposure has led O. Henry biographer Eugene Current-Garcia to maintain that "the pseudonym O. Henry has become a symbol representing, especially to foreigners, a particular kind of 'All-American' short story, as well as a touchstone for evaluating the art of short fiction writing in general." An annual award for a volume of the best short stories was named for him in 1819, and The O. Henry Awards is still published each year.
Though the decade following his death in 1910 saw critics comparing his short stories to those of such greats as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry's star began to decline in the 1930s, particularly as new, "experimental" writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rose to prominence. The majority of critics then dubbed O. Henry's stories facile, anecdotal, superficial, and flippant. His work was discredited for its convenient endings, its sentimentality, and what Catherine Fullerton Gerrould in a 1916 assessment called its ''pernicious influence'' on the genre of the short story because his stories lacked intellectual content. Over the years, some critics have continued to fight against the mainstream, and with the help of a loyal reading public they have reinstated O. Henry among important American writers. Though his work is constantly being reassessed, it is now generally agreed that O. Henry's stories are the work of a skilled and inventive writer; it is recognized that part of his gift is the ability to write of people and situations with which the American public could identify. His place as a major player in the development of a truly American literature is perhaps finally assured. But the question remains, however, of why readers throughout the twentieth century, in comparison to critics, have little quarrel with the stories of O. Henry.
There are many possibilities. One might suggest that readers are not averse to the surprise ending, even when it is so much a part of a writer's repertoire that it is no longer a surprise. Guy de Maupassant, one of the masters of the short story, uses a surprise ending tragically in "The Necklace"; this ending assuredly does not detract from the skill of the writing and tale telling. The zany plots of Saki (H. H. Munro) give the surprise ending a lighthearted twist, such as in his brief but bewitching tale "The Open Window." Each of these three writers takes a plot contrivance but uses it originally, thus making it an integral part of the story. H. E. Bates maintains in The Modern Short Story that ''by the telling of scores of stories solely for the point, the shock, or the witty surprise of the last line, O. Henry made himself famous and secured for himself a large body of readers."
There are, of course, a variety of other reasons that readers like O. Henry. Perhaps one of the most important is that not all art is meant to appeal primarily to the intellect or the intellectuals. O. Henry's readers wanted to read about regular people. As William Saroyan wrote in the 1960s, "The people of America loved O. Henry ... He was a nobody, but he was a...
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