illustration of two people, a woman and a man, looking at one another in profile with an ornate hair comb between them

The Gift of the Magi

by O. Henry

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Frederick Houk Law (essay date 1917)

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SOURCE: “‘The Gift of the Magi,’” in The Independent, Vol. 90, No. 3566, April 7, 1917, pp. 76–81.

[In the following essay, Law asserts that “The Gift of the Magi” “illustrates a unique and artistic type of the short story, founded partly on French models, but springing more truly from the virile life and thought of America.”]

Of all recent American short story writers none is more popular than O. Henry. At the age of forty, when he gained his public, he had but eight years more to live, but he made those last eight years a triumph of success. And altho he wrote so rapidly that his powers of production astonished every one, he could scarcely produce stories rapidly enough. The secrets of his great success lay in a wide observation of men, women and books; freedom from all literary conventions; humor and sympathy, and real genius in the story-telling art.

The years before O. Henry became successful were really aids to success, for he was unconsciously gathering material from which to draw lavishly in his last few years of work. In actual life he was William Sidney Porter: “O. Henry” is a pseudonyn chosen because he was attracted by the name “Henry” seen in a New Orleans newspaper, and he thought the letter “O” easy to write. O. Henry was born in Green[s]boro, North Carolina, in 1862, but he lived as citizen of a wide world, seeing life in Central America and Texas, thru the great West, and in every part of “Little-Old-Bagdad-on-the-Hudson.” Like many other writers he had no particular education except that gained in “the school of hard knocks and experience.” He was clerk in a drug store; ranchman in Texas; employee in a bank; editor of a humorous paper; reporter; adventurer in Central America; literary worker in New Orleans and finally in New York—and everywhere open-eyed for life. Without doubt his death at forty-eight was the result of working at high pressure, but in his forty-eight years he lived longer than most men, and he wrote more than ten volumes of short stories that are still “best sellers.”

When some one asked O. Henry how to write a short story he said: “Please yourself. There is no second rule.” And please himself he did—using slang, coining words, violating the rules of sentence structure, violating the rules of paragraphing; writing with unusual dashes, parentheses, exclamation points and capital letters; making false allusions intentionally; breaking into his stories with side remarks; mixing the serious and the burlesque—but always so cleverly, so surprizingly, with such abandon of reckless, carefree ability that the reader knew O. Henry was a storyteller born to his art.

In “The Gift of the Magi” O. Henry has used the simple, partly humorous and partly serious events of ordinary life, and has constructed a single situation with a single effect. Without character analysis he has made character illuminate the entire story. As in all O. Henry's stories the most notable effect is surprize: both characters, in sacrificing their dearest treasures, at the same time unknowingly give up the possibility of enjoying each other's gifts. The higher surprize for the reader is that of being led unsuspectingly and irresistibly to the conclusion—toward which every word has led from the beginning—that self-sacrifice is the highest evidence of love. Written in a free and easy style that makes for originality and personality; quick, vivid and sympathetic; with an application that leaves the reader with a sense of gain, “The Gift of the Magi,” told in common language, illustrates a unique and artistic type of the short story, founded partly on French models, but springing more truly from the virile life and thought of America.

Introduction

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“The Gift of the Magi” O. Henry

The following entry presents criticism on O. Henry's short story “The Gift of the Magi” (1906).

“The Gift of the Magi” (1906) remains one of the most recognizable and frequently anthologized stories in American literature. In its time the tale was extremely popular, both commercially and critically, and O. Henry was called the “Yankee Maupaussant.” Today the story is considered juvenilia and has not garnered much serious critical attention. “The Gift of the Magi” initially appeared in one of O. Henry's best-known collection of stories, The Four Million, which was published in 1906.

Plot and Major Characters

On Christmas Eve, a young married woman named Della has cut and sold her long, beautiful hair to earn the rest of the money she needs for her husband's Christmas present: a platinum chain for his treasured watch. When her husband, Jim, returns to their apartment, he is shocked to see her hair gone; he has sold his watch to buy her a pair of tortoise-shell combs for her long hair. Touched by his thoughtfulness, Della assures him that her hair will grow back and she gives him the watch chain. When he sees the gift, he lovingly tells her that he has sold his cherished watch to buy her the combs for her hair. The story concludes with an omniscient narrator praising the sacrifice and love of the young couple.

Major Themes

Critics have noted the irony of the young couple sacrificing their most treasured possessions—Della's hair and Jim's watch—in order to buy each other gifts related to those same possessions. Poverty is also a prominent theme, as Della saved her money for months to buy the platinum watch chain, but she still had to cut and sell her beautiful hair. The descriptions of the environs and the couple's clothing also underscore the indigence of the characters in the story. As O. Henry was categorized as a realist, “The Gift of the Magi” has been perceived as an authentic, anecdotal look at lower-class American life near the turn of the century. The story is also thought to exemplify the author's interest in the elements of surprise and trick endings, as the impact of the mutual sacrifice is not revealed until the conclusion of the tale.

Critical Reception

Upon its publication in The Four Million, “The Gift of the Magi” caught the attention of the American public as well as reviewers. It was frequently mentioned as a prime example of O. Henry's work and has appeared in several anthologies of American short stories. Yet the story has mostly failed to attract serious critical analysis. There has been some debate as to the source of “The Gift of the Magi,” and a recent critic, John A. Rea, has determined where the plotline for the story originated. Many commentators consider the story more of an anecdote, devoid of complex characters and themes. Recently “The Gift of the Magi” has been classified and republished as a story for children. Despite the lack of considerable critical attention, most literary scholars still consider it one of the best Christmas stories ever written.

N. Bryllion Fagin (essay date 1923)

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SOURCE: “O. Henryism,” in Short Story-Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923, pp. 29–47.

[In the following essay, Fagin provides an overview of O. Henry's short stories and praises the ingenuity of “The Gift of the Magi.”]

The mottoes of most of our fiction periodicals are told on their covers: “A magazine of clever fiction,” “A magazine of bright fiction,” “A magazine of entertaining fiction,” “A magazine of frisky fiction.” But with all the available supply of novel plot material exhausted by writers who had the good fortune of being here before our generation had an opportunity, what is left to us is neither clever, bright, nor entertaining. However, O. Henry proved that it was possible to take the same age-old material and brighten it up with a coat of sparkling cleverness. He had but to juggle his incidents in such a way as to make them follow one another in a most spectacular sequence. He had but to play upon the credulity of his reader. Like the stage magician, he said to his audience: “Observe that there is a tree here and a fountain there, and without moving a finger I shall reverse their positions. Now watch, presto! Here they are!” And the audience applauded, wondering how he did it, and crowned him king of the wizards.

The king of the wizards, then, occupies a most honorable position in our textbooks. Stories written in the vein of O. Henry sell more readily than stories written in the vein of any other master. There is a brightness, a snappiness, a cheerfulness of style about them that draws the artistic sensibilities of editors. And yet our insistence upon the emulation of O. Henry has not produced many other O. Henrys. Perhaps it is because O. Henry went to the highways and byways of North and Central America for his plot material which he then juggled to his heart's content, while our students go to O. Henry for their plot material. Perhaps also it is because O. Henryism was as much a part of William Sidney Porter as was his speaking voice which is buried with him.

A very young student once lodged a complaint against her own unruly self. “It is absolutely impossible for me to write a single sentence in the O. Henry way,” she said. “My stuff somehow doesn't have that swing—it's dead. I don't believe I shall ever learn. I am too sad of disposition, I suppose.”

That was one time I did not smile. “Why should you want to write like O. Henry?” I asked. “Why don't you try to wear the shape of shoes or the color of clothes he wore, or drink the kind of ginger-ale he preferred?” But I was sorry later for my unguarded outburst, for I realize that that was not the way to make story writers, not the kind that sell, at any rate.

After all, O. Henry's technique consisted mainly of a series of clever tricks, and tricks can be taught, even though not perhaps his dexterity in performing them. His was truly a gift of the Magi and not really a gift of the gods. Admitting that through his superficial cleverness there occasionally glimmers an uncommon understanding of and a sympathy for the people whose destinies he juggles, the fact remains that his example is that of clever execution rather than artistic conception. It remains needless, then, for us to point to anything else in his makeup save his successful technique. We read a dozen of his stories, call attention to their brilliant mannerisms and surprising twists at the end, and exhort our students to go and do likewise. Sometimes we go a little further and discuss the underlying psychology upon which O. Henry based his loops and twists—his belief that our modern reader was so well-nourished on stereotyped fiction as to guess the conclusion of a story by its beginning, and, consequently, O. Henry led him on to believe that his guess was being borne out until the very end, when a pleasantly startling disappointment was sprung upon him.

To substantiate our eulogies of the wizard and to impress upon the would-be writer the importance of studying and emulating O. Henry, we quote copiously from Stephen Leacock, Prof. C. Alphonso Smith, and numerous other O. Henry friends. We seldom, if ever, quote opinions of critics and editors who are hostile to O. Henry and his cult. Here is one editor, for instance, who actually believes that “the effects of such mannerism, trickery, shallowness, and artifice as distinguished O. Henry's work, are baleful on all literary students who do not despise them.”1 We know that this editor's opinion must not be credited with importance. His is only a small Greenwich Village publication. The checks that writers receive come from editors who do like O. Henry's ways; in fact, prefer O. Henryesque stories almost to the exclusion of any other type. Hence we examine the work of our students with a feeling of satisfaction. By far the greater number have imbibed our teachings. Their work shows a striving after cleverness, witty flippancy, grotesque slang, and an attempt to cap the dénouement with a novel twist, a perfectly surprising turn. Thus we know that our work is not in vain; at least some of our students are on the way to success.

Again, this is not a plea on behalf of those incompetents who are not O. Henryesquely gifted and are therefore not on the way to success. It is merely a dispassionate consideration of the profession of teaching story-writing and its existing standards and ethics. Since the O. Henry story is held up as the supreme model, it is only fair to inquire into the results thus produced. We have been so eloquent with pride on the progress of our short story. Since Professor Brander Matthews first expounded its philosophy, away back in 1884, and connected the two little words by a hyphen to distinguish this form beginning with an Initial Impulse and running up to a Climax and falling down to a Dénouement from the story which is merely short, it has become our prevailing form of literature. The quantity turned out annually is beyond the dreams of such a pioneer as Poe. But the quality—ah, that is another story!

What proportion of this wholesale output can be candidly, suppressing for the moment our desire to experience flattering sensations, added to our national literary treasury? How many memorable stories come to mind to waylay us with their poignant spell of subtlety and beauty—such, let us say, as Kipling's “Without Benefit of Clergy,” or Chekhov's “Ward No. 6,” or Maupassant's “In the Moonlight”? Few, isn't it? And peculiar, is it not, that though we have been heaping the warmest of praise upon Richard Harding Davis and Clarence Budington Kelland and George Randolph Chester and Richard Washburn Child and Mary Roberts Rinehart and a score or more of our other popular writers, the few memorable stories that do come to mind were not written by these favorites. How much of the O. Henryesque is to be found in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “Revolt of Mother,” or in Theodore Dreiser's “The Lost Phoebe,”2 or, to take a more recent example, in Anzia Yezierska's “Hungry Hearts”?3 These stories are everything that the wizard's stories are not. They are neither breezy, nor flippant, nor surprising; nor “refreshing.” Judged by our standards they are anomalies.

I am sufficiently steeped in our inspirational literature to be aware of the dangers of pessimism. The Doctors Crane and Orison Swett Marden and Walt Mason have left their effect upon my disposition. But it is only logical to deduct that if all the O. Henry standards that we have so triumphantly established and extolled for the guidance of our story writers have failed to produce a single great story to compare with the best that other countries which do not preach and practice O. Henryism have produced, there is something wrong with our standards. These are unusual times we are living in. Everything that has seemed to us wise and sound and sublime is coming in for a share of skepticism and revaluation. Unquestionable things are being questioned. Is it not a propitious time to attempt a revaluation of our short-story dogmas? What is the contribution of O. Henryism to our national letters and to the short story as a form of literary expression? How great an artist really was William Sidney Porter, the founder of the Cult? Is it sacrilege to attempt to answer these questions?

O. Henry left us more than two hundred and fifty stories. In the decade before his death he turned out an average of twenty-five stories a year. Mr. William Johnston, an editor of the New York World relates4 the struggles of O. Henry in trying to live up to a three-year contract he had with that paper calling for a story a week. There were weeks when O. Henry would haunt the hotels and cafés of New York in a frantic search of material, and there were times when the stories could not be produced on time and O. Henry would sit down and write the most ingenious excuses. Needless to state that O. Henry's stories bear all the marks of this haste and anxiety. Nearly all of them are sketchy, reportorial, superficial, his gift of felicitous expression “camouflaging” the poverty of theme and character. The best of them lack depth and roundness, often disclosing a glint of a sharp idea unworked, untransmuted by thought and emotion.

Of his many volumes of stories, The Four Million is without doubt the one which is most widely known. It was his bold challenge to the world that he was the discoverer—even though he gave the census taker due credit—of four million people instead of four hundred in America's metropolis that first attracted attention and admiration. The implication was that he was imbued with the purpose of unbaring the lives of these four million and especially of the neglected lower classes. A truly admirable and ambitious self-assignment. And so we have The Four Million. But to what extent was he successful in carrying out his assignment. How much of the surging, shifting, pale, rich, orderly, chaotic, and wholly incongruous life of New York is actually pulsating in the twenty-five little stories collected in the volume?

What is the first one, “Tobin's Palm,” if not a mere long-drawn-out jest? Is it anything more than an anecdote exploiting palmistry as a “trait”—to use another technical term—or point? It isn't New York, nor Tobin, nor any other character, that makes this story interesting. It is O. Henry's trick at the end. The prophecy is fulfilled, after all, in such an unexpected way, and we are such satisfied children!

What is the second story, the famous “Gift of the Magi”? We have discussed it and analyzed it in our texts and lauded it everywhere. How much of the life of the four million does it hold up to us? It is better than the first story; yes, much better. But why is it a masterpiece? Not because it tries to take us into the home of a married couple attempting to exist in our largest city on the husband's income of $20 per week. No, that wouldn't make it famous. Much better stories of poverty have been written, much more faithful and poignant, and the great appreciative public does not even remember them. It is the wizard's mechanics, his stunning invention—that's the thing! Della sells her hair and buys a fob for hubby's watch; while at the same time hubby sells his watch and buys her a comb. But you don't know all this until they get together for the presentation of the gifts, and then you gasp. We call this working criss-cross, a plot of cross purposes. In this story we usually overlook entirely one little thing—the last paragraph. It really is superfluous and therefore constitutes a breech of technique. We preach against preaching. Tell your story, we say, and stop. “Story” is synonymous with action. O. Henry didn't stop—so that even he was sometimes a breaker of laws. But this uncomfortable thought doesn't really have to be noted!

“A Cosmopolite in a Café” is a little skit proving that “since Adam no true citizen of the world has existed.” It is the type of writing that is termed “short story” by our humorous weeklies.

“Between Rounds” is the first story in the volume that really displays O. Henry's gift of mature satire. Here underneath his superficial jesting lurks reality. The pathos in the lives of the McCaskeys and the Murphys is touched upon, lightly to be sure, but sufficiently to indicate that O. Henry saw it.

The plotted happy ending with plenty of “punch” is best exemplified by “The Skylight Room.” The gullible reader must have really thought that Billy Jackson was little Miss Leeson's name of some star. But not so, ha-ha! It really was the name of the ambulance doctor who came to take her to the hospital. “Fishy,” you say? Not any more than “A Service of Love.” Not that the young couple in this latter story might not have both worked and concealed the fact from each other. But why both in a laundry and in the same laundry? Coincidence of course! Incidentally, can you recognize the “Gift of the Magi” here? Shakespeare may have never repeated, but O. Henry did, very frequently too. Here we have again the poor loving couple trying to get along on next to nothing a week. A slightly different twist but the formula is the same. Even the names of the principals are almost the same. In “The Gift of the Magi” we had Della and Jim, in “A Service of Love” we have Delia and Joe.

In “The Coming-out of Maggie” O. Henry again brushes real life and real romance. In the hands of a sincere artist this material could have been worked into an immortal story. As a matter of fact, the same basic theme—the heart-hunger of a neglected girl—has been treated by Gorki in his “Her Lover.”5 And the difference between the two stories is the difference between tinsel and diamond.

“Man About Town,” “The Cop and the Anthem” and “An Adjustment of Nature” are trivial things—expanded anecdotes at best. “Memories of a Yellow Dog” presents O. Henry at his happiest. It is a fine bit of satire—a field in which lay his strength. In “The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein” the wizard again displays his bag of theatrical tricks. And so he does in “Mammon and the Archer,” with its needless anti-climax—again breaking the law: “Thou shalt stop when through.” “Springtime à la Carte” is a long-drawn-out joke. So is “From a Cabby's Seat.” In “The Green Room” O. Henry once more had a cursory glimpse of his “four million.”

Now we reach “An Unfinished Story.” Thanks to the good imps that may have influenced him to leave this story unfinished. It is the only one in the volume that shows O. Henry was capable of genuine emotion and had a sense of artistic truth. Dr. Blanche Colton Williams would not include it among O. Henry's best because “It is just what the author called it—unfinished.”6 Yes, admittedly, it is unfinished—in a technical sense. The $5 a week shopgirl has nothing to wear and does not go to the dance with Piggy. And that's all that happens, except a little sermon at the end in which O. Henry intimates that the fellow that sets fire to an orphan asylum, and murders a blind man for his pennies, has a cleaner conscience than the prosperous-looking gentleman who hires working girls and pays them five or six dollars a week to live on in the city of New York. To “finish” this story would have necessitated the distortion of truth, the blurring of the drab little picture. That Sidney Porter refused to do it indicates to what extent he was above the practical standards of his admiring disciples and interpreters.

“The Caliph, Cupid and The Clock” is a bit of romantic clap-trap. So is “Sisters of the Golden Circle.” “The Romance of a Busy Broker” is the old absent-minded-professor-who-forgot-he-was-married joke belabored to the dignity of a story.

“After Twenty Years” is another bit of writing that has been burdened with unqualified encomiums by the O. Henry clergy. The ingenuity of the plot and the strong “kick” at the end fill them with a halleluiah ecstacy. An empty little crook story, sketchy, anecdotal, is hailed as a masterpiece.

In “Lost on Dress Parade” you can again recognize the same old formula underlying the construction of “The Gift of the Magi” and “A Service of Love.” Another example of criss-cross plotting. “By Courier” is a typical syndicate story. The woman the doctor had held in his arms was only a patient who had fainted. It was all a mistake. The Best Girl forgives and forgets. Nevertheless it represents an improvement over the old type of similar story. The fair suspect was after all a patient and not the hero's sister.

“The Furnished Room” is another indication that O. Henry was capable of feeling the pulse of his four million when he was so attuned, and “The Brief Debút of Tilly,” though in smaller measure, corroborates it.

Thus an examination of O. Henry's work by any one not blinded by hero-worship and popular esteem, discloses at best an occasional brave peep at life, hasty, superficial and dazzlingly flippant; an idea, raw, unassimilated, timidly works its way to the surface only to be promptly suppressed by a hand skilled in producing sensational effects. At its worst, his work is no more than a series of cheap jokes renovated and expanded. But over all there is the unmistakable charm of a master trickster, of a facile player with incidents and words.

That William Sidney Porter was himself greatly displeased with his accomplishment, that he even held it in contempt is attested by his prevailing cynical tone. He knew he was not creating art, that he was not giving the best there was in him. There was not time for that and editors did not want it, and with a bitterness that Mark Twain and Jack London shared to their dying day he continued to perform tricks. Mr. William Johnston in his article in the Bookman, referred to above, states that after reading one of his, Mr. Johnston's, stories, in some obscure Southern periodical, O. Henry wrote to him: “I wish I'd written that story.” The story was probably not remarkable in any particular way. Mr. Johnston is not known as a great story writer. But O. Henry must have felt that it was written sincerely and his own artifice weighed upon him.

This is the lesson that an honest teaching profession with any critical vision at all, undertaking to mold a generation of fiction writers, ought to point out. Instead of worshipping him blindly, calling him the “American Maupassant,” and quoting from his biographies painstaking proof that he was innocent of the crime of embezzlement for which he served a prison sentence, we might at least mention the danger of following his methods too slavishly. The puritanic impulse which inhibits any praise of a man's work unless it can first establish his “sterling” character is excruciatingly laughable if not downright pathetic. Thus attempts have been made by meticulous biographers to establish the fact that Edgar Allan Poe never tasted any sinful beverage. And only then, having vindicated his character, does the conscience of these brave biographers permit them to accept Poe as a great writer and the pride of America. Whether O. Henry was guilty or not does not change his standing as a story writer, nor his influence on other writers, and it is only as such that the student and critic is interested in him.

In our attitude toward O. Henry and O. Henryism lies one explanation of the prevailing mediocrity of the contemporary American short story. The conventional editor, teacher, student, and reader look upon the short story as upon some interesting puzzle, the key to which is cleverly concealed until the befuddled reader is ready to “give up.” Our would-be writers seeking guidance from my profession are never disabused of this conception but deliberately encouraged to retain it. We overwhelm them with our analyses of the work of the Master, with our glowing tributes to his art and charm and genius, his purity of thought and his philosophy. An article on O. Henry, containing essentially the same material presented in this chapter, was rejected by a magazine circulating among young writers for the reason that “the editor does not hold your views with regard to O. Henry's contribution to the American short story. He is our supreme short-story master. …” In not a single textbook on story-writing, of the many that have come to my attention, have I found such a simple estimate of O. Henry as this: “His weakness lay in the very nature of his art. He was an entertainer bent only on amusing and surprising his reader. Everywhere brilliancy, but too often it is joined to cheapness; art, yet art merging swiftly into caricature. Like Harte, he cannot be trusted. Both writers on the whole may be said to have lowered the standards of American literature, since both worked in the surface of life with theatric intent. … O. Henry moves, but he never lifts. All is fortissimo; he slaps the reader on the back and laughs loudly as if he were in a bar-room. His characters, with few exceptions, are extremes, caricatures. Even his shop girls, in the limning of whom he did his best work, are not really individuals; rather are they types, symbols. His work was literary vaudeville, brilliant, highly amusing, and yet vaudeville.”7

This estimate, coming as it does from a standard source, cannot be discounted by attributing it to radical or ultra-advanced tendencies. The fact is that the case of O. Henry is so simple that even standard critics and historians, if they but choose to be open-minded, can see through it. When in 1916 Mrs. Katharine Fullerton Gerould in an interview with the late Joyce Kilmer called O. Henry “a pernicious literary influence,” even the New York Times, though hastening to the defense of the wizard, admitted that there might be something in this outburst of depreciation of O. Henryism. “I hear that O. Henry is held up as a model by critics and professors of English,” said Mrs. Gerould. “The effect of this must be pernicious. It cannot but be pernicious to spread the idea that he is a master of the short story.” And the Times, in an editorial, although taking issue with Mrs. Gerould, was obliged to conclude:

“Maybe some day we shall get away from writing with a set of rules before us, and then we shall have literature instead of best sellers. Maybe the trouble with our writing is that we have developed technique to such a point that Tom, Dick and Harry are masters of technique and anybody who can get the hang of it can write a publishable story. Maybe our fiction has been whetted to a razor edge, until it is technique and nothing else. Maybe the story has been perfected until now we can tell perfectly a story that is not worth telling, but have not even thought of learning what stories are worth telling. Maybe, if we did that, and told them without thinking of technique and without knowing that there were any rules whatever, we might write stories that would be remembered, say, ten years hence. Maybe there is, after all, only one rule for telling a story—to have one worth telling and then to tell it as well as you can. Maybe that is what is the matter with the American drama as well as with American fiction. If we could unlearn some of the rules and forget technique we might not produce best sellers; and maybe if we told, as clumsily as our ignorance of the rules compelled us, stories that were worth telling, there might be no more best sellers, only stories that would live as long as the clumsy plots of Dickens and the inartistic anecdotes of O. Henry.”

Just how long O. Henry's stories will live and his influence predominate is a prediction no one can safely undertake to venture at this time. It depends upon how long we will permit his influence to predominate. The great mass of our reading public will continue to venerate any writer as long as our official censors continue to write panegyrics of him, and our colleges to hold him up as a model. The literary aspirants coming to us for instruction are recruited largely from among this indiscriminating public. Sooner or later, however, we must realize that the American Maupassant has not yet come and that those who foisted the misnomer upon William Sidney Porter have done the American short story a great injury. Before this most popular of our literary forms can come into its own the O. Henry cult must be demolished. O. Henry himself must be assigned his rightful position—among the tragic figures of America's potential artists whose genius was distorted and stifled by our prevailing commercial and infantile conception of literary values. Our short story itself must be cleansed; its paint and powder removed; its fluffy curls shorn—so that our complacent reader may be left to contemplate its “rag and a bone and a hank of hair.”

When the great American short-story master finally does come, no titles borrowed from the French or any other nationality will be necessary and adequate. His own worth will forge his crown, and his worth will not be measured in tricks and stunts and puzzles and cleverness. His sole object will not be to spring effects upon his unwary reader. His will be sincere honest art—with due apologies for this obvious contradiction in terms, for art can be nothing but sincere!—a result of deep, genuine emotions and an overflowing imagination. His very soul will be imbued with the simple truth, so succinctly put by Mr. H. L. Mencken, that “the way to sure and tremendous effects is by the route of simplicity, naturalness, ingenuousness.”8

Notes

  1. Joseph Kling, editor of The Pagan, in symposium appended to “The Best College Short stories.” The Stratford Company.

  2. Both of these stories are to be found in William Dean Howells' “Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology.” Boni & Liveright.

  3. Houghton, Mifflin Co.

  4. The Bookman, February 1921.

  5. See “Best Russian Short Stories,” Modern Library.

  6. “Our Short Story Writers.” Moffat, Yard and Company.

  7. Fred Lewis Patee in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. II, p. 394. I find that Mr. Alexander Jessup has drawn on the same source on O. Henry in his Introduction to “The Best American Humorous Stories,” Modern Library.

  8. Introduction to Ibsen's “Master Builder, Etc.,” Modern Library.

Principal Works

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Cabbages and Kings 1904

The Four Million 1906

Heart of the West 1907

The Trimmed Lamp 1907

The Gentle Grafter 1908

The Voice of the City 1908

Options 1909

Roads of Destiny 1909

Let Me Feel Your Pulse 1910

Strictly Business 1910

The Two Women 1910

Whirligigs 1910

Sixes and Sevens 1911

Rolling Stones 1912

Waifs and Strays 1917

Alfred C. Ward (essay date 1924)

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SOURCE: “O. Henry,” in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, University of London Press, 1924, pp. 185–96.

[In the following essay, Ward considers O. Henry's impact on the American short story and deems “The Gift of the Magi” the pinnacle of his literary achievement.]

Many English readers in the present generation received their first introduction to the American language in O. Henry's pages. The American short story had lapsed into obscurity, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, after Bret Harte had run his course; and inasmuch as Ambrose Bierce was known to only a few on this side of the Atlantic, it was not until after O. Henry had settled down to write short stories—in the early years of the twentieth century—that the American scene again appeared in the world's eye through this form of fiction. There had been Henry James, of course, great as a literary figure, yet enamoured of Europe rather than of America.

While Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce were writing, the United States was still using the English language for literary purposes; but when the works of O. Henry came eastward, with all the exuberance of a circus, there came the added attraction of a strange exoticism and a new and bewildering but very jolly and expressive tongue, which a glossary could only have helped to reduce to bald and respectable Kensington English. The character and reputation of words had hitherto been adjudged by the company they kept; but O. Henry democratized language at a rate beyond the dreams of the wildest street-corner statesman proclaiming the divine right of the proletariat. Even Greek mythology underwent a sea-change at his hands: Minerva became presiding deity of “the art of scrapping,” and Venus took charge of “the science of serious flirtation.” Writers achieve immortality—so critics say—by virtue of exquisite verbal felicity; O. Henry achieved (at least temporary) fame by sheer audacity in verbal infelicity.

Coupled with utter irreverence for philological customs went an extraordinary dexterity in authorship. Stories poured out of him; within the range of his own vision he could turn everything into “copy” for the fiction market; and even when he was most irritatingly trifling, even when the feeblest of puns seemed irresistible to him,1 he still somehow displayed a queer impish streak of genius that encouraged tolerance.

Good judges of what should properly be admitted into the category of Art have from time to time agreed to add to the roll the names even of a few music-hall artists, whose technique represented mastery in some particular form of expression. And the cinema is now being cautiously enrolled. O. Henry is the knockabout comedian and cinema star of fiction; and in his own particular branch he is supreme. This carefully-guarded labelling unfortunately suggests patronage; whereas, curiously enough, it is homage that O. Henry exacts. Most people would probably be a little cool in their social demeanour toward Maziotara, the world-renowned comedy-juggler; but few would go so far as to despise or reject a gift of equal genius in the manipulation of eggs and Venetian glassware. The superior brain may assert that O. Henry ranks among the inconsiderable smaller fry of letters; yet there are some score or so among his stories that many authors (and critics) would be more than secretly satisfied to have written. His range is narrowly limited; his themes are few, and he is not innocent of repeating them2; his characters are frequently low-down vulgarians, more familiar with the police than with Parnassus. Nevertheless, so resourceful is his management, so fertile his humour, so humane his outlook, that he is able to transform things base and vile to shapes having form and dignity. When on the other hand he chooses to behave consistently as a knockabout comedian, he does observe the rules of the game and play it whole-heartedly. When Mr. and Mrs. McCaskey have a difference of opinion in their flat on the second floor of Mrs. Murphy's New York boarding-house, they do not enter upon armistice negotiations until the supply of domestic ammunition—a five-course dinner, kitchen utensils, chinaware, and flat irons—is exhausted!

“O. Henry” was the pen-name adopted by William Sydney Porter, who was born in 1862 at Greensboro', North Carolina. Before he took to authorship in 1902, he had been a rolling-stone—everything by turns and nothing long—and had managed to serve a term in a convict establishment, following a charge of embezzlement which put an end to the bank-clerk phase in his career.3 It was in New York that he commenced in the literary profession—only eight years before his death in 1910.

No volume is more generally typical of his particular talents than The Four Million, which he introduced with these words:

Not very long ago someone invented the assertion that there were only “Four Hundred” people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census-taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the Four Million.

In O. Henry's larger estimate of human interest, he contrives to gather what is probably a more heterogeneous company than has ever been found between the covers of any other author's books. His net gathers-in the least considerable fish that swim (or sink) in the social sea; and occasionally he lands a more presentable specimen. There are Irish-American labourers, office clerks, impresarios, boarding-house keepers, typists, authors, painters, musicians, box-makers, “men about town”; “down-and-outs”—tramps, convicts, etc.; waitresses, mongrel puppies, chemists' assistants, soap manufacturers, piano salesmen, cab drivers, shop girls, policemen, drug victims, burglars, newly-married brides (“Sisters of the Golden Circle,” O. Henry names them), stockbrokers, draughtsmen, doctors, actresses, and others—all in the twenty-five stories which make up The Four Million; and there are eleven volumes in addition to this! Varied as these types and professions may at first glance seem to be, they can be grouped, roughly, as Drudges, Tramps, Criminals, and Swells; the last-named appear least frequently, and O. Henry's favourite ground is in Mean Street among the drudges.

When all that is possible has been urged in commendation of his stories, however, considerable reservations must follow. From O. Henry's dozen volumes one volume of good grain could be gathered; the rest is mainly chaff and stubble. Yet this is no particularly weighty deduction, since little more could be said of most short-story writers. A more serious criticism is that he is frequently very shallow; his humour is superficial—consisting almost wholly in the unexpected but laughter-provoking verbal infelicities already mentioned; his irony, also, seems to stop short of a true criticism of life or even of human behaviour; his pathos does not strike the note of tragic pity, it merely sweeps the heartstrings with the hand of sentiment.

His greatest merit is the command of such a dexterous technique that he is able to cajole (his own word would be “bulldoze”!) us into ready acceptance, or measured admiration, or even warm commendation, of his audacities and triflings.

“An Adjustment of Nature” offers a rich vein in which to seek for specimens of O. Henry's custom of putting words into harness with strange companions. A wild incongruity is the basis of all his humour. Desiring to say that a New York restaurant-keeper named Cypher had an inexpressive countenance, he remarks: “Cypher had the power, in common with Napoleon III and the goggle-eyed perch, of throwing a film over his eyes, rendering opaque the windows of his soul.” Milly, the waitress, is the “Goddess of Grub”; and she is as harmoniously related to the restaurant as is “a Haydn symphony to a pistache ice-cream.” Blue-bottles are euphemistically disguised as “swarms of the buzzing winged beasts bequeathed us by Pharaoh”; and in another story, Eros is described as “a kind of a fat boy without any clothes on.” These phrases represent what is perhaps the easiest of all forms of humour; yet it is a form that has passed muster in pages of greater reputation than any by O. Henry. Dickens dealt very largely in humour of this kind—notably in Sam Weller's utterances—although, of course, Dickens is more resourceful as to humour in general than is the American writer.

Another example of humour based upon violent incongruity will serve to illustrate not only O. Henry's pursuit of ludicrous contrasts, but also his use of the American language. The story entitled “By Courier” opens with a young woman sitting on a bench in the park; she is pensive, still, and melancholy. A tall young man hurries past, followed by a boy carrying his suitcase. Catching sight of the girl, he stops a few yards beyond the seat, and sends the boy back to her with a verbal message. It appears that the two young people had been engaged, but an estrangement ensued and the man was forbidden either to speak or to write to the lady. To avoid any infringement of this command, the boy is employed as courier to carry the information that the man is about to join a hunting expedition to Alaska, and that he wishes to appeal against the injustice which has refused him any opportunity to learn the reason of her displeasure. The boy translates the dignified speech into his own more picturesque tongue, and is bidden to return this answer:

“Tell the gentleman that I need not repeat to him a description of my ideals. He knows what they have been and what they still are. So far as they touch on this case, absolute loyalty and truth are the ones paramount. Tell him that I have studied my own heart as well as one can, and I know its weakness as well as I do its needs. That is why I decline to hear his pleas, whatever they may be. I did not condemn him through hearsay or doubtful evidence, and that is why I make no charge. But, since he persists in hearing what he already well knows, you may convey the matter.


“Tell him that I entered the conservatory that evening from the rear, to cut a rose for my mother. Tell him I saw him and Miss Ashburton beneath the pink oleander. The tableau was pretty, but the pose and juxtaposition were too eloquent and evident to require explanation. I left the conservatory, and, at the same time, the rose and my ideal. …”


“I'm shy on one word, lady. Jux—jux—put me wise on dat, will yer?”


“Juxtaposition—or you may call it propinquity—or, if you like, being rather too near for one maintaining the position of an ideal.”


The gravel spun from beneath the boy's feet. He stood by the other bench. The man's eyes interrogated him hungrily. The boy's were shining with the impersonal zeal of the translator.


“De lady says dat she's on to de fact dat gals is dead easy when a feller comes speilin' ghost stories and tryin' to make up, and dat's why she won't listen to no soft-soap. She says she caught yer dead to rights, huggin' a bunch o' calico in de hot-house. She side-stepped in to pull some posies and yer was squeezin' the oder gal to beat the band. She says it looked cute, all right all right, but it made her sick. She says yer better git busy, and make a sneak for de train.”

This courier does not get beyond the threshold of the American language, of course. There are more ambitious efforts than this in O. Henry's stories; but the best that he could do, twenty years or so ago, is moderate and even antiquated in comparison with the language importations that have since then been made by this country from the United States.

“The Cop and the Anthem” is a typical example of O. Henry's irony. In late autumn, Soapy, a down-and-out, begins to find his summer quarters on a Madison Square bench rather chilly. Philanthropic institutions do not appeal to him as a winter residence; he finds the prison colony on Blackwell's Island much more hospitable. His usual method of becoming installed there for the winter, is to dine expensively at a restaurant and then, declaring himself without money to pay the bill, to get arrested. On a day of keen wind and falling leaves he starts once again on his annual quest—only to be immediately propelled out of the first restaurant he enters, owing to his shabby remnants of clothing; so he smashes a shop-window and waits to be arrested, but the policeman refuses to believe that he is guilty and rushes off to find the “real” culprit! Soapy then dines at a less pretentious eating-house, where he gets a thrashing instead of being handed over to the police. Next he tries to annoy a “young woman of modest and pleasing guise”—but she is far from annoyed! He then steals an umbrella, only to find that its owner had himself “acquired” it in a restaurant that very morning. Much discouraged, Soapy starts on his way back to the bench in Madison Square, and breaks his journey outside a church to listen to an anthem. The music revives memories of happy and more prosperous years, and Soapy determines to make an attempt to get back to honest and industrious paths:

A fur importer had once offered him a place as driver. He would find him to-morrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would—


Soapy felt a hand laid on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.


“What are you doin' here?” asked the officer.


“Nothin',” said Soapy.


“Then come along,” said the policeman.


“Three months on the Island,” said the magistrate in the police-court the next morning.”

The depth, or the superficiality, of the irony in this story depends as much upon what is read into Soapy's soul as it does upon what the author has put there. Here is a no-good standing at the crossroads where a revived moral sense is on the point of turning him into the path of rectitude and salvation. At that moment, a representative of the moral sense in the community gives the convert a violent push back into the way of crime and damnation. The irony here has an appearance of shallowness because it follows—as a surprise—upon a series of farcical scenes such as Charlie Chaplin might enact with a wealth of comic business. By adding something out of our own more ponderous minds, Soapy's case can be brought closer to the spirit of pity and tragedy; but as the story stands, the transition from roguery to righteous impulse is too rapid, too unmotived, for us to accept it as anything better than a piece of mechanics contrived to end the writer's task.

First and last, there is one story by O. Henry which overshadows all the rest—“The Gift of the Magi.” Della, Mrs. James Dillingham Young, had only one dollar and eighty-seven cents on Christmas-eve—and she wanted to buy Jim a platinum chain for his much-prized gold watch. Her single saleable possession was her beautiful head of hair—which Jim loved. But nothing else could help to buy Jim his watch-chain, so the tresses had to go to Madame Sofronie, who clipped them off and paid Della twenty dollars, with which she procured the gift for her husband. Jim also made a sacrifice in order to buy Della a Christmas gift; but what that gift was, and what was his sacrifice, must be sought from O. Henry's own pages. The story is too good to be ruined in a paraphrase. Let it be sufficient to say that the author's craft ability in this story comes close to perfection. He cannot altogether avoid the temptation which always besets him, namely, to drop into facetiousness; and when he falls, it is to such comments as—“life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” These, however, are insignificant blemishes upon “The Gift of the Magi.” In roughly two thousand words, the author clearly characterizes Della; describes her home; reviews her domestic experiences; narrates her visit to Madame Sofronie's establishment, and includes the conversation therein; recounts Della's emotions as she waits for Jim's homecoming (she is terrified as to what he may say on account of her bobbed hair); then is given in some detail the almost beautiful—from a certain standpoint, wholly beautiful—scene in which the young married lovers display their gifts and reveal their sacrifices. Possibly a hundred words might be cut without loss, yet, even with its few superfluities, “The Gift of the Magi” represents a power of achievement considerable enough to give O. Henry a place among the world's greatest short-story writers. If this had represented his common level, instead of his occasional height, he would have had few peers.

The key to his triumph in this story is that it is a tale of “his own people,” as it were. He had an affinity with the flat-dwelling James Dillingham Youngs of the modern metropolis. He knew their need of scraping to save even one dollar and eighty-seven cents; he knew of the great little sacrifices to which love impelled them. And Della and Jim, “who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house,” are presented to us as the magi—the wisest among the children of this world.

Notes

  1. E.g. in Between Rounds: “We would call no one a lobster without good and sufficient claws.”

  2. Compare The Gift of the Magi and A Service of Love.

  3. Since he died, the suggestion has been made that Porter was the injured party in that transaction.

Jesse Bier (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Intercentury Humor,” in The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, pp. 162–284.

[In the following excerpt, Bier derides O. Henry's influence on the American short story as well as early American cinema, using “The Gift of the Magi” as an example.]

More and more the period became a time of accelerative mass entertainment. The serialized Sunday supplement stories of William S. Porter (“O. Henry” 1862–1910), were phenomenally successful. Kin Hubbard's popular rural comic philosopher, Abe Martin, with his whiskers and striped trousers in accompanying cartoon drawings, appeared regularly in the newspapers; he was a retrenchment of the American ideal, Downingesque and Lincolnian in his countrified wit and his very appearance as Uncle Sam. And on stage and later in the movies, the man with the lasso, Will Rogers, rose the whole distance in American iconography, reaching the pinnacle of comic idolatry in the late twenties and early thirties.

Fundamental sentimentalists, or vice versa, as they were, these men had nonetheless a touch of potent skepticism in their natures. Porter's technique of the abrupt surprise ending, coupled with a measure of realism, often brought him to the very ledge of sharp irony and nihilistic reversal. Indeed, his influence on early and abiding storylines in American movies needs study. Right through the thirties and into the forties, men like Frank Capra in Hollywood would find themselves directing scripts originally laid out by Porter and imitated endlessly in scenarios. Porter's famous “The Gift of the Magi” is a stunning example of what a remorseless American Maupassant could do in conclusive self-corruption; if we dare discount the happy resolution, the story is a marvel of hard comic reversal, exactly as fifty-five minutes of Capra's best films are later on. Since the conclusions are usually not inevitable, they do not really determine the structure of at least half of Porter's stories. The barely rescued endings are bourgeois denials, more hopeless than hopeful in their last-minute extravagance, of the facts that the comic realist saw quite clearly. His real stories, from an artistic as well as thematic point of view, are the central stories within arbitrary stories, and they are replete with despair (as in the “Magi” piece) or cynicism (as in “Mammon and the Archer”).

A local colorist of New York City, Porter willfully made himself into the Bret Harte of Gotham, with devices subsequently elaborated by his successor, Damon Runyon: the picturesque names for eccentric characters who are deliberately robbed of interiority, the Broadway speech (Runyon's later and particular exploitation), and the pervasive sentimentality. Unquestionably Porter made a career of corrupting his vision, all the greater sin because he had the vision. He also had the talent1 that Ambrose Bierce lacked, being able to objectify and dramatize in an infinitely varied manner. He allows himself occasionally to break through, particularly in stories which his lower middle class could condescend to. “The Cop and the Anthem” is the tale of Soapy, the Chaplinesque reformed tramp who cannot stay out of jail even when he decides truly to make his way in the wintry world. But Porter's major influence is pernicious. There is no greater essential apostasy in American literature than his, Sinclair Lewis' included. His nearly complete commercial and sentimental debasement is an omen of how much the pressures against integrity continue to mount in the twentieth century.

Note

  1. He had his meretricious stylistic tendencies, as did Bierce. But his polysyllabic vocabulary was a premeditated and effective device rather than a defense mechanism. It was meant, as was the old orthographic technique, for newly educated audiences to savor. He was not strictly culpable in this regard, for we allow a writer any contemporary stylistic means to his end. That end, however, must be inviolably his own.

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

Browne, Kicki Moxon. “Young and Very Young.” Times Literary Supplement (25 February 1983): 185.

Recommends “The Gift of the Magi” for older children.

Review of The Gift of the Magi. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 36, no. 3 (November 1982): 48.

Mixed review of “The Gift of the Magi.”

Cooper, Ilene. Review of The Gift of the Magi. Booklist 91, no. 1 (1 September 1994): 41.

Claims that teenagers “should find the romantic appeal that has been apparent to previous generations of readers” of “The Gift of the Magi.”

Dircla, Michael. Review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. Bookworld 27 (7 September 1997): 11.

Lauds the irony of “The Gift of the Magi.”

Gold, Julie Baum. Review of The Gift of the Magi. New York 21 (12 December 1988): 92.

Brief review of Simon and Shuster's reissued box version.

Review of The Gift of the Magi. Horn Book Guide 4, no. 2 (January-June 1993): 286.

Review of miniature picture-book format.

Review of The Gift of the Magi. Horn Book Guide 6, no. 1 (July-December 1994): 66–7.

Review of picture-book version.

Review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. Horn Book Guide 9, no. 1 (July-December 1997): 87.

Review of illustrated version.

Kennedy, Kathleen. Review of The Gift of the Magi and Five Other Stories. Library Journal 92, no. 12 (15 June 1967): 2450.

Review of illustrated version.

Lask, Thomas. “Old Friends Return.” New York Times Book Review (14 November 1982): 49.

Asserts that “The Gift of the Magi” is “no more than an anecdote, without much literary merit.”

Review of The Gift of the Magi. Publisher's Weekly 241, no. 38 (19 September 1994): 28–9.

Mixed review of illustrated story.

Williams, Blanche Colton. A Handbook on Story Writing. pp. 73–74. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919.

Uses “The Gift of the Magi” to demonstrate plot complication and struggle in the short story form.

Additional coverage of O. Henry's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 41; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 131; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 78, 79; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 2; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 19; World Literature Criticism; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

John A. Rea (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “The Idea for O. Henry's ‘Gift of the Magi,’” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 311–14.

[In the following essay, Rea investigates possible sources for the story of “The Gift of the Magi.”]

There are two accounts, differing in significant details, of how O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi,”1 but neither indicates a source for the “gimmick” on which the story rests. Since we intend to suggest such a source, these accounts are worth examining. According to one version,2 Dan Smith sought out O. Henry, whose Christmas story he was to illustrate for the World. O. Henry, who had not yet even an idea for the story, told Smith to proceed with an illustration whose elements he suggested. The author would then fit his story to the picture, a story he later wrote while his friend Lindsey Denison lay on a sofa. In the other version it is William Wash Williams3 who lay on the couch while O. Henry, who had already given instructions for the illustration, wrote his story to meet a deadline only hours away. The first version surmises that Denison and his wife may have served as models for the couple of the story, although it has also been suggested that the model for the girl may involve memories of O. Henry's first wife Athol.4

Both versions cannot be true, since one claims that Denison was present during the writing and the other that Williams was. However, both accounts are rendered suspect by the actual illustration on which they place such emphasis. In Williams' version, O. Henry tells Smith to “draw a picture of a good-looking girl in a flat with a fellow just coming in the door.” These scant details are contradicted by the picture itself, which shows the young man, in the middle of the room, leaning on the back of a chair. No door is visible.5 The other, more detailed account specifies that Smith was to show “a poorly furnished room” with “only a chair or two, a chest of drawers, a bed and a trunk. On the bed a man and a girl are sitting side by side … The man has a watch fob in his hand … The girl's principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back.” But the illustration shows no bed, no chest of drawers, no trunk, and no watch fob. The man and the girl are both standing, and the girl, facing us from the page, wears her hair in a Gibson Girl upsweep. There is a round table strewn with enough objects even to belie the caption, “Della wriggled off the table and went for him.”

Williams claims that O. Henry, though at a loss for ideas, would have refused any plot suggestion that might have been offered. Others6 have also insisted that Porter never borrowed plots, but jotted down ideas “on the cuff” in the streets and taverns of New York. But Davis and Maurice7 include in their study of the background of O. Henry's stories a flat denial of the notion that he scrupulously avoided borrowing. They examine in this light “The Song and the Sergeant,” and “A Retrieved Reformation,” which clearly derive from published stories by other authors, including a certain amount of detail beyond the basic plot idea. They discuss similar possibilities for “The Duplicity of Hargreaves,” and point out that the idea for “The Last Leaf” is partly based on an episode from the French Vie de Bohème by Murger.8 They delicately conclude that assertions that O. Henry never borrowed plots are “hardly to be accepted as complete.”9 Langford,10 indeed, finds that O. Henry on occasion even paid others for ideas.

In point of fact, O. Henry seems to have taken the essential plot ingredients for “The Gift of the Magi,” as well as many of its circumstantial details, from a French story, as he had previously done in “The Last Leaf.” More than sixty years before “The Gift of the Magi,” Emile Chevalet,11 a minor French writer, published a poorly constructed short story named for its heroine, “Dulvina.”12 Chevalet's story opens on its hero, Gilbert, who is “un jeune homme de vingt-deux ans,”—Jim, in the “The Gift of the Magi,” we will recall also “was only twenty-two.” Gilbert is alone in a “petite chambre ou se trouvaient quelque vieux meubles indispensables,”—like the “poorly furnished room” of the Denison version of the writing of “The Gift of the Magi.” Gilbert is in the process of, “considérer attentivement une belle montre d'or qu'il tournait en tous sens, l'ouvrant, examinant le mouvement, la refermant,”—Jim “took a mighty pride” in his gold watch, and even, “Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up on the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.” Physically Gilbert is described as having a face which, although good looking, is rather “maigre” with a line or two on his forehead, “ouvrage de la pensée,”—Jim too, we recall, “looked thin and very serious.”

But our young French couple—like Jim and Della—are having financial difficulties. In a gesture of love, and without telling Dulvina, Gilbert sells his fine gold watch. And then Dulvina, without telling Gilbert, “tout-à-coup” gets the idea of selling her lovely long hair. Going along the streets of Paris she “s'arrêta devant une belle enseigne de coiffeur-parfumeur qui habitait le premier,”—where Della “stopped the sign read: ‘Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of all Kinds.’ One flight up Della ran.” When she returns to the flat, Dulvina shows Gilbert her “tête de petit garçon”—after Della sold her hair her “head was covered with tiny close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy.” There is a suspicious homeography to the names: DeLla—DuLvinA, JIm—GIlbert.

There is no need to press the point of these and other detailed resemblances, which go well beyond the basic plot business of the hair and the watch, and which are clearly more than sufficient to have allowed O. Henry to give Dan Smith plenty of details for the illustration long before he sat down himself with his needle-sharp pencils and yellow copy paper to remake these ingredients in his own way.

It is instructive to examine differences between the two stories, to see what O. Henry did with this material to make it his own. For example, just as Jim and Della of “The Gift of the Magi” are O. Henry's “archetypal husband and wife”13 (whoever served as immediate model), so Gilbert and Dulvina are the archetypal French young man of good family and his mistress. The change that needs to be made by O. Henry for the Christmas issue of an American Sunday supplement is as clear as the need to replace such “exotic” names as Gilbert and Dulvina by American Jim and Della.

Worse still is the plot structure of “Dulvina,” for the selling of the watch and the selling of the hair lack the reciprocal relationship we find in “The Gift of the Magi.” In fact, the watch gets sold to pay for Dulvina's cab fare, and the hair is sold to buy food. What O. Henry can do with this is also clear, for the typical O. Henry ending, the ironic twist that the sale of the hair is to buy a chain for the sacrificed watch, and the sale of the watch is to buy combs for the shorn hair, is what makes it possible to say that “in this trite little tale of mutual self-sacrifice, O. Henry crystallized dramatically what the world in all its stored up wisdom knows to be of fundamental value in ordinary family life.”14

Having missed the motivational possibility offered by sale of the hair and the watch, Chevalet had his heroine sell her hair, not to a chilly Mme. Sofronie, but to a fifty-year-old lecher who then attempts to rape her—“Je voulais vendre mes cheveux et non mon corps,”—and who later strangles poor Gilbert with the severed hair while Dulvina watches in horror. Following which, Chevalet cheats his readers, for it turns out that the sale of the hair (but not of the watch) and all that followed was just an “awful dream” of Dulvina's. Gilbert in fact goes on to be one of the most popular authors: which was not, of course, the case with Emile Chevalet, but was indeed with O. Henry, who had the vision to see what could be done with such plot ingredients, and had the skill to bring it all off.

Notes

  1. First published in The World, No. 192 (Sunday, December 10, 1905) as “Gifts of the Magi.” First published in book form in The Four Million, (New York: A. L. Burt, 1906) pp. 16–25.

  2. Robert H. Davis and Arthur B. Maurice, The Caliph of Bagdad (New York: Appleton, 1931) pp. 331–332. See also p. 53.

  3. William Wash Williams, The Quiet Lodger of Irving Place (New York: Dutton, 1936) pp. 189–91.

  4. Davis and Maurice p. 36. See also E. Hudson Long, O. Henry: The Man and his Work (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949) p. 58, and C. Alphonso Smith, O. Henry Biography (Garden City: Doubleday Page, 1916) p. 122.

  5. The Gift of the Wise Men (Garden City: Doubleday Page, 1911) has facing page 16 an illustration by Charles M. Rellyea showing a young man just coming in a door, and a girl sitting on a bed.

  6. Smith, p. 182.

  7. Davis and Maurice, pp. 313 ff.

  8. Ibid., pp. 324–5.

  9. Ibid., p. 317.

  10. Gerald Langford, Alias O. Henry (New York: Macmillan, 1957) p. 193.

  11. M. Prévost and Roman d'Amat, editors, Dictionnaire de Biographie Français (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1959) Volume 8, p. 1050.

  12. “Dulvina,” Le Conteur, Volume 2, pp. 3–12 (Paris: 1834)

  13. Langford, p. 185.

  14. Eugene Current-García, O. Henry (New York: Twayne, 1965) p. 116.

Arthur Voss (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “The Rise of the Journalistic Short Story: O. Henry and His Predecessors,” in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 114–26.

[In the following excerpt, Voss offers an overview of O. Henry's short fiction and describes “The Gift of the Magi” as “a little parable with a significant meaning.”]

By the end of the nineteenth century the carefully made, ingeniously plotted story had become a well-established tradition, but it was during the first decade of the twentieth century that the type was carried to its ultimate lengths in the stories of O. Henry. None of his predecessors exploited the contrived story with quite such deliberate calculation or with more facility, and none achieved anything like the phenomenal popularity of O. Henry, who produced his stories for mass-circulation magazines and newspapers with the intent, as he put it, of pleasing “Mr. Everybody.”

O. Henry (1862–1910), whose real name was William Sydney Porter, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. In Texas, where he went in 1882 for reasons of health and to seek his fortune, he lived for a time on a ranch, was a bank teller in Austin, edited a short-lived humorous weekly called the Rolling Stone, and wrote a daily column, filled mostly with humorous anecdotes, for a Houston newspaper. Indicted for the alleged embezzlement of funds from the bank that had employed him, he maintained his innocence but fled to Honduras instead of standing trial. On his return he was convicted, and during his three-year imprisonment in the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, he began to write and sell stories to the magazines. Soon after his release he settled in New York City, where he wrote prolifically, the rapidity with which his work was turned out being illustrated by his feat of producing a story at the rate of one a week over a period of thirty months for the Sunday edition of the New York World. Cabbages and Kings (1904), a collection of loosely integrated stories about adventure and revolution in Latin America, was his first book. Twelve more volumes, several of which were published posthumously, were required to collect the remainder of his short stories.

O. Henry's stories have a variety of settings, but most of them are laid in either New York City or Texas. His characters include shopgirls and millionaires, policemen and burglars, cowboys and tramps, confidence men and southern gentlemen, and assorted other types. His manner is usually that of the garrulous taleteller, and his style is almost invariably breezy, flippant, and slangy, with puns, malapropisms, and big words being used for humorous effect. His stories are liberally sprinkled with asides in which he addresses the reader in a familiar and chatty tone. Literary allusions, often made facetiously, are common, and there are many references to other writers. Kipling, whom O. Henry greatly admired, is either mentioned or quoted frequently. In “A Municipal Report,” for example, besides a quotation from Kipling, both Frank Norris and Tennyson are cited, the latter being referred to as “My old friend, A. Tennyson,” and there are in addition allusions to characters in two of Dickens' novels. Fond of referring also to The Arabian Nights, O. Henry often called New York City “Bagdad-on-the-Subway” and likened the wealthy New Yorkers in his stories to caliphs.

Although he usually used stock story formulas, O. Henry had an undoubted gift for devising ingenious variations on them. Coincidence figures largely in his stories, and they often have a surprise twist, or “snapper,” as O. Henry called it. Unabashed sentiment and the broadest kind of comedy and burlesque are other conspicuous ingredients. In addition, O. Henry usually made his contrived stories illustrate some more or less serious theme. Most of his many stories of New York City, found mainly in The Four Million (1906), The Trimmed Lamp (1907), and The Voice of the City (1908), make the point that the humble, insignificant little people of New York are just as admirable and their lives as worthy of attention and interest as the members of the Four Hundred. Typical is “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry's famous story of the young married couple, each of whom sells a treasured possession to obtain money to buy a Christmas present for the other. Della sells her beautiful long hair to buy a platinum chain for Jim's watch, only to discover that he has sold it to buy jeweled tortoise-shell combs for her hair. O. Henry builds up to his surprise twist very artfully, and with deft touches he elicits the reader's admiration and sympathy for his young couple, whose love for each other more than compensates for Jim's meager salary, their shabbily furnished apartment, Della's old brown hat and jacket, and the fact that Jim needs a new overcoat and has no gloves. Artfully, too, O. Henry does not end on the note of irony and surprise but gives to what he calls his “uneventful chronicle of two foolish children” the appearance of a little parable with a significant meaning. The magi, he reminds the reader, were the wise men who brought gifts to the Christ child, and thus invented the giving of Chrismas presents. As for Jim and Della, “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. … They are the magi.”

“A Municipal Report,” another of O. Henry's best-known stories, provides an especially good illustration of virtually all his mannerisms and devices. The story takes its cue from a statement of the novelist Frank Norris, quoted at the beginning, to the effect that there are only three big cities in the United States that are “story cities,” New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. “Fancy,” Norris had said, “a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say, or Nashville, Tennessee!” This, suggests O. Henry, is a rash statement, and he proceeds to tell a tale refuting it. It is part of O. Henry's irony that he leads the reader to believe in the first part of the story that Nashville is a humdrum place, this being the initial impression of the first-person narrator, who gets off the train in Nashville one evening and after settling himself in his hotel can find nothing of interest to observe or do. But then comes a striking contrast when O. Henry manufactures a plot utilizing coincidence and surprise, which indicates that there can be excitement and romance aplenty in this apparently dull town. And, says O. Henry at the end, “I wonder's what's doing in Buffalo!”

O. Henry's stories of Texas and of Central and South America often have much vivid descriptive detail, and their backgrounds seem authentic enough, but they are like his other stories in that they have little realism in their characters and actions. In “A Double-Dyed Deceiver,” for example, a desperado known as the Llano Kid kills a man in Texas and flees to South America. There an unscrupulous American consul persuades him to pose as the lost son of a wealthy couple, with the idea that the consul and the Kid will rob them. But the Kid has a heart of gold under his hard exterior, and is so moved by the joy of the woman who believes him her son that he refuses to go through with the plot. Furthermore, it turns out that it was the lost son whom the Kid had killed back in Texas, and therefore the Kid, to make restitution, will take his place. None of O. Henry's grafters, burglars, and robbers are really bad men either. O. Henry is said to have got the ideas for some of his stories of these characters from his prison experience, but if he achieved any insight there into criminal mentality and psychology, he made no attempt to portray it in his fiction. Instead, he wrote stories like “Babes in the Woods,” in which a confidence man comes from the West to New York confident that he can find all kind of dupes on whom to practice his trade, but who is himself taken in. Some of these stories, however, like “The Man Higher Up,” which is one of several about a grafter named Jeff Peters, are among O. Henry's most cleverly done pieces. An especially artful con-man yarn, and quite possibly O. Henry's funniest story, is “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which a kidnaping plot ludicrously boomerangs on its perpetrators.” And there is the gentleman burglar who goes straight in “A Retrieved Reformation,” whose name became a household word when O. Henry's story was made into the highly popular play Alias Jimmy Valentine.

Besides his great popularity with readers, O. Henry also received much adulation from contemporary critics. He was often spoken of a “a Yankee Maupassant” and praised for his literary artistry and broad understanding of humanity. Although no one today would attribute these qualities to his stories, they have a special verve, freshness, and good humor which make for their continued readability, as witnessed by the fact that they are still frequently anthologized and even occasionally issued in new editions.

Notes

For the stories of Hale and Aldrich see The Works of Edward Everett Hale, 10 vols. (Boston, 1898); and The Writings of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 9 vols. (Boston, 1907). Biographical and critical studies of Aldrich are Ferris Greenslet, The Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Boston, 1908); and Charles E. Samuels, Thomas Bailey Aldrich (New York, 1965).

Stockton's writings are collected in The Novels and Stories of Frank R. Stockton, 24 vols. (New York, 1899–1904). A biographical and critical study is Martin I. J. Griffin, Frank R. Stockton (Philadelphia, 1939).

Most of Bunner's prolific output of stories is included in The Stories of H. C. Bunner: First and Second Series, 4 vols. (New York, 1916). For biography and criticism see Gerard E. Jensen, The Life and Letters of Henry Cuyler Bunner (Durham, N.C., 1939); and Gabriel Leeb, “The United States Twist: Some Plot Revisions by Henry Cuyler Bunner,” American Literature, Vol. IX (January, 1938), 431–41.

Editions of Fitz-James O'Brien's writings are The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O'Brien, ed. by William Winter (Boston, 1881); The Collected Stories of Fitz-James O'Brien, ed. by Edward J. O'Brien (New York, 1925); and The Diamond Lens and Other Stories (New York, 1932).

Bierce's stories are reprinted in The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, ed. by Clifton Fadiman (New York, 1946). Biographical and critical studies are Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (New York, 1929); C. Hartley Grattan, Bitter Bierce: A Mystery of American Letters (New York, 1929); Napier Wilt, “Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War,” American Literature, Vol. I (November, 1929) 260–85; Arthur M. Miller, “The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Ambrose Bierce,” American Literature, Vol. IV (May, 1932), 130–50; Eric Solomon, “The Bitterness of Battle: Ambrose Bierce's War Fiction,” Midwest Quarterly, Vol. V (Winter, 1964), 147–65; Richard O'Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston, 1967); and M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce (New York, 1971).

Collected editions of O. Henry include Complete Writings of O. Henry, 14 vols. (Garden City, N.Y., 1917); O. Henry Biographical Edition, 18 vols. (Garden City, N.Y., 1929); The Complete Works of O. Henry, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y., 1953). Selections of stories are Selected Stories from O. Henry, ed. by C. Alphonso Smith (Garden City, N.Y., 1922); The Voice of the City and Other Stories by O. Henry, ed. by Clifton Fadiman (New York, 1935); and Best Short Stories of O. Henry, ed. by Bennett Cerf and Van H. Cartmell (Modern Library, New York, 1945). Book-length studies of O. Henry are Hudson Long, O. Henry: The Man and His Work (Philadelphia, 1949); Gerald Langford, Alias O. Henry (New York, 1957); and Eugene Current-Garcia, O. Henry (New York, 1965). Earlier biographies are C. Alphonso Smith, O. Henry Biography (New York, 1916); and Robert H. Davis and Arthur B. Maurice, The Caliph of Bagdad (New York, 1931). See also “The Age of O. Henry,” in Fred L. Pattee, Side-lights on American Literature (New York, 1922), 3–55.

Booklist (review date 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 85, No. 8, December 15, 1988, p. 710.

[In the following review, the critic praises a recent reprint of O. Henry's story.]

O. Henry's famous story of giving [“The Gift of the Magi”] describes the Christmas Eve of a young married couple at the turn of the century. Each gives up his chief treasure (Jim sells his watch, Della, her hair) to buy the other a present, which is unexpectedly useless (a watch fob for Jim, a set of combs for Della), but all the more beloved. To be published with a slipcase, this handsomely designed volume includes several full-page illustrations that, with their mannered depiction of character in a tone more quaint then sentimental, recall magazine illustrations of the period. However, the soft focus and muted colors of the artwork make an agreeable addition to the story. While the tale appears in countless anthologies, libraries wishing to present it in a separate volume will find this edition an attractive purchase.

Hazel Rochman (review date 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 4, October 15, 1997, p. 397.

[In the following review, Rochman calls “The Gift of the Magi” one of the best Christmas stories of all time.]

The short story “The Gift of the Magi” is one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time, and it has been retold and illustrated for children many times, including a recent illustrated version with an Appalachian setting by Barry Moser. However, there are not many O. Henry stories that have the same power to reach young people today. Several of the 14 stories collected here are dated in subject and tone, and not too many readers will get to the end of the stories to enjoy the famous surprises. Part of the handsome Books of Wonder Classic gift series, which includes A Christmas Carol and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this collection will work best when read aloud across generations. Dooling's exquisite color plates, one for each story, in shades of brown and red, are both low-key and warm, with a realistic style that captures the wry characterization of O. Henry's prose.

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