A Municipal Report

by O. Henry

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066

“A Municipal Report” is introduced by two meaningful epigraphs: A verse from Rudyard Kipling sings the pride of mighty cities, while a paragraph from Frank Norris asserts that only three cities hold value for a writer—New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco—and easily dismisses the possibility of anything interesting ever happening in Chicago, Buffalo, or (most absurd) Nashville. This story, ironically, is set in unlikely Nashville. It fuses a sense of history, romance, and Rand McNally, and reveals a narrative of universal human interest irrelevant to geography.

The narrator, a literary agent who is visiting Nashville, arrives in this Tennessee city and, after being transported to his hotel, begins to inspect his surroundings. After strolling about the nearby streets and seeing that everything closes at sundown, he becomes bored with watching streetcars and listening to occasional laughter emanating from innocuous ice-cream parlors, so he returns to the lobby. Nothing of consequence, apparently, is going on in Nashville.

In the lobby, the visitor meets “Major” Wentworth Caswell, a red, pulpy-faced, sordid-looking man with a talent for ringing the brass cuspidor with tobacco chaw. A professional Confederate southerner, Caswell drags the visitor into the bar, authoritatively pounds the table for service, and launches into a rambling disquisition on genealogy, stressing in particular his own patrician background. The narrator, himself a southerner, brands Caswell a rat extremely offensive to him. The bogus major may have the standard accoutrements of southern aristocracy—string tie, slouch hat, Prince Albert coat—but he is crude and profane. The visitor’s impression of the hard-drinking, annoying major is corroborated by the desk clerk, who identifies Caswell as a local nuisance and loafer with no known means of support, his presence reluctantly tolerated because he carries a pocketful of money and cannot, therefore, be legally thrown out.

The narrator is an agent commissioned by a northern literary magazine to sign Azalea Adair, a Nashville author, to a contract at two cents a word before another publisher offers ten or twenty. He embarks next morning on his mission. Outside the hotel, he meets Uncle Caesar, a black carriage driver. Caesar wears a remarkable, variegated overcoat that clearly once had been owned by a military officer, but now is stitched together with twine, its lone button, the size of a silver dollar, made of unique yellow horn. Stepping into Caesar’s rickety carriage and giving the Adair address, the agent is startled when his driver demands to know what business he has at that number.

Angry at this affront and refusing to answer, the agent is satisfied when Caesar explains his prying by noting that Jessamine Street, located in a decaying part of town, is not a proper destination for a visitor. Arriving there, the agent is again puzzled and upset when Caesar, having set the fare at fifty cents, now demands two dollars, asserting that he needs this exorbitant amount because business has been poor. Furious, the agent pays with two single bills, one of them, old and torn, having been pasted garishly together with a strip of blue tissue paper.

A refined, fifty-year-old lady of the Old South, sensitive and soft-spoken, Azalea Adair lives in genteel poverty, surrounded by books in a decrepit house unpainted in twenty years. Her furniture and her home fixtures are in decay. Her exquisite character, though, lights and gives dignity to the squalid environment. In her poetic presence, the agent cannot bring himself to discuss so commercial a topic as a business contract, and decides to return the following day to address such crass matters. Azalea Adair speaks to him of her inner, imaginative life through which she has traveled the globe in dreams and in print, witnessing lurid events in Turkey and bizarre adventures in San Francisco.

This perceptive writer has seen similar excitements in East Nashville; she even describes a few human collisions happening in her humdrum town. Adair politely insists that her visitor stay for tea, and calling a little black girl to send to the store, the poet draws a dollar bill from her purse—a bill fastened with blue tissue paper. As the child leaves, Adair excuses herself to see to a noisy man in another part of the house. When she returns, having attended to one she calls her tenant, the invitation to tea is rescinded and rescheduled for the following day.

The bemused agent encounters the waiting Uncle Caesar and in somber conversation learns that the old man had been a slave of Judge Adair, Azalea’s father; when questioned about the lady’s present-day poverty, Caesar pointedly states that she has resources and that she will never starve. Saddened by Adair’s economic condition and realizing that such a person will never haggle over money, the agent returns to the hotel and sets the contract figure at eight cents a word. The publisher accepts. After this transaction, he goes to the hotel bar where Major Caswell once more accosts him, usurps his company for a drink, and ostentatiously pays with two single bills, one of them, the agent notices, fastened with the now-familiar strip of blue tissue paper.

The next day, as a pleased Azalea Adair signs her generous contract, she turns pale and faints. The doctor who is summoned, an old family friend, diagnoses the lady’s condition as malnutrition. He explains to the agent that Azalea Adair Caswell is unfortunately married to a worthless drunk who robs her of every cent that she has—even the small amounts donated by faithful servants. The woman was on the verge of starvation; this contract will be her veritable salvation. Shaken and stunned, the visitor leaves but not before he overhears Adair confess to Uncle Caesar that Caswell pilfered her last two dollars.

That evening the agent observes Caesar downtown near the hotel and notes that the remarkable coat has lost its only button. As the agent walks the city on his last night there, he is attracted by a crowd. Major Caswell has been murdered, evidently killed in a robbery attempt; the Confederate had struggled and fought but had lost. Unnoticed by the babbling group, the agent approaches the corpse to have a look; as he lingers momentarily, one dead hand suddenly relaxes, releasing a small object immediately pocketed by the agent. The next morning, as his train leaves Nashville, he throws the yellow horn button into the river.

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