Style and Technique
O. Henry once observed to Robert H. Davis, one of his editors, “I’ve got some of my best yarns from park benches, lamp posts, and news stands.” With such mundane inspirations, he was able to elevate the ordinary vicissitudes of life into universal significance by the inventive, clever tricks that he incorporated. Indeed, a New York Times survey taken in 1914 judged “A Municipal Report” as “the greatest American short story.” Although such an extravagant claim is critically indefensible, the story embodies the most effective devices and strategies of the author’s technical virtuosity: realistic description of background and environment, precise rendering of vernacular in accent and speech pattern, accurate representation of easily recognizable character types, and the deftly fashioned surprise—some say trick—ending.
O. Henry’s strength is not in presenting complex characters caught in psychologically challenging situations. “A Municipal Report” demonstrates his reliance on the heart over the head; the artificial and the sensational dominate. Realism is confined to the details of the tale and to its supporting literary adornments; the historic, geographic, and economic data about Nashville establish its essential reality amid the often incredible events that will be dramatized there. Despite the evident contrivances—the blue-pasted bill’s appearance and reappearances, the horn button—and the puppetry involved in the forced and manipulated action, O. Henry’s considerable ability as talespinner enables him to create and maintain narrative suspense, to convince the reader to accept as true the improbabilities just depicted.