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O. Henry American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the first decade of the twentieth century, O. Henry was the most popular short-story writer in the United States. By 1920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the United States. What was the secret of his success? Partially, it was the personality of the man whose voice was heard in the stories, a personality with which readers could identify and who spoke to some universal human need. Author William Saroyan once wrote that Americans loved O. Henry because “He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who was also a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” One of the underlying assumptions of O. Henry’s stories is that there is some order in the world, some poetic justice that follows a plan. Everything happens for a reason in an O. Henry story, and everything fits into the overall pattern. Furthermore, O. Henry exploits a universal romantic wish that people are basically good and unselfish and possess an inherent dignity.

O. Henry combines two different aspects of the short story that contributed to his success—the oral voice of the raconteur derived from frontier humorists and a highly patterned structure originated by Edgar Allan Poe. Combining the local color and melodrama of Bret Harte with the ironic reversals and empathy for ordinary people of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry staked out his own territory of New York City and developed a storytelling voice more polished than the usual barroom wag who always seems to have one more tale to tell. He was a talented storyteller who would slap people on the back and stand them to a drink as well as a marketing specialist who knew exactly what buttons to push to make his audience react. He never really took himself seriously as an artist, preferring instead the title “journalist.”

O. Henry polished and formalized the kind of ironic reversal stories that Giovanni Boccaccio innovated during the Renaissance. Boris Èjxenbaum, a Russian Formalist critic of the 1920’s, was one of the first to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form. In his brief 1968 study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. Basing his theories largely on the stories of O. Henry, he suggested that the short story was constructed on the basis of some contradiction or incongruity and amassed its whole weight toward its ending. Whereas the novel ended with a point of letup or unraveling, the short story “gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded.”

The late nineteenth century focus on realism that made novels so popular and well respected marked a decline of interest in the short story that early nineteenth century writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Poe had stimulated. However, O. Henry’s facility in creating snappy, comic, and sentimental stories renewed the public’s interest in the form. As a result of his success, many other writers sought to emulate him, and many academics began to study the characteristics of the form. One result was the creation of short-story handbooks—quasi-academic treatises that attempted to teach others how to write a short story. In the best early history of the form, Fred Lewis Pattee listed “ten commandments” of the short story codified in these handbooks and taught in college courses and correspondence schools, all of which were derived from the stories of O. Henry.

As a result of O. Henry’s success and the handbooks that sought to reveal his method, the short story became formalized and static. Finally serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the “decline,” the “decay,” and the “senility” of the short story. Even Edward J. O’Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form that the United States has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the...

(The entire section is 2,099 words.)