What are some of the universal human wishes that make “The Gift of the Magi” such a classic Christmas story?
How can you justify O. Henry’s dependence on coincidence and poetic justice in his stories?
How would you describe the personality of the typical O. Henry storyteller?
What characteristics of “The Cop and the Anthem” make it something other than a story about the plight of the homeless?
Other Literary Forms
While almost all of O. Henry’s literary output is in the short-story form, he contributed verse and anecdotes to Rolling Stone, the humorous weekly magazine which he founded and edited in 1894. He also experimented with play writing, collaborating on a musical comedy based on “He Also Serves,” with two other gentlemen; the play was staged once, in mid-1909. He also prepared a play based on “The World and the Door.”
A widely read and published writer, O. Henry’s short stories influenced not only the development of magazine fiction as a popular form but also the evolution of modern narrative. Indeed, even very diverse European and South American writers adopt the devices O. Henry perfected. This phenomenon is no accident: His short stories have been widely reprinted and translated, especially in Russia and France, and have been adapted for radio, stage, and television performances.
O. Henry was, however, especially popular in the United States. Extremely humorous, clever, and entertaining, he also managed to capture all that was recognizably and uniquely American—the variegated language, attitudes, spirit, geographical locations, social environments, and, most important, the inclination to identify with the downtrodden, the underdog. O. Henry’s contribution to American letters was so obvious that a long-lived literary prize—the annual O. Henry Memorial Award for Prize Stories—was established in 1918 by the New York Society of Arts and Sciences.
According to Dorothy L. Sayers, surprise is a hallmark of mystery and detective fiction and the setting forth of riddles to be solved is the chief business of an author in the genre. In this sense, almost all the nearly three hundred stories that O. Henry wrote might broadly be labeled “mysteries,” though there is also a narrower selection (several per volume of short stories, and nearly all of Cabbages and Kings, 1904, and The Gentle Grafter, 1908) that are more obviously of this mode. O. Henry is a minor classic of American literature; he fares best when judged on the whole of his artistic accomplishment rather than on the merits of individual stories. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, O. Henry’s are brief and immediate; like Guy de Maupassant’s, they end suddenly and surprisingly. O. Henry’s unique contribution to the mystery and detective genre is the whiplash ending within the context of a vivid and varied depiction of American life and manners.
Arnett, Ethel Stephens. O. Henry from Polecat Creek. Greensboro, N.C.: Piedmont Press, 1963. Described by Porter’s cousin as a delightful and authentic story of O. Henry’s boyhood and youth, this entertaining biography of the early years goes far in illuminating both the character-shaping environment and experiences of Porter and his fiction. Supplemented by illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. O. Henry. Broomal, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999. Collection of essays that constitute a study guide and handbook of O. Henry criticism, assembled by leading scholars in the field. Bibliographic references and index.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to O. Henry’s stories, largely drawn from Current-Garcia’s earlier Twayne volume. Focuses on O. Henry’s frequent themes, his romanticism, and his narrative techniques, such as his use of the tall-tale conventions. Includes critical excerpts from discussions of O. Henry by other critics.
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