Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1468

The once inflated fame of O. Henry is no more. Today he is not only belittled by most critics of the short story but also practically ignored by writers on American literature in general. THE LITERARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (1946) mentions him twice, once as a user of slang and once as a writer popular in the U.S.S.R. THE LITERATURE OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE (1951) ignores him altogether. Even Jay B. Hubbell’s THE SOUTH IN AMERICAN LITERATURE, 1607-1900 (1954) devotes less than two pages to him as a Southern writer and offers him only a sentence or two of subdued praise. Yet he continues to be widely read, as is clearly suggested by the inclusion of THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF O. HENRY (1945) in the Modern Library, the reissuance of THE COMPLETE WORKS OF O. HENRY in two volumes (1953), and the publication of THE POCKET BOOK OF O. HENRY STORIES (1956). The last collection went into a second printing within a month.

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The ingredients that appeal most in the typical O. Henry short story are usually a blend of humor and sentiment or sentimentality. There is no depth of characterization; O. Henry specializes in easily recognizable types. The story is neatly put together, and it moves rapidly. The style is breezy and slangy. Though the vocabulary may include a number of words unfamiliar to the reader of newspapers and pulp magazines (in which most of O. Henry’s stories first appeared), there is enough of the American vernacular to sustain the story on a colloquial level. The unwary reader, in fact, may overlook the many humorous paraphrases from Shakespeare and other famous authors. The story characters belong either to the great American middle class or to a less exalted level of society. The author is obviously the friend of the “little man” and the enemy of those who would exploit him. There is a plentiful display of local color, especially in the many stories of New York life. There is a trick or surprise ending, often totally unexpected and illogical, but usually light and amusing. Though the surprise ending may be sentimental or even pathetic, it is never really tragic.

O. Henry has been compared to several of his predecessors and contemporaries from whom he may have learned something about story writing, among them Bret Harte, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain, and Frank Stockton. Many of the early stories are filled with the easy sentimentality of Bret Harte as well as Harte’s editorial remarks about his characters. Maupassant’s irony is often imitated, but the master’s mordancy is missing, as well as his prevailingly serious view of life. O. Henry uses slang even more than Twain did, but where Twain’s is integral, O. Henry’s is gratuitous and frequently spoils what might have been some of his best effects. O. Henry is often credited with having introduced the trick ending into the short story, but Frank Stockton had already gained popularity with this type of ending several years before O. Henry’s first story was published. Stockton’s most famous story—“The Lady or the Tiger?”—had not even a trick ending; it had none at all, the reader being left to supply one for himself. The reader’s choice ending of O. Henry’s “Thimble, Thimble” is reminiscent of Stockton, who is specifically named as a model at the beginning of the story.

These facts show that O. Henry was, then, not so much an originator as a clever practitioner. Far more a craftsman than an artist, he was a close observer of the surfaces of life and character. In spite of his exaggerations and whimsicality, he remains an effective local colorist in his presentation of life in Bagdad-on-the-subway, as he called New York, in the first decade of the century. To read his stories of the metropolis is to enter in imagination a bygone era of gaslights, horse-drawn hacks, and rococo decor that was the delight of the rich and the envious dream of shopgirls and ill-paid clerks or sweatshop workers.

Reading “The Furnished Room” in THE FOUR MILLION (1906), one senses how it felt a half century ago to be lonely in a gaslit furnished room filled with battered furniture and the scattered, forgotten mementos of former lodgers. One hears the distant, disquieting noises from other rooms and breathes the familiar odors of the dilapidated lodging house. In O. Henry’s stories of the metropolis, one joins the strollers in Central Park or on Fifth Avenue, listens to tales told by drinkers in unobtrusive bars, inhales the garlic-rich atmosphere of a small Italian restaurant, or dines on lobster at fabulous Delmonico’s.

Among the most famous of O. Henry’s New York stories are “The Gift of the Magi” which, though somewhat hackneyed by many reprintings and a film version, still has its sentimental appeal; “The Cop and the Anthem,” in which Soapy, after vainly trying to get himself jailed for the cold winter, hears church music and vows to reform, only to end with a three-month sentence for vagrancy; “The Romance of a Busy Broker,” with the unbelievable revelation at the end that Harvey Maxwell has erred in proposing to his stenographer, because he has forgotten he married her the evening before; and “The Last Leaf,” with its sentimental close that ironically counterbalances the saving of a young girl’s life with the death of the kindly old artist who saved it.

Because O. Henry attained his fame while living in New York and because it is the scene of many of his stories, readers may forget that the author, like so many of the city dwellers he wrote about, was not a native. Born in North Carolina, he grew to manhood there. He lived for several years in Texas, and he stayed in Honduras for some months after having fled the United States to escape arrest for misappropriating funds from an Austin, Texas, bank. His life in the South, the Southwest, and Central America provided the backgrounds for numerous stories.

The more than twenty stories laid in the Southern states or employing distinctly Southern characters include several of his best. “A Municipal Report” is an excellent story of Nashville, Tennessee, written to answer an offhand comment by the novelist Frank Norris that Nashville was not a “story” city. The despicable Major Caswell of “A Municipal Report” is one of O. Henry’s most vividly drawn characters, but he is matched by the very different Major Talbot of “The Duplicity of Hargraves,” who romantically personifies the antebellum aristocrats of the columned mansions and great cotton plantations in the storied Old South. The faithfulness of former slaves to their former owners is shown in the devotion of Uncle Caesar to Mrs. Caswell in “A Municipal Report,” the solicitude of Uncle Bushrod for the honor of the Weymouth family in “The Guardian of the Accolade.” Other Southern stories are “The Whirligig of Life” (Tennessee), “The Rose of Dixie” (Georgia), “Cherchez la Femme” (New Orleans), “A Blackjack Bargainer” (North Carolina), and perhaps the funniest of O. Henry’s stories, “The Ransom of Red Chief” (Alabama).

O. Henry’s Texas years furnished him with both characters and atmosphere which he used for narrative purposes in HEART OF THE WEST (1907) and in scattered stories in other volumes. The leading character of “The Reformation of Calliope” delights in shooting rampages when drunk, like many a bad man in Western films. The Cisco Kid of “The Caballero’s Way” is said to have been modeled after the notorious Texas killer, John Wesley Hardin. “The Passing of Black Eagle” is the story of another Texas desperado. “The Pimienta Pancakes” and “The Hiding of Black Bill” utilize O. Henry’s knowledge of ranch life. It should be added, however, that the ludicrously polysyllabic language used by some of the characters in these Texas stories bears little relation to that ever used by any rancher or cowboy, O. Henry included.

For the loosely related series of stories in his first volume CABBAGES AND KINGS (1904) and a few later stories, O. Henry drew upon his stay in Honduras and possibly upon tales he heard from the train robber Al Jennings and other friends he met there. Though some of these stories have comic-opera overtones, they probably reveal the same closely observed details of actual life that were later to appear in the New York stories.

O. Henry’s life was marked by many vicissitudes, but he retained almost to the end a zest for living and a genuine love of people. Because of this and because his writing so frequently shows a humorous virtuosity of language and a facile playing upon the emotions of his readers, he seems likely to survive, even without benefit of criticism, for many years to come.

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