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.
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...
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