14 November 2007

The Four Million, by O. Henry

I suppose I have talked too much about Project Gutenberg of late, so I'll try to keep to the topic here, which is yet another great find at the Project: The Four Million, by O. Henry.

This is the second book of stories from William Sydney Porter, who wrote mostly under the name "O. Henry." There are various stories about the significance of that name; my favorite says that he was friendly with a cat named Henry, who would come when Porter called "Oh, Henry!"

Porter was born in North Carolina, and lived in Austin, Texas, and New York City. The "Four Million" refers to the population of New York at the time -- Porter wrote about ordinary people, he had an eye and ear for the stories in the people's lives all around him. New York was a rich source of material.

Most people know that O. Henry is famous for ending his stories with a twist, or a trick ending. I enjoy this technique as much as anyone, and I admire his use of this difficult form. It didn't seem to restrict his ability to portray human lives and events with a realism and texture that make every one of his short stories a delight to read and re-read.

Another hallmark of this master's writing was the use of unusual polysyllabic words. O. Henry was a lexophile, a lover of words, and obviously loved to put great discoveries from the English language to work in his stories. Here is a sentence from "The Cop and the Anthem:"
"There was an endless round of institutions, municipal and eleemosynary, on which he might set out and receive lodging and food accordant with the simple life."

"Eleemosynary." I first encountered that word in this story, but I've never forgotten it. I think it's a treasure.

My greatest admiration is reserved, however, for the obvious love with which O. Henry drew each of his characters. The street-grifter, the starving stenographer, the young bride, even the "hop-head" who shares his marijuana-induced dream with a young man pining for his lover's forgiveness (and, in delaying him when he has about given up waiting for her, saves the affair) -- all these unlikely people and more are made real and alive with a few masterful sentences from his pen.

I think this is ageless writing, and I hope that many readers young and old will discover and re-discover it. We are very fortunate to have the dedicated people of Project Gutenberg who are willing to make this wonderful art available to anyone with access to the Internet. And, we are very lucky to be English readers who can appreciate the work of O. Henry.

I'll leave you with this, some paragraphs from the opening of Gift of the Magi, which may be O. Henry's best known story. If you haven't read this, go immediately to it and read it all. If you know it, go anyway.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young." The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of "Dillingham" looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Wikipedia Entry for O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

Biography and Stories at the Literature Network

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