O. Henry: “He mastered a form of the short story that featured a surprising conclusion”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by John J. Miller headlined “A Twist Comes at the End”:

Before he was known as O. Henry and the author of “The Gift of the Magi,” William Sidney Porter wrote another yarn about a husband and wife who miscommunicate. Instead of trading Christmas presents in a touching tale of self-sacrifice, they exchange “some hard words” over breakfast. A little later, they regret their remarks and seek to make peace. When they meet again, however, they fire off a new round of accusations—painful to them in their fictional world but amusing to readers who recognize a comic mixture of spite and affection in a marriage.

Porter never published this piece of apprentice work, titled “The Return of the Songster.” It has languished in an archive at the University of Virginia, and it might be there still except for the fact that, under the name of O. Henry, Porter went on to master a form of the short story that featured a surprising conclusion. “The Return of the Songster” is now collected, along with two other previously unprinted pieces, in “101 Stories,” the Library of America’s comprehensive edition of this popular writer’s work, edited by Ben Yagoda. The book’s appearance in this distinguished series provides fresh evidence that, despite occasional skepticism from critics and scholars, O. Henry has secured a place in the country’s literary pantheon.

Born in North Carolina, Porter worked as a pharmacist, ranch cook and land-office clerk. In Texas, he took a job as a bank teller but fled to Honduras following an accusation of embezzlement. He returned to the U.S. after a few months to care for the ailing wife he had left behind.  She died, and he was sentenced to a federal prison in Ohio.

Behind bars for three years, Porter took up his pen name, published from the penitentiary and started his decadelong run of success. After his release, he moved to Manhattan and contributed to newspapers and magazines, scribbling under deadline pressure as he invented stories about ordinary people in his adopted city.

If he had written only “The Gift of the Magi,” which appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Sunday World in 1905, he’d still be read today. Although cynics may sneer at what they consider the aesthetic equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas movie, this 2,000-word celebration of unconditional love and holiday spirit remains one of the most beloved tales in American literature.

Yet O. Henry was more than a one-hit wonder, and a handful of his stories continue to appeal. “The Last Leaf” begins with a deathbed scene and ends with a message about the power of art. “The Cop and the Anthem” involves a vagrant who tries but fails to get arrested. “After Twenty Years” chronicles a reunion of friends who have fallen out of contact. Each features an agreeable jolt in its final sentence or paragraph….

Although his characters are usually forgettable and his plots often turn on coincidence, O. Henry compensated with several strengths. One is deadpan humor: “My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.”…When O. Henry wanted a colorful way to label a Central American nation, he came up with a term that has entered our vocabulary: “banana republic.”…

His admirers, however, mostly wanted to smile at those astonishing finales. As a commercial writer, O. Henry was pleased to create this content for publications that sold to the masses….He knew the tastes of his readers, whom he described in “The Duel” as “the man who sits smoking with his Sabbath-slippered feet on another chair” and “the woman who snatches the paper for a moment while boiling greens.”…

Enjoying a story by O. Henry can devolve into a guessing game, as readers come to expect the unexpected. In “Confessions of a Humorist,” the author describes the plight of a writer who discovers that he has a talent for telling jokes in print. “Gradually I found that I was expected to keep it up,” the character laments.

It’s easy to wonder what O. Henry might have accomplished if he had stepped outside the limits of his genre….Rather than grumbling about what he didn’t do, we’re better off marveling at what he achieved: More than a century later, O. Henry keeps on getting the last laugh.

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