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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

O. Henry

O. W. Firkins

  • Several years ago I turned to Who’s Who in America in hope of finding some information about O. W. Firkins, whose brilliant reviews—chiefly of poetry—were appearing in The Nation. I found no entry, but every few months I would again rummage that stout red volume with the same intention, forgetting that I had done so before without success. It seemed hardly credible that a critic so brilliant had been overlooked by the industrious compilers of that work, which includes hundreds of hacks and fourflushers. When gathering the contents of this book I tried Who’s Who again, still without result. I wrote to Mr. Firkins pleading for biographical details; modestly, but firmly, he denied me.
  • So all I can tell you is this, that Mr. Firkins is to my mind one of the half-dozen most sparkling critics in this country. One sometimes feels that he is carried a little past his destination by the sheer gusto and hilarity of his antitheses and paradoxes. That is not so, however, in this essay about O. Henry, an author who has often been grotesquely mispraised (I did not say overpraised) by people incompetent to appreciate his true greatness. Mr. Robert Cortes Holliday, in an essay called “The Amazing Failure of O. Henry,” said that O. Henry created no memorable characters. Mr. Firkins suggests the obvious but satisfying answer—New York itself is his triumph. The New York of O. Henry, already almost erased physically, remains a personality and an identity.
  • Mr. Firkins is professor of English at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing editor of The Weekly Review, in which this essay first appeared in September, 1919. The footnotes are, of course, his own.

  • THERE are two opinions concerning O. Henry. The middle class views him as the impersonation of vigor and brilliancy; part of the higher criticism sees in him little but sensation and persiflage. Between these views there is a natural relation; the gods of the heathens are ipso facto the demons of Christianity. Unmixed assertions, however, are commonly mixtures of truth and falsehood; there is room to-day for an estimate which shall respect both opinions and adopt neither.

    There is one literary trait in which I am unable to name any writer of tales in any literature who surpasses O. Henry. It is not primary or even secondary among literary merits; it is less a value per se than the condition or foundation of values. But its utility is manifest, and it is rare among men: Chaucer and Shakespeare prove the possibility of its absence in masters of that very branch of art in which its presence would seem to be imperative. I refer to the designing of stories—not to the primary intuition or to skill in development, in both of which finer phases of invention O. Henry has been largely and frequently surpassed, but to the disposition of masses, to the blocking-out of plots. That a half educated American provincial should have been original in a field in which original men have been copyists is enough of itself to make his personality observable.

    Illustration, even of conceded truth, is rarely superfluous. I supply two instances. Two lads, parting in New York, agree to meet “After Twenty Years” at a specified hour, date, and corner. Both are faithful; but the years in which their relation has slept in mutual silence and ignorance have turned the one into a dashing criminal, the other into a sober officer of the law. Behind the picturesque and captivating rendezvous lurks a powerful dramatic situation and a moral problem of arresting gravity. This is dealt with in six pages of the “Four Million.” The “Furnished Room,” two stories further on, occupies twelve pages. Through the wilderness of apartments on the lower West Side a man trails a woman. Chance leads him to the very room in which the woman ended her life the week before. Between him and the truth the avarice of a sordid landlady interposes the curtain of a lie. In the bed in which the girl slept and died, the man sleeps and dies, and the entrance of the deadly fumes into his nostrils shuts the sinister and mournful coincidence forever from the knowledge of mankind. O. Henry gave these tales neither extension nor prominence; so far as I know, they were received without bravos or salvos. The distinction of a body of work in which such specimens are undistinguished hardly requires comment.

    A few types among these stories may be specified. There are the Sydney Cartonisms, defined in the name; love-stories in which divided hearts, or simply divided persons, are brought together by the strategy of chance; hoax stories—deft pictures of smiling roguery; “prince and pauper” stories, in which wealth and poverty face each other, sometimes enact each other; disguise stories, in which the wrong clothes often draw the wrong bullets; complemental stories, in which Jim sacrifices his beloved watch to buy combs for Della, who, meanwhile, has sacrificed her beloved hair to buy a chain for Jim.

    This imperfect list is eloquent in its way; it smooths our path to the assertion that O. Henry’s specialty is the enlistment of original method in the service of traditional appeals. The ends are the ends of fifty years ago; O. Henry transports us by aeroplane the old homestead.

    Criticism of O. Henry falls into those superlatives and antitheses in which his own faculty delighted. In mechanical invention he is almost the leader of his race. In a related quality—a defect—his leadership is even more conspicuous. I doubt if the sense of the probable, or, more precisely, of the available in the improbable, ever became equally weakened or deadened in a man who made his living by its exercise. The improbable, even the impossible, has its place in art, though that place is relatively low; and it is curious that works such as the “Arabian Nights” and Grimm’s fairy tales, whose stock-in-trade is the incredible, are the works which give almost no trouble on the score of verisimilitude. The truth is that we reject not what it is impossible to prove, or even what it is possible to disprove, but what it is impossible to imagine. O. Henry asks us to imagine the unimaginable—that is his crime.

    The right and wrong improbabilities may be illustrated from two burglar stories. “Sixes and Sevens” contains an excellent tale of a burglar and a citizen who fraternize, in a comic midnight interview, on the score of their common sufferings from rheumatism. This feeling in practice would not triumph over fear and greed; but the feeling is natural, and everybody with a grain of nature in him can imagine its triumph. Nature tends towards that impossibility, and art, lifting, so to speak, the lid which fact drops upon nature, reveals nature in belying fact. In another story, in “Whirligigs,” a nocturnal interview takes place in which a burglar and a small boy discuss the etiquette of their mutual relation by formulas derived from short stories with which both are amazingly conversant. This is the wrong use of improbable. Even an imagination inured to the virtues of burglars and the maturity of small boys will have naught to do with this insanity.

    But O. Henry can go further yet. There are inventions in his tales the very utterance of which—not the mere substance but the utterance—on the part of a man not writing from Bedlam or for Bedlam impresses the reader as incredible. In a “Comedy in Rubber,” two persons become so used to spectatorship at transactions in the street that they drift into the part of spectators when the transaction is their own wedding. Can human daring or human folly go further? O. Henry is on the spot to prove that they can. In the “Romance of a Busy Broker,” a busy and forgetful man, in a freak of absent-mindedness, offers his hand to the stenographer whom he had married the night before.

    The other day, in the journal of the Goncourts, I came upon the following sentence: “Never will the imagination approach the improbabilities and the antitheses of truth” (II, 9). This is dated February 21, 1862. Truth had still the advantage. O. Henry was not born till September of the same year.

    Passing on to style, we are still in the land of antithesis. The style is gross—and fine. Of the plenitude of its stimulus, there can be no question. In “Sixes and Sevens,” a young man sinking under accidental morphia, is kept awake and alive by shouts, kicks, and blows. O. Henry’s public seems imaged in that young man. But I draw a sharp distinction between the tone of the style and its pattern. The tone is brazen, or, better perhaps, brassy; its self-advertisement is incorrigible; it reeks with that air of performance which is opposed to real efficiency. But the pattern is another matter. The South rounds its periods like its vowels; O. Henry has read, not widely, but wisely, in his boyhood. His sentences are built—a rare thing in the best writers of to-day. In conciseness, that Spartan virtue, he was strong, though it must be confessed that the tale-teller was now and then hustled from the rostrum by his rival and enemy, the talker. He can introduce a felicity with a noiselessness that numbers him for a flying second among the sovereigns of English. “In one of the second-floor front windows Mrs. McCaskey awaited her husband. Supper was cooling on the table. Its heat went into Mrs. McCaskey.”

    I regret the tomfoolery; I wince at the slang. Yet even for these levities with which his pages are so liberally besprinkled or bedaubed, some half-apology may be circumspectly urged. In nonsense his ease is consummate. A horseman who should dismount to pick up a bauble would be childish; O. Henry picks it up without dismounting. Slang, again, is most pardonable in the man with whom its use is least exclusive and least necessary. There are men who, going for a walk, take their dogs with them; there are other men who give a walk to their dogs. Substitute slang for the dog, and the superiority of the first class to the second will exactly illustrate the superiority of O. Henry to the abject traffickers in slang.

    In the “Pendulum” Katy has a new patch in her crazy quilt which the ice man cut from the end of his four-in-hand. In the “Day We Celebrate,” threading the mazes of a banana grove is compared to “paging the palm room of a New York hotel for a man named Smith.” O. Henry’s is the type of mind to which images like this four-in-hand and this palm room are presented in exhaustless abundance and unflagging continuity. There was hardly an object in the merry-go-round of civilized life that had not offered at least an end or an edge to the avidity of his consuming eyes. Nothing escapes from the besom of his allusiveness, and the style is streaked and pied, almost to monotony, by the accumulation of lively details.

    If O. Henry’s style was crude, it was also rare; but it is part of the grimness of the bargain that destiny drives with us that the mixture of the crude and the rare should be a crude mixture, as the sons of whites and negroes are numbered with the blacks. In the kingdom of style O. Henry’s estates were princely, but, to pay his debts, he must have sold them all.

    Thus far in our inquiry extraordinary merits have been offset by extraordinary defects. To lift our author out of the class of brilliant and skilful entertainers, more is needed. Is more forthcoming? I should answer, yes. In O. Henry, above the knowledge of setting, which is clear and first-hand, but subsidiary, above the order of events, which is, generally speaking, fantastic, above the emotions, which are sound and warm, but almost purely derivative, there is a rather small, but impressive body of firsthand perspicacities and reactions. On these his endurance may hinge.

    I name, first of all, O. Henry’s feeling for New York. With the exception of his New Orleans, I care little for his South and West, which are a boyish South and West, and as little, or even less, for his Spanish-American communities. My objection to his operabouffe republics is, not that they are inadequate as republics (for that we were entirely prepared), but that they are inadequate as opera. He lets us see his show from the coulisses. The pretense lacks standing even among pretenses, and a faith must be induced before its removal can enliven us. But his New York has quality. It is of the family of Dickens’s London and Hugo’s Paris, though it is plainly a cadet in the family. Mr. Howells, in his profound and valuable study of the metropolis in a “Hazard of New Fortunes,” is penetrating; O. Henry, on the other hand, is penetrated. His New York is intimate and clinging; it is caught in the mesh of the imagination.

    O. Henry had rare but precious insights into human destiny and human nature. In these pictures he is not formally accurate; he could never or seldom set his truth before us in that moderation and proportion which truths acquire in the stringencies of actuality. He was apt to present his insight in a sort of parable or allegory, to upraise it before the eyes of mankind on the mast or flagpole of some vehement exaggeration. Epigram shows us truth in the embrace of a lie, and tales which are dramatized epigrams are subject to a like constraint. The force, however, is real. I could scarcely name anywhere a more powerful exposition of fatality than “Roads of Destiny,” the initial story in the volume which appropriates its title. It wanted only the skilled romantic touch of a Gautier or Stevenson to enroll this tale among the masterpieces of its kind in contemporary letters.

    Now and then the ingredient of parable is hardly perceptible; we draw close to the bare fact. O. Henry, fortunate in plots, is peculiarly fortunate in his renunciation of plot. If contrivance is lucrative, it is also costly. There is an admirable little story called the “Pendulum” (in the “Trimmed Lamp”), the simplicity of whose fable would have satisfied Coppée or Hawthorne. A man in a flat, by force of custom, has come to regard his wife as a piece of furniture. She departs for a few hours, and, by the break in usage, is restored, in his consciousness, to womanhood. She comes back, and relapses into furniture. That is all. O. Henry could not have given us less—or more. Farcical, clownish, if you will, the story resembles those clowns who carry daggers under their motley. When John Perkins takes up that inauspicious hat, the reader smiles, and quails. I will mention a few other examples of insights with the proviso that they are not specially commended to the man whose quest in the short story is the electrifying or the calorific. They include the “Social Triangle,” the “Making of a New Yorker,” and the “Foreign Policy of Company 99,” all in the “Trimmed Lamp,” the “Brief Début of Tildy” in the “Four Million,” and the “Complete Life of John Hopkins” in the “Voice of the City.” I cannot close this summary of good points without a passing reference to the not unsuggestive portrayal of humane and cheerful scoundrels in the “Gentle Grafter.” The picture, if false to species, is faithful to genus.

    O. Henry’s egregiousness, on the superficial side, both in merits and defects, reminds us of those park benches so characteristic of his tales which are occupied by a millionaire at one end and a mendicant at the other. But, to complete the image, we must add as a casual visitor to that bench a seer or a student, who, sitting down between the previous comers and suspending the flamboyancies of their dialogue, should gaze with the pensive eye of Goldsmith or Addison upon the passing crowd.

    In O. Henry American journalism and the Victorian tradition meet. His mind, quick to don the guise of modernity, was impervious to its spirit. The specifically modern movements, the scientific awakening, the religious upheaval and subsidence, the socialistic gospel, the enfranchisement of women—these never interfered with his artless and joyous pursuit of the old romantic motives of love, hate, wealth, poverty, gentility, disguise, and crime. On two points a moral record which, in his literature, is everywhere sound and stainless, rises almost to nobility. In an age when sexual excitement had become available and permissible, this worshiper of stimulus never touched with so much as a fingertip that insidious and meretricious fruit. The second point is his feeling for underpaid working-girls. His passionate concern for this wrong derives a peculiar emphasis from the general refusal of his books to bestow countenance or notice of philanthropy in its collective forms. When, in his dream of Heaven, he is asked: “Are you one of the bunch?” (meaning one of the bunch of grasping and grinding employers), the response, through all its slang, is soul-stirring. “‘Not on your immortality,’ said I. ‘I’m only the fellow that set fire to an orphan asylum and murdered a blind man for his pennies.’” The author of that retort may have some difficulty with the sentries that watch the entrance of Parnassus; he will have none with the gatekeeper of the New Jerusalem.