A Municipal Report by O. Henry, 1910
A MUNICIPAL REPORT
by O. Henry, 1910
Today one of O. Henry's less familiar stories, "A Municipal Report," which was collected in Strictly Business in 1910, was widely appreciated in earlier times. Perhaps this was because of its clever stylistic devices and the odd psychology of its story line. In 1916 Stephen Leacock spoke of "the master genius that penned 'The Furnished Room' and 'A Municipal Report'." In 1917 Carl Van Doren called it "one of his truest stories." Twenty-two years later he and his brother, Mark Van Doren, referred to it as "probably his best short story." In 1936 Arthur Hobson Quinn attributed the excellence of the story to the way in which a key figure in the proceedings is deliberately held to a subordinate, if not a marginal, position in the story line. To V. S. Pritchett "A Municipal Report" was O. Henry's masterpiece. Yet in 1965 Eugene Current-Garcia asserted that the story "is perhaps justly famed as one of O. Henry's finest efforts, but it hardly deserves any longer the extraordinary praise given it forty or fifty years ago." And in 1970 Richard O'Connor referred to a 1914 New York Times symposium in which readers had voted it the greatest American short story by saying, "Needless to add, its literary rating has since depreciated considerably."
In light of O. Henry's diversified geographical settings for his fiction, the epigraph of "A Municipal Report" seems inconsequential at first glance. It begins with a quotation from Rudyard Kipling, "The cities are full of pride, Challenging each to each," followed by a quote from Frank Norris stating that only three large American cities are story cities. They are not, for example, Chicago, Buffalo, or Nashville, but rather New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. In answer to this perceived challenge to his honor as a storyteller, the first-person narrator then proceeds to show how romance, that is, a story worth the telling, can come out of Nashville. Seemingly to enhance the appeal of Nashville to the reader, he occasionally inserts descriptive passages, apparently taken from a guidebook, about the location, history, commerce, and general significance of the city. A number of references within the story proper deal with the issue of whether or not there is really "anything doing" in Nashville.
O'Connor cites two contemporaneous explanations for the origin of "A Municipal Report." The first, understandably enough, was the disparaging remark by Norris and O. Henry's consequent annoyance. The second explanation, which O'Connor traces to O. Henry's memoirist Robert Davis, has O. Henry telling a guest that a competent writer with a functioning imagination could produce a story from the paltriest object of consideration. Upon the guest's daring him to do so by proffering a pocket guide to Nashville, O. Henry wrote "A Municipal Report." Praiseworthy or overpraised, the tale has an odd, disturbing quality. With its caricatured dramatis personae the contrived story line gives the impression of having emerged from the murky mental depths of a professional storyteller.
The narrator, a business traveler, has arrived in Nashville and finds to his dismay that it is a dull, rainy, torpid city. He is there not by choice but on commission from a literary periodical in the north. His task is to sign up a woman writer, Azalea Adair, whose unsolicited contributions of essays and poems have greatly impressed the magazine's editors. The latter want her future work to be contractually pledged to their publication at the rate of two cents per word before another publisher tempts her away with a promise of 5 to 10 times that amount. Two men of very different backgrounds enter the narrator's life before he is in a position to meet the woman, and for seemingly unrelated reasons he takes an intense dislike to each. One, who intrudes upon him in the hotel lobby, is a so-called major, Wentworth Caswell. He represents the type of southerner that the narrator, a southerner himself who wants to keep a low profile, loathes and considers a rat. Caswell is a loud, vulgar, self-important braggart whose unexpected, sudden attachment is difficult to endure and hard to break off. The second is Uncle Caesar, an elderly black carriage driver with the features of an African king who wears a tattered but once splendid coat, possibly that of a Confederate army officer. The narrator treats and describes him with marked contempt. (Near the beginning of the story another black carriage driver is also depicted in a dismissively degrading manner.)
Uncle Caesar reluctantly conveys the narrator to the place where Azalea Adair lives, and he finds her to be a poor but proud woman who evinces more than decayed southern gentility and cultivated literary taste. She has genuine imaginative power and a compelling poetic eloquence. On his return visit to her, with Uncle Caesar again the cab driver, the sympathetic narrator has received editorial approval to offer her eight cents per word for future contributions, and on his own initiative he gives her a $50 advance. But now the actions of the two men referred to earlier take on major significance. It appears that Major Caswell is Azalea Adair's husband, and he has been wringing from her whatever amount of cash she is able to scrape up so that he can spend it convivially on liquor. As for Uncle Caesar, whatever the narrator might think of his lowly status, it turns out that he actually is descended from an African king. Moreover, he has been supporting the woman, the daughter of his former master in slave days, from his cab fares. He has even charged the narrator four times the normal amount for this purpose.
When Uncle Caesar discovers that Caswell has taken the desperately needed $50-dollar advance from his long-suffering wife, he kills the scoundrel under circumstances that conceal the murderer's identity from all but the narrator. The latter finds out, but reveals to no one in the story, that at the time of his death the victim, who was killed in a fierce struggle with his assailant, was clutching a button torn from Uncle Caesar's tattered coat.
There are a number of meaningful patterns that offer a range of perspectives on this strange revenge tale. Three of the patterns, with the second and third being closely intertwined, are municipal memorabilia, the southern tradition, and fictionalized autobiography as an escape from self. With only minor topographical changes the events in the story could have been invented against the background of a number of other southern cities in the early 1900s. O. Henry's "municipal report," notwithstanding the guidebook quotations and other comments on Nashville, does not by any means make it a city distinctive enough to be on the literary map with New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The story's concluding line, "I wonder what's doing in Buffalo!" hints at nothing more than another staging area for a contrived plot with oddball characters and a mix of virtues and vices. But O. Henry's authorial opinion on the matter appears to have been vindicated to at least a limited extent. If he could not make a story city out of just any municipality, at least he could make a story from one.
It appears that O. Henry is settling a number of old scores and releasing a variety of long-harbored mixed emotions within the story. A number of biographers, Current-Garcia prominently included, have dealt with the author's literary use of his southern heritage. Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the closely observant, imaginative William Sidney Porter became familiar with a variety of recognizable southern character types that he would transmute into story characters. (Shame resulting from a prison sentence for embezzlement elicited the famous pseudonym.) His fictional Nashville, then, is inhabited by certain characters who might well have come out of Greensboro, and it is pervaded by the spirit of Porter, who had had unhappy dealings with the law, to say nothing of his financial troubles as a professional writer.
Major Caswell was a representative of the kind of southern gentleman who was anathema to Porter, whose formerly well-todo family had fallen apart in the course of the Civil War. His father, a physician, lost much of his medical practice, his mother and infant brother died, and the rest of the family went to live with his Aunt Evelina and her mother. No longer able to cope, Dr. Porter let his practice dwindle away. Considering the author's reduced circumstances, he might well have loathed and fled from a man such as the major, a tobacco-chewing professional southerner in typical attire and with extravagant claims to family lineage and property as well as war losses.
The narrator's shabby treatment of Uncle Caesar, who is presented first as a figure of fun and then as a murderer, is to be seen in light of the author's having grown up in the south during the 1860s and 1870s and of his having absorbed the common prejudices of the time and place. Uncle Caesar is depicted not only as an raggedy ex-slave but also as someone who would do anything, even kill, for his mistress. His murder of Major Caswell reads like a psychological shifting of blame by the narrator, with the saving grace that the killer goes scot-free. As at least one commentator has noted, however, there is between the narrator and Uncle Caesar a moment of tacit mutual understanding that what can be done for Azalea Adair should be done, which is based on a southern code of behavior. The character of the refined, sensitive, poetic Azalea Adair has been traced to Porter's Aunt Evelina, who was largely responsible for his wide reading interests and probably also for his highly developed verbal skills. Azalea Adair's rescue from unscrupulous editors by the narrator, who could not bear to see her as badly underpaid as they had intended, seems to be one of Porter's clearest insertions in the story of his own concerns. The genteel woman author is to receive the satisfactory payment she so richly deserves. Dark as the municipal report is, it contains enough plot twists and colorful characters to provide lively reading entertainment in the traditional O. Henry manner.
—Samuel I. Bellman