After Twenty Years
After Twenty Years
O. Henry is one writer whose style is familiar to generations of readers the world over, and "After Twenty Years" presents a prime example of this style. A typical O. Henry story will involve two people with an emotional connection to each other that is put under stress by the circumstances they face. At the end of the story, a strange twist generally occurs. Sometimes it is a twist of fate, but sometimes the twist is a piece of information that was not previously available to the reader and that sheds a new light on all that has come before it. Though some readers feel that the twist shows an overly sentimental view of the human condition, many readers enjoy the way O. Henry's stories affirm the best things about the human condition.
The situation in "After Twenty Years" is simple and clearly defined: a man stands on a New York street, waiting for a friend that he agreed to meet twenty years earlier, and he explains his story to a passing policeman. It is a situation that can be understood by cultures all over the world, by one generation after the next.
The enduring popularity of O. Henry has given him a degree of public recognition that is unusual for a writer. The naming of the Oh Henry candy bar, first introduced in 1920, was almost certainly influenced by the public's familiarity with the writer's name. On a more serious note, one of the most prestigious literary prizes
awarded each year is the O. Henry Award, given to writers who show excellence in the short story form.
"After Twenty Years" is frequently included in anthologies of short stories. It was originally published in O. Henry's 1906 collection The Four Million, which was reissued in 2003 by Wildside Press.
O. Henry was born William Sydney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on September 11, 1862. His father was a physician. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was three, and responsibility for raising the child fell to his aunt and his grandmother. He was educated at his Aunt Lina's private school until he was fifteen, and in his teen years he worked at his uncle's pharmacy and became a licensed pharmacist.
When he was nineteen years old, health concerns forced Porter to move to Texas, where he lived on a sheep ranch belonging to Richard Hall, a family friend. He lived on the ranch for two years and then moved to Austin, where he spent several years working a variety of jobs, including real estate agent, draftsman, and teller at the First National Bank. Around that time he met Athol Estes, a seventeen-year-old woman from a wealthy family. Because of Porter's social position and the fact that Athol was ill with tuberculosis, her family opposed their romance. Porter eloped with her in 1887, and they went on to have three children, though one died soon after birth. Porter left First National Bank in the early 1890s to start a weekly humor magazine, the Rolling Stone. The magazine quickly failed, and in 1895, Porter and his young family moved to Houston where he began writing columns for the Houston Daily Post.
While he was working for the Post, he was charged with embezzlement after an investigation at the First National Bank. During his trial he left his wife and children behind and escaped to Honduras. Two years later, news reached him that Athol's tuberculosis had worsened significantly, so he returned to Austin. She died in 1898, and Porter's trial went on. He was found guilty of embezzling and on March 25, 1898, began a three-year sentence in an Ohio prison.
It was while he was in prison in Columbus, Ohio, that Porter began writing in earnest. He had stories published in McClure's and the Outlook, writing under the name O. Henry to hide his true identity. After his release from prison, he was living in poverty in Pittsburgh when the editors of Ainslee's Magazine offered him a guaranteed income if he would move to New York. He moved in 1902 and began publishing stories frequently in all of the top magazines. Within eight years he became one of the most widely read authors in America. During this period, "After Twenty Years" was first published as part of the collection The Four Million, in 1906.
His personal life was less successful, plagued by drinking and debts. In 1907 he married his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Lindsay Coleman of Weaverville, North Carolina, but they separated a year later. He died in New York City of cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1910.
"After Twenty Years" takes place on a street in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the businesses on the block are closed for the day. A policeman walks along the block, testing the doorknobs of businesses, making sure that they are locked and secure against burglars. In the doorway of a hardware store that is closed, he comes across a man who has an unlit cigar in his mouth. Before the officer can begin to question him, the man assures him that he is not a burglar, that he is merely waiting for a friend. He goes on to light his cigar and tell the officer why he and his friend are meeting at such a dark and desolate place.
Twenty years earlier, he explains, he and his friend had dinner at a restaurant called "Big Joe" Brady's, which used to be located where the hardware store stands. The officer confirms that this was the site of the restaurant up until five years earlier, when it was torn down. At the time of their last meal together, the man continues, he was eighteen years old and his friend Jimmy was twenty. The two had grown up together and were the closest of friends, but the man was leaving the next morning to go out to the West to find his fortune, and Jimmy was the type of person who would never leave New York. After eating their dinner that night, they agreed that no matter where they were or what they were doing, they would both do all they could to return to that same spot at that exact same time, ten o'clock, exactly twenty years later.
The officer expresses interest, asking why they had been in contact so seldom over the past twenty years. The man briefly explains that he has been busy in the West trying to make his fortune. He checks the time on his watch, which is adorned with diamonds, indicating that he has been successful in his business endeavors. The time is three minutes before ten o'clock, the precise moment that they are scheduled to meet. The officer stays a few minutes more, and it is after ten o'clock when he says goodbye and leaves.
The man waits twenty minutes more. Finally, another man approaches, bundled up against the light rain that has started to fall. The new man calls the man in the doorway Bob and answers to the name of Jimmy Wells. As they chat, Jimmy points out that he has not done as well financially as Bob: he has a position in a city department. He suggests that they go to a place that he knows of nearby, where they can get out of the rain and have a long talk about old times.
When they pass through the light emanating from the window of a drug store that is still open, Bob looks at the man he is with and exclaims with certainty that he is not Jimmy Wells. Though a man can change much in twenty years, he explains, the shape of his nose could never be so drastically altered. The other man says that he is in fact a plainclothes police officer, and that the man, whom he now refers to as "Silky" Bob, has been under arrest since they met ten minutes ago for warrants issued in Chicago.
He gives Bob a note and says that it is from "Patrolman Wells." In the note, the real Jimmy Wells explains that he was in fact the officer who was with Bob at the site of "Big Joe" Brady's restaurant at ten o'clock, but that when Bob struck a match to light his cigar, he recognized Bob's face as the one wanted in Chicago. Jimmy did not have the nerve to arrest his old friend, so he had left before he could be recognized and found a plainclothes officer to arrest him.
- "After Twenty Years" is one of the short stories included in the audiotape collection O. Henry Favorites, released in 1987 by Listening Library of Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Readings in this collection are by Robert Donley and Jack Whitaker.
- This story is also one of five O. Henry stories included in the 2001 Naxos AudioBooks compact disc collection Classic American Short Stories, read by William Roberts.
- A short film titled After Twenty Years and starring Richard Keats and Glen Thompson was released on VHS videocassette by Coronet/MTI Film and Video in 1989.
When he first appears in this story, Bob seems to have a sinister presence: he is standing in the shadows of a store that is closed, on a street that is deserted. He has a good explanation for why he is there, however, and he seems comfortable in the presence of the police officer who is on the lookout for suspicious activities. His story about going out to the West and successfully pursuing his fortune is supported by the diamonds on his watch and scarf pin, which show that he is a wealthy man and not a vagrant. His story is also supported by his knowledge of "Big Joe" Brady's restaurant, which had been torn down five years earlier.
Because he is in New York for a legitimate purpose, to see a friend from before his days as a criminal, Bob does not think about the fact that he is wanted by the police. He chats openly with the policeman, unaware that his picture has been forwarded from Chicago and that the policeman has seen it. While his innocence makes him miss some details, his criminal past also blinds him to the realities of the situation. He knows that he looks suspicious standing in a darkened doorway on a deserted street, and so he is not at all surprised that a policeman would approach him. Looking at the situation from a criminal point of view, he is conscious of looking like a law breaker, which makes Bob blind to the idea that the person who approaches him at ten o'clock on the appointed night at the appointed place might be the person whom he is scheduled to meet.
Throughout the story, Bob never explains what he has done out West to earn his fortune, only that life out there has given him everything he ever wanted. Readers never learn what crimes "Silky" Bob is wanted for in Chicago, only that he is established enough as a criminal to earn a criminal nickname.
The Plainclothes Officer
The plainclothes officer, not given a name in this story, is sent to trick the criminal known by the Chicago police as "Silky" Bob by pretending that he is Jimmy Wells. The real Jimmy has apparently briefed him on the situation: the officer mentions the restaurant that they were to meet at, the plan to have dinner there once again, and the fact that Bob has been living in the West. When asked about his own life, he truthfully states that he works for the city, avoiding mention of the police force. He leads Bob off to a place he knows of without indicating what that place might be.
He could have arrested Bob the minute that he approached him. The quiet, nonviolent way that he carefully leads him toward the police station is in keeping with Jimmy Wells's sorrow about having his friend arrested: the plainclothes officer allows Bob the dignity of walking along the street and believing himself to be a free man for just a few minutes longer.
See Jimmy Wells
When he is first mentioned in the story, the man later identified as Jimmy is described as twirling his nightstick expertly, establishing that he has been a policeman for a considerable length of time. By referring to him only as "the policeman," O. Henry keeps Jimmy's identity a secret from the reader as well as from Bob.
Bob does not recognize his old friend on the darkened street because he is distracted by the uniform that Jimmy wears. Though he does not say so, the story implies that the Jimmy that Bob knew, twenty years earlier, was not the type one would expect to join the police force. Bob explains why he is there, and Jimmy, who needs no explanation, listens for a while. He does not reveal his true identity to his friend because the match that Bob ignites to light his cigar illuminates his face and shows him to be a wanted man. Jimmy is a conscientious officer in several ways. For one thing, he has paid close attention to the photos of wanted criminals that are sent to the New York police department from other parts of the country. More importantly, though, is the fact that Jimmy knows, as he listens to Bob reminisce about his old friend, that he will have to have Bob arrested.
Although he is more dedicated to the law than to his old friend, Jimmy still cannot forget his connection to Bob. The sentimental bond between them is so strong that Jimmy cannot arrest Bob himself, so he leaves and sends another officer to do it. He also takes the time to write a note to Bob, explaining himself, so that Bob will not think that Jimmy forgot about him after twenty years. His note is terse and offers no apology for having Bob arrested, but that is the best that Jimmy can do when he and a man who was once his best friend are on opposite sides of the law.
Friendship is at the heart of "After Twenty Years." The character who does the most talking, Bob, seems to be genuinely enthusiastic about seeing his old friend Jimmy. He speaks glowingly about what a great friend Jimmy was and relates that he has traveled across the country, over a thousand miles, to see him again. When he is questioned about whether Jimmy might forget about an appointment that was made so long ago, he says that Jimmy was the kind of friend who would remain true to the promise he once gave, despite whatever changes might have come to his life over the course of twenty years. Jimmy Wells also takes the bond of his old friendship with Bob seriously. He turns up at the appointed time to see his old friend, and, finding that his friend must be arrested, he leaves because he is emotionally incapable of performing the arrest himself.
Although this story does not discuss the nature of the friendship of these two men, it does present some implicit assumptions about friendship. First, it suggests that friendship can last for decades, even when the two friends have no contact with one another. Bob casually mentions that they have not even written letters to one another in a long time. Furthermore, the story suggests that friendship can be powerful enough to make a criminal like Bob sentimental for the days before his financial success, showing his faith in the Jimmy Wells that he remembers. Though his time in the West has obviously changed Bob in some ways, he is willing to forget his current status briefly in the memory of his old friendship.
O. Henry does not tell readers what crimes Bob is wanted for in this story, leaving them to piece together clues to determine what sort of man he might be. His criminal nickname, "Silky" Bob, indicates that he probably is not known for violent crimes, but for crimes that involve cunning and deception. The diamond-encrusted watch that he carries indicates that he finds it important to show off his wealth, which suggests that he may be a con artist, involved in crimes that require gaining the confidence of his victims by making them think he is rich.
One thing that is fairly clear is that Bob is a criminal of some significance. The police in Chicago have been unable to capture him, but they have watched him closely enough to make an educated guess about the fact that he is headed to New York. The telegraph that they sent with the description of "Silky" Bob was broadly distributed in the New York police department, given so much priority that a patrolman like Jimmy Wells would read it and memorize its details. When Bob talks about living out West, he first talks about making his fortune, but later he ominously suggests that the life that he has been leading has put a "razor-edge" on him, indicating that it has made him tough.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Study old newspapers, phone books, or other sources to find the name and location of a restaurant that was in business near you a hundred years ago. Prepare a multimedia presentation or collection of pictures to show how that location or nearby locations have changed over time.
- This story takes place in the first years of the twentieth century. Create a CD of songs that would have been popular then and might have been playing in the drug store where Bob and the plainclothes officer stop. Prepare a booklet that contains background information about the historical significance of the recordings you have chosen.
- Compile a collection of at least ten different shapes of noses, including the "Roman" and "pug" mentioned in the story. Have classmates work in groups to classify their own noses according to the forms you provide.
- In his note at the end of the story, Jimmy Wells explains that he went to find another policeman when he recognized Bob as a wanted criminal. Write a dialogue that they might have had if Jimmy had not recognized Bob as a criminal and if Bob had first realized that his old friend had grown up to be a policeman.
Duty and Responsibility
O. Henry puts the focus of "After Twenty Years" on the friendship between Bob and Jimmy, keeping readers interested in the fact that their relationship could survive even though they have not
been in contact for such a long time. While paying attention to their long separation and admiring the devotion that would drive Bob a thousand miles to visit a friend who might have forgotten about him, readers are distracted from other aspects that might interfere with the friendship between these two men. The fact that Jimmy turns out to be the patrolman that Bob told his story to is a surprise twist, but even more surprising is the fact that Jimmy could not reveal his identity because he felt obliged to have his friend arrested.
Jimmy's note, reproduced in the story's last paragraph, explains his moral situation: he still has a lingering emotional attachment to his old friend, but he also is responsible for upholding the law. His responsibility to the law takes precedence, and he arranges to have Bob arrested, though his emotional bond is still strong enough to prevent him from making the arrest himself. The note that he sends Bob might not help a criminal understand a police officer's sense of civic duty, but it does show Bob that turning him in is not an easy decision for Jimmy.
Situational irony is a plot device used in plays and in fiction in which the outcome is unexpected to the audience or reader. In "After Twenty Years," readers do not discover that Bob is a criminal until the last few lines of the story, when he is arrested. Rather, they are led to think of him as a loyal friend and successful businessman. Furthermore the story does not explain that the person referred to as "the policeman" is actually the same Jimmy Wells that Bob has been describing to the policeman until the arresting officer calls him "Officer Wells."
Although these final revelations change the story's meaning, astute readers have reasons to anticipate such a reversal of expectations. Readers who are familiar with O. Henry's fiction know that his stories commonly feature a surprise ending, and they read his stories trying to guess what it will be. In "After Twenty Years," readers can look back after reaching the last line and feel that the clues to the shift in situation are there all along: O. Henry has the policeman show up at the same time that Jimmy Wells was expected, and he has Bob mention the fact that he has scrabbled to make his fortune in the West. When it turns out that Bob is a criminal and that Jimmy is the officer he was talking to, many readers may be surprised and find it ironic that they could not see this logical outcome all along.
Third-Person, Limited Point of View
This story is told from a restricted third-person point of view. It does not offer readers insight into the thoughts of any of the characters but instead relates facts that anyone present could observe. The narration in this story is further limited to things that Bob can observe, such as the policeman who approaches twirling his club, and the stranger who approaches him later. The reader is not told that the person who Bob thinks is Jimmy is actually someone else until the moment that Bob says it out loud.
Because the point of view does not offer insight into Bob's mind, readers are kept from knowing that he is a wanted fugitive: they only know what he tells the police officer about himself. The limited point of view stays with him when the officer leaves, so readers do not know that the first officer has gone to phone a plain-clothes officer. By carefully limiting the scope of the narrative, O. Henry is able to leave out information that would reveal the story's surprise ending without making reader aware that information has been left out.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, when this story was published, the social characteristics of the different geographic regions of the United States were much more distinct than they are in the twenty-first century. The Northeast, as the area originally settled by Europeans, continued to carry identifiable traces of European social structure. The South was an agricultural power that was still weakened after the Civil War thirty-five years earlier. The Midwest was built by immigrant labor during the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century, and the Great Plains were known as a land of widely dispersed, lonely farms. At this time in the nation's history, the West was already shrouded in mythology as an open, untamed land where people with no social prospects could go, build fortunes, and create new personalities for themselves.
Since Europeans had moved from east to west across the continent, the area west of the settlement boundaries was considered the frontier. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the reach of the U.S. government had extended to the Pacific coast, with California becoming a state in 1850. California's early development is attributed to the discovery of gold ore there in 1848, along with its accessibility by ocean. The area between the Rocky Mountains and California developed more slowly over the second half of the century.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. government took an active role in encouraging the development of the West. Settlers were able to claim hundreds of acres of land for free or for little money. U.S. Army troops were sent to protect the settlers by fighting wars against Native American tribes such as the Cheyenne, the Apache, the Kiowa, and the Comanche. Railroads were allotted massive land grants to unite the East and West Coasts.
The development of the West offered much to people who had little invested in the traditional social order, attracting a higher proportion of rough, antisocial lawbreakers than did the areas already settled. In addition, the quick development of such a wide-open area made law enforcement difficult to maintain. This led to an environment that encouraged lawlessness, earning the region the nickname "the Wild West." Common among men hired for their ability to do difficult work such as clearing timber, cultivating land, laying railroad track, fur trading, mining, and tending livestock were guns and alcohol, which often led to violence and criminal activity.
By the 1880s, the West's reputation for lawlessness had been absorbed into popular culture and was even glorified by it. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who made his reputation as a scout, put together a carnival-like traveling show that purported to bring the Wild West experience to cities. Outlaws like Jesse James and lawmen like Wyatt Earp became the heroes of legends, celebrated in the popular media of the day: popular songs and cheap, quickly published dime novels cranked out by anonymous writers. More serious writers, including William Sydney Porter (who would go on to write as O. Henry), Mark Twain, and William S. Hart brought interest in the lawless frontier into the literary salons of the East.
The census of 1890 made it clear that by that time the "wild" days were through, the West was settled. Since then, though, that area of the country has continued to represent a time in America's history when laws were a matter of strength and conscience and individuals struggled with nature as much as they did with their fellow humans. Though the country has become more homogenized by mass communication and transportation, so that a mall in New Mexico is nearly identical to one in Maine or Florida or Michigan, many Americans still recognize the historical significance of the area referred to as "the West." As O. Henry does in "After Twenty Years," television shows and movies use the West of the 1880s to represent a time when a man with nothing could create his own fortune, often by breaking the law.
O. Henry was a very popular writer in the first decade of the twentieth century. From the publication of his first book, Cabbages and Kings, in 1904, to his death in 1910, he published hundreds of stories. In the decade after his death, his publisher put out five more collections of his works in an attempt to keep up with popular demand. His works have been translated into dozens of languages and published in millions of volumes. They were particularly familiar in the Soviet Union, where O. Henry achieved almost cultlike status.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1906: O. Henry names the collection that this story comes from The Four Million in reference to the four million people crowding New York City.
Today: New York's population tops eight million at the turn of the twenty-first century.
1906: Criminals are identified by their appearance. Fingerprinting, which uses traits that are unique to the individual, is introduced to the United States in 1906.
Today: Fingerprinting is still used to confirm a person's identity. DNA testing is also regularly used to link a person to a crime scene.
1906: Rail travel is the fastest way to go across the country. A person traveling from the West to New York has to travel for several days.
Today: A person can fly across the country, meet a friend, and be back home within a day.
1906: Friends living far apart seldom send photographs. Photographic equipment is only owned by photographers, and pictures must be sent through the mail.
Today: A picture taken on one end of the continent can show up on a friend's phone or computer on the other coast within seconds.
1906: Many police officers in major cities patrol by foot, making them aware of suspicious loiterers.
Today: Although police officers are trained to look for unusual characters, their vantage from patrol cars makes them focus on more obvious suspects.
1906: Only a few businesses are open in New York City after ten o'clock at night.
Today: New York, like any major city, has an abundance of stores and restaurants that are open throughout the night.
In the United States, critical praise for O. Henry faded at about the same time that his general popularity began to wane. This shift in the interest of the literary community was foreseen by Hyder E. Rollins, who complimented the writer's use of slang in his dialog in a 1914 article in the Sewanee Review, stating that "in his unexcelled mastery of slang our author was quite effective." But, Rollins noted, "taste changes and, what is more pertinent, slang itself changes, so that his constant use of slang will some day count heavily against him." He summarized the fading of O. Henry's reputation this way: "That O. Henry's piquant audacities of style are attractive is indisputable, but they are certain to lose their piquancy and to lower his rank in literature."
In 1924, fourteen years after O. Henry's death, N. Bryllion Fagin suggested in Short Story Writing: An Art or a Trade? that looking at O. Henry's stories when
not blinded by hero-worship and popular esteem, discloses at best an occasional brave peep at life, hasty, superficial and dazzlingly flippant: an idea, raw, unassimilated, timidly works its way to the surface only to be promptly suppressed by a hand skilled in producing sensational effects. At its worst, his work is no more than a series of cheap jokes renovated and expanded. But over all there is the unmistakable charm of a master trickster, of a facile player with incidents and words.
Over a hundred years later, O. Henry is often forgotten by popular audiences, who by definition tend to turn their attention to contemporary works. He does, however, maintain a loyal base of support along with a small, focused group of fans. Literary critics tend to respect his storytelling skills more than they admire any particular stories.
Kelly is a writer and instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, he uses "After Twenty Years" to explore the schism between readers who love O. Henry's works and those who find them lacking.
In the last decade of his life and in the years following his death in 1910, O. Henry, the pen name chosen by William Sydney Porter, was a household name throughout the United States. This was, of course, an easier feat for a writer to achieve back then, before the age of electronic communication, when newspapers were a primary source of popular entertainment. Many of O. Henry's stories appeared in newspapers before being anthologized in collections under his name. When motion pictures made storytelling a popular visual and aural enterprise, the general interest in printed stories dropped, and the subsequent ascension of radio, television, and the Internet drove the popular imagination further and further away from published fiction. In the modern atmosphere of media saturation, it is not at all certain that O. Henry would be the national success that he was during his lifetime.
Still, after a hundred years, he maintains a strong fan base. Collections of his books are still in print, and faithful readers have stood by him through many changes in understanding of what the short story is and can be. The fact that O. Henry's style of writing is continually gaining new readers can be viewed in two ways. Some people would maintain that he was a populist writer whose knowledge of how to use flat characters and manipulate sentimentality to reach the lowest common denominator would speak to audiences in any generation. Others see his longevity as a sign that Porter was such a keen observer of the human condition that time could only dim, but not erase, the impact of his talent.
Proponents of either argument would agree on one thing: that standards and expectations in the short story have changed. Most of O. Henry's stories are plot driven, relying on a surprise reversal of situation at the end that he used so regularly it earned its own name, the "O. Henry twist." The twist made his stories entertaining at a time when readers looked to stories to be entertained. However, as the main function of fiction shifted from entertainment to art in the late twentieth century, short stories came to be judged by the artistic elements they had to offer, such as character analysis or explorations on the nature of fiction itself. It would not be fair to judge O. Henry's writing by standards that he was not trying to meet, but then, there is the constant question of whether or not literary standards exist that should apply to all works of all times.
There are some very good reasons to admire O. Henry's writing. He had a masterful control of his stories and their intended effects. It takes
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The author of "After Twenty Years" is the protagonist of Steven Saylor's novel A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry, published in 2000. In this book, Saylor imagines a murder mystery involving William Sydney Porter in 1885 that later comes back to haunt Porter, now O. Henry, as he is living in New York in 2006.
- O. Henry's best-known and frequently reprinted short story is "The Gift of the Magi," about a poor young couple in New York and the sacrifices they undergo to buy Christmas presents for each other. This story, like "After Twenty Years," was originally published in The Four Million in 1906, and it is available in 41 Stories by O. Henry, a Signet Classic book published in 2007.
- In his lifetime, O. Henry was often compared with the French writer Guy de Maupassant, whose stories, written in the late 1800s, also often included a surprise twist at the end. De Maupassant's famous and frequently anthologized story "The Necklace" is about a vain woman who borrows an expensive necklace and then loses it. First published in 1884, it is included in the Penguin Popular Classics collection of de Maupassant's Selected Short Stories, published in 1998.
- When O. Henry was alive, critics compared his works to those of Frank Norris, one of the writers often associated with American naturalism. Norris is remembered as a muckraking journalist who used his fiction to expose society's injustices, but he also wrote moving short stories about the human condition. Norris's autobiographical story "Dying Fires," written around the turn of the century and published in The Third Circle in 1909, is available in The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris, published in 1998 by Ironweed Press.
- Another writer with whom O. Henry is frequently compared is the British author Saki, which is the pen name used by Hector Hugh Munro. Writing around the same time as O. Henry, Saki also often ended his short stories with surprising plot twists, though his stories take place in upper-class England and his style is much more acerbic and macabre. One of Saki's best-known stories, "Tobermory," is about a cat who develops the power of speech and ends up telling all of the secrets of the residents of a manor house. Published in the collection The Chronicles of Clovis in 1912, it can be found in The Complete Saki, a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition published in 1998.
- O. Henry's colorful life story has fascinated generations of his fans. The definitive biography of the author is Gerald Langford's 1957 book Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter, first published by the Macmillan Company in 1957 and released in a revised edition in 1983.
- Angela M. Blake's book How New York Became American, 1890-1924 examines how the city, considered by many to be dark and overrun with crime at the turn of the century, transformed its image with careful management of its urban identity to a tourist destination. Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2006, this book offers an excellent academic examination of the city's status at the time when O. Henry wrote.
nothing short of mastery to pull off the surprise ending, not just once or twice, but time and time again, to lull readers into a sense of security and then trick them even when they think they are braced for the coming reversal. The twist relies on a careful balance of skillful language, particular characters, and a strong authorial discernment that controls which details are revealed and which are withheld. On the other hand, readers looking for art would question his decision to end the story with a twist at all, charging that it forces him to present highly sentimentalized, unrealistic characters in unlikely situations, offering readers little to learn about their lives. Looking at a typical O. Henry story like "After Twenty Years" shows just how correct both sides were. O. Henry was a talented craftsman who knew how to achieve the effects he wanted, but he was also a compromised artist who used his talents to achieve much less than could have been gotten with them.
"After Twenty Years" takes place in a simple setting—it stays within a unified time frame, over the course of half an hour or less, in one spot, a doorway, until the characters stroll a few doors up the block at the end. The characters have simple and easily identifiable motives: friendship, trust, and duty. The situation presented is not quite a situation that many people are likely to encounter in their lives, but that is no reason to criticize it. Fiction, as much as television and movies, often features characters in particular professions, such as law enforcement, legal practice, and medicine, because individuals in these fields deal with serious matters of life and death, guilt and innocence, or, as in this story, personal loyalties and social order. A little divergence from reality is sometimes necessary for an author to make a point.
Therefore, the problem is not that O. Henry uses an artificial situation to make a point but that he does not have any particular point to make. He uses the situation solely to surprise the reader with plot twists. Twists can be interesting, and the way that the story surprises readers can be looked at as an intellectual puzzle, but they do little to engage the reader on an emotional level.
There are three twists in "After Twenty Years," working with varying degrees of success. The first surprise for readers is that the person walking beside Bob at the end is not his old friend Jimmy. Astute readers might be able to anticipate this turn of events if they notice the evasive language that O. Henry uses: not only does he have the man who walks up fail to answer the direct question "Is that you, Jimmy Wells?" but the narrator also refers to him indirectly, as "the new arrival" and "the other," instead of simply calling him by name. This is the kind of reversal that readers will blame themselves for not expecting; therein lies the delight of a well-designed puzzle. Readers will say that they did not see it coming, but should have.
The second twist comes as a bigger surprise, and it is deftly played. It is the fact that Bob, who has been doing much of the talking throughout the story, is actually a wanted criminal. The reason it surprises readers is that Bob, for all his talking by the time this fact comes up, has said nothing that could let readers predict it. Bob does have a diamond-laden watch, but there are certainly enough legitimate businesses in the West of the 1880s, such as mining, cattle, or lumber, that could make a man rich. There would be no way for even a careful reader to predict that the fortune that Bob has made for himself was attained through crime. Although this plot twist seems to come from nowhere, however, it is the most satisfying because of the way that O. Henry springs it on his readers. Bob is under arrest before readers even know that he is a criminal: for readers, the shock of the arrest comes before the reason for it. In this case, O. Henry comes as close as a writer can to springing unsupported information on the reader, or pulling an unexpected detail out of thin air.
By comparison, the final plot twist is weak; it is somewhat unexpected, but just not very interesting. Readers find out in the last paragraph that the man Bob was waiting for, Jimmy Wells, was in fact the police officer he talked to earlier. Serious readers cannot be too surprised by this revelation. All along, the story is headed toward an explanation of what happened to Jimmy. Since he is not Bob or the arresting officer, it makes sense that he would be the only other character. Also, readers can look back from the end and see that the uniformed officer was the one who was at the appointed place at the appointed time with Bob. Of course he is Jimmy Wells.
The fact that Jimmy is the uniformed officer is somewhat ironic, given that Bob has become a criminal, but O. Henry is only able to add this irony by putting his story through some contortions that stretch credibility and empathy beyond the breaking point. The characters serve as broad symbols of their positions, not as representatives of people who might actually exist.
If any character in this story could be expected to show individual personality, it would be Bob. He does most of the talking. He is the one who has traveled to see his old friend Jimmy for several reasons. On a basic level, he has arrived at his appointment because he is a man of his word, and he promised twenty years earlier that he would be back. On another level, he could be, like any person who attends a school reunion after becoming successful in the world, looking to show off. Later, when it is revealed that Bob is a wanted criminal, much more opportunity for psychological complexity arises. Readers cannot be too sure of what drives Bob: is it loyalty, pride, or even a psychological repression of his guilt that compels him to return to the last place of his innocence?
In a more artistic story, these issues would be acknowledged and explored, even if the author did not want to provide any simple answers. But O. Henry does not use "After Twenty Years" to indulge in curiosity about what could drive a man like Bob. There are no allusions to Adam losing his chance at peace in Eden, no references to wealth's inability to wash away the crimes that made a man rich. Bob's hands tremble when he reads Jimmy's note at the end, but O. Henry does not tell readers if that trembling is from anguish or rage.
At the end of the story, the focus shifts from the character who has been the center of attention all along to the character who has been absent throughout, Jimmy Wells. Instead of probing Bob's personality, readers are asked, in the last paragraph, to think about a new situation: the moral dilemma that faced Jimmy when he showed up to meet his old friend and ended up having to arrest him.
Jimmy's dilemma is only engaging in theory and lacks true emotional impact. It is introduced in the story after the difficult decision has already been made. Jimmy does not consider his actions within the story's narrative, but instead he explains them after he has acted. Readers are deprived of being participants in Jimmy's decision to have Bob arrested, as if there were no moral question involved. Yes, Bob is a criminal, but, judging by the nickname "Silky," he is probably not a violent criminal. In fact, O. Henry conspicuously omits telling readers what his crimes might be. He is a loyal friend, which is clear not only from the fact that he traveled so far to make a twenty-year-old appointment, but also in his unquestioning faith that Jimmy will show up, too. Aside from the basic rule that criminals belong in jail, there is no explanation for why Jimmy's betrayal of Bob's trust is the right thing to do. Artistic stories exist to question basic rules, while formulaic stories rely on them to establish guidelines that general audiences can recognize.
The readers who love O. Henry's stories love them for the same reasons that people like crossword puzzles and riddles: they are exercises in form. For these readers, there is no rule, written or unwritten, that says that literature must be deep. The critics who dismiss O. Henry's stories like "After Twenty Years," on the other hand, have particular expectations for fiction writers, and when they look at his stories, they are likely to find those expectations left unsatisfied.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "After Twenty Years," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
B. M. Éjxenbaum
In the following excerpt, Russian literary scholar Éjxenbaum focuses on O. Henry's use of parody and irony in his short stories, contrasting the earlier stories of The Four Million with his later stories.
…O. Henry's literary beginnings were extremely characteristic for the nineties: the feuilleton, parody, anecdote—such were his first ventures published in the little humor magazine, the Rolling Stone (1894). Among these pieces, incidentally, there are parodies on Sherlock Holmes detective mysteries ("Tracked to Doom or the Mystery of the Rue de Peychaud,""The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes" and "The Sleuths"). These stories are something like Bret Harte's "Condensed Novels"—detective mysteries carried to the absurd: instead of arresting the criminal whom he encounters in a saloon, the detective hastens to jot down in his note-book the details of the place, the time of the encounter, etc.; horrors come thick and fast; situations, surprises and transformations are of the most improbable sort—in short, all the stereotypes hyperbolized. Alongside these pieces we find an anecdote ("A Strange Story") about a father who went out to get some medicine for his sick child and returned home with the medicine after a lapse of so many years that he had since become a grandfather: he kept missing the streetcar.
Prison brought this newspaper work to an abrupt halt, cutting off O. Henry's contact with the literary world. However, as can be seen from Jennings' memoirs, he continued to write, using material collected during his stay in Austin, Texas, and in South America. One of his first stories written after prison was "A Retrieved Reformation" (about Jimmy Valentine), the details behind which were mentioned above. To this same period belong "The Duplicity of Hargraves,""Roads of Destiny" and others. In these O. Henry is far from parody; he is sometimes even serious, sentimental or emotional. Such is the general character of his first collection of stories, The Four Million (1906), which includes stories written between 1903 and 1905. Interestingly enough, O. Henry did not include in this collection certain stories written and published during this same period, considering them, evidently, unsuited to the collection as a whole. O. Henry apparently aimed at a certain cyclical organization when selecting stories for inclusion in collections. In certain instances, as will be seen later on, this cyclical organization is also supported by a unity of principal characters (Jeff and Andy in The Gentle Grafter), and sometimes the connection between the stories is underscored by their being called "chapters," as they are in the collections Heart of the West and Whirligigs….
However consistent and homogeneous—and, in many people's opinion, even monotonous—O. Henry's work might appear, there are noticeable vacillations, transitions and a certain evolution to it. Sentimental stories—stories about New York shop girls or others of the type of "Georgia's Ruling"—predominate in the years immediately following his imprisonment (though they do also appear later). Generally speaking, the comic or satiric and the sentimental do very often go together in the poetics of one and the same writer in just their function of correlated contrasts; this is what we find in the work of Sterne, of Dickens and, to some extent, in the work of Gogol. In O. Henry this combination stands out with particular relief owing to the fact that his basic orientation toward the anecdote with its unexpected and comically resolved ending is so extremely well-defined. His sentimental slice-of-life pieces, therefore, give the impression of experiments—so much the more because they are all of them, in terms of technique and language, much weaker than the others. Usually they are drawn-out, wishy-washy, with endings which disappoint the reader and leave him feeling unsatisfied. The stories lack compactness, the language is without wit, the structure without dynamism. American critics, it is true, would seem ready to place these stories higher than all the others, but that is an evaluation with which we find it difficult to agree. An American, in his leisure time at home, readily gives himself over to sentimental and religious-moralistic reflections and likes to have appropriate reading. That is his custom, his tradition, a feature of national history conditioned by the peculiarities of his way of life and civilization….
Working in the literary trade and tied down by the conditions of his contract and the need to make his writing "pay off," O. Henry was obliged to write stories to suit a variety of tastes, including those of newspaper editors and readers. Any story writer could have produced "Georgia's Ruling,""Blind Man's Holiday," "A Fog in Santone." The genuine, original O. Henry is found in his comic, picaresque and parodic stories, stories with surprise endings, with clever dialogue and ironic author commentary. They are the ones brimful of literary irony arising in consequence of his sensitivity to clichés both of language and of story structure. Unlike Mark Twain, O. Henry does not deal in straight humor; in his hands anecdote constantly turns into parody, into play on form, into material for literary irony—precisely the shape regeneration of a genre takes. O. Henry often stands on the brink of parodying the short story itself, reminding one of Sterne's devices in his novel-parody Tristram Shandy.
Let us start with his language, although for the Russian reader this aspect of O. Henry's stories is, of course, largely lost. Work on his language was about the most important thing for O. Henry. The stories, on being read, may appear to have been written swiftly and effortlessly, without any particular care taken to work them over or to revise them, without any special selection of words. Jennings, who remained on friendly terms with O. Henry after his imprisonment, recounts how O. Henry worked. A whole night was spent writing "The Halberdier of the Little Rheinschloss" and the story was finished by noon the next day:
At about 10 minutes after 12 he called me up.
"You're late. I'm waiting," he said.
When I got to his room the big table where he did his writing was littered with sheets of paper. All over the floor were scraps of paper covered with writing in long hand.
In response to Jenning's question whether he always worked that way, O. Henry opened a desk drawer and said, "Look at those," pointing to "a crammed-down heap of papers covered with his long freehand." He did not usually make preliminary drafts; he would start writing only when the story was completely finished in his mind. But the work over his language was an involved process:
O. Henry was a careful artist. He was a slave to the dictionary. He would pore over it, taking an infinite relish in the discovery of a new twist to a word.
One day he was sitting at the table with his back to me. He had been writing with incredible rapidity, as though the words just ran themselves automatically from his pen. Suddenly he stopped. For half an hour he sat silent, and then he turned around, rather surprised to find me still there.
"Thirsty, colonel? Let's get a drink."
"Bill," my curiosity was up, "does your mind feel a blank when you sit there like that?" The question seemed to amuse him.
"No. But I have to reason out the meaning of words."
Elsewhere Jennings recalls having spent several hours in O. Henry's room waiting for him to finish writing a story: "He was writing with lightning speed. Sometimes he would finish a page and immediately wrinkle it into a ball and throw it on the floor. Then he would write on, page after page, with hardly a pause, or he would sit silent and concentrate for half an hour at a stretch."
Thus, the construction of the story from beginning to end (rather, it would be better to say in this case—from end to beginning) had already formed in O. Henry's mind before he sat down to write, which is, of course, a very characteristic feature both for the short story … and for O. Henry. What he did at his desk was to work out the details of language and narration. What sort of work was that, what principles guided him, what procedures did he use? The basic principle was to get rid of stylistic clicheés, to come to grips with "bookishness," with the slick "middle" style and to subject the "high" style to irony. This opened the way for his extensive use of slang in crime stories, his express avoidance of "artiness," his unfailingly downgrading images, their humor stemming from their oddity and unexpectedness, and so on. Frequently we find in O. Henry an attitude of outright irony toward one or another literary style, an irony which has the effect of bringing his own principles into the open. In "Let Me Feel Your Pulse," he even names names. After giving an account of the doctor's examination of his patients, O. Henry says: "I'll bet that if he had used the phrases: ‘Gaze, as it were, unpreoccupied, outward—or rather laterally—in the direction of the horizon, under laid, so to speak, with the adjacent fluid inlet,’ and ‘Now, returning—or rather, in a manner withdrawing your attention, bestow it upon my upraised digit’—I'll bet, I say, that Henry James himself could have passed the examination" (making reference to the complexity and ornateness of James' style); or in the same story, on description of mountains: "It was about twilight, and the mountains came up nobly to Miss Murfee's description of them."
At those points in his stories where the need to advance the narrative or tradition would have made a special description requisite, O. Henry turns the occasion to literary irony. Where another story writer would have used the opportunity to wax eloquent or to transmit detailed information about his characters—their personalities, outward appearances, dress, past history,—O. Henry is either exceedingly terse or ironic: "Old Jacob Spraggins came home at 9:30 p.m., in his motor car. The make of it you will have to surmise sorrowfully; I am giving you unsubsidized fiction; had it been a street car I could have told you its voltage and the number of flat wheels it had." ["A Night in New Arabia"] There you have a typical O. Henry twist. Another instance of the same kind—a description of the hero: "Overlooking your mild impertinence in feeling a curiosity about the personal appearance of a stranger, I will give you a modified description of him. Weight, 118; complexion, hair and brain, light; height, five feet six; age, about twenty-three; dressed in a $10 suit of greenish-blue serge; pockets containing two keys and sixty-three cents in change. But do not misconjecture because this description sounds like a General Alarm that James was either lost or a dead one." ["What You Want"] Sometimes the irony is underscored by parody. O. Henry simulates verbosity: "Ileen was a strictly vegetable compound, guaranteed under the Pure Ambrosia and Balm-of-Gilead Act of the year of the fall of Adam. She was a fruit-stand blond—strawberries, peaches, cherries, etc. Her eyes were wide apart, and she possessed the calm that precedes a storm that never comes. But it seems to me that words (at any rate per) are wasted in an effort to describe the beautiful. Like fancy, ‘It is engendered in the eyes.’ There are three kinds of beauties—I was foreordained to be homiletic; I can never stick to a story." ["A Poor Rule"]
The parodic device of substituting the language of an official report for literary description, such as in the example above, is systematically employed in the story "A Municipal Report." The story is, in the broad, a polemic—an answer to Frank Norris's assertion that only three cities in the United States were "story cities"—New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, whereas Chicago, Buffalo or Nashville held but nothing for a story writer. The story takes place, as a matter of fact, in Nashville, but instead of describing the city, O. Henry interpolates into the text quotations from a guidebook which clash with the style of the usual literary description. The very fact of inserting such quotations carries with it the character of parody. The narrator arrives in the city on a train: "All I could see through the streaming windows were two rows of dim houses. The city has an area of 10 square miles; 181 miles of streets, of which 137 miles are paved; a system of waterworks that cost $2,000,000, with 77 miles of mains." Further on, in a conversation between the narrator and one of the characters: "‘Your town,’ I said, as I began to make ready to depart (which is the time for smooth generalities), ‘seems to be a quiet, sedate place. A home town, I should say, where few things out of the ordinary ever happen.’ It carries on an extensive trade in stoves and hollow ware with the West and South, and its flouring mills have a daily capacity of more than 2,000 barrels."
It is an interesting fact that this parodic or playful use of quotation—one of O.Henry's most constant stylistic devices—was noted long ago by American critics. O. Henry quotes Tennyson, Spenser and others, informing their words with new meaning, inventing puns, deliberately misquoting parts, and so on. Russian readers unfortunately miss all of this as they also do, for the most part, those instances of play on words in O. Henry's crime stories which are motivated by the speaker's illiteracy (for example, confusion of scientific words as in the case of "hypodermical" instead of "hypothetical").
O. Henry's characters often behave in a way not usual in books, and this oddity of behavior is also sometimes underscored by the author himself. The hero of "A Technical Error," Sam Durkee, is preparing himself to commit an act of blood revenge ("feuding" is one of the traditional motifs in American fiction): "Sam took out and opened a bone-handled pocket-knife and scraped a dried piece of mud from his left boot. I thought at first he was going to swear vendetta on the blade of it, or recite ‘The Gipsie's Curse.’ The few feuds I had ever seen or read about usually opened that way. This one seemed to be presented with a new treatment. Thus offered on the stage, it would have been hissed off…. During the ride Sam talked of the prospect for rain, of the price of beef, and of the musical glasses. You would have thought he had never had a brother or a sweetheart or an enemy on earth. There are some subjects too big even for the words in the ‘Unabridged.’" It is curious that this last notion, encountered constantly in the old romanticists (cf. the ending of Dvorjanskoe gnezdo [A Nest of Gentlefolk]) and used to motivate "ineffability" or reticence, serves in O. Henry's case to motivate the unexpectedness of what his characters say or do in an excited state—an unexpectedness of a literary nature.
The general observation should be made that O. Henry's basic stylistic device (shown both in his dialogues and in the plot construction itself) is the confrontation of very remote, seemingly unrelated and, for that reason, surprising words, ideas, subjects or feelings. Surprise, as a device of parody, thus serves as the organizing principle of the sentence itself. It is no accident that he goes out of his way to avoid orderly and scrupulous descriptions and that his heroes sometimes speak in a completely erratic way; the verbiage in these instances is motivated by a special set of circumstances or causes….
It is highly characteristic of O. Henry's general parodic bent that he frequently takes problems having to do with literary practice itself as themes for his stories, making theoretical and ironic comments on matters of style and now and again having his say about editors, publishers, reader demands and so on and so forth. Some of his stories remind one of the once very popular sonnet parodies where the subject matter was the process of composing a sonnet itself. These pieces disclose a very keen awareness on O. Henry's part of forms and traditions and confirm the view of his work as a sort of culmination point reached by the American short story of the nineteenth century. He was a writer of fiction no less than he was critic and theorist,—a feature very characteristic of our age which has completely dissociated itself from the naïve notion that writing is an "unconscious" process in which all depends on "inspiration" and "having it inside one." We haven't had a parodist with so subtle a knowledge of his craft, so inclined time and again to initiate the reader into its mysteries, probably since the time of Laurence Sterne.
However, first a few words more about O. Henry's style. His narration is invariably ironic or playful. His writing is studded with metaphors but only for the purpose of disconcerting or amusing the reader with the unexpectedness of the comparisons made—a surprise of a literary nature: their material is not traditional and usually runs counter to the "literary norm," downgrading the object of comparison and upsetting the stylistic inertia. This applies with particular frequency to descriptive passages about which, as we have seen above, O. Henry maintained an invariably ironic attitude. For instance, when describing a city, he says: "Though the dusk of twilight was hardly yet apparent, lights were beginning to spangle the city like pop-corn bursting in a deep skillet." ["Compliments of the Season"] There is no need to multiply examples—the reader of O. Henry cannot fail to notice them. A detailed and serious literary description of anything whatsoever is the height of absurdity in O. Henry's eyes. When putting a novice writer to the test (in "The Plutonian Fire"), O. Henry, who plays the role of his friend in the story, suggests: "‘Suppose you try your hand at a descriptive article … giving your impressions of New York as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge. The fresh point of view, the———.’ ‘Don't be a fool,’ said Pettit. ‘Let's go have some beer.’" Naturally enough, in the narrative and descriptive passages of his stories, O. Henry more often than not enters into conversation with his reader, making no point of arousing in him an illusion of direct contact or of reality but rather forever emphasizing his role as the writer and, therefore, conducting the story not from the standpoint of an impersonal commentator but from that of his own person. He brings in an outside narrator (as in his crime stories) in those cases where there is occasion for using slang, for playing on words, or the like.
Given such a system of narration, dialogue stands out with particular relief and takes on a substantial share of the effect of plot and style. The terseness of the narrative and descriptive commentary is naturally compensated for by the dynamism and concreteness of speech in the dialogues. The conversations of the characters in O. Henry stories always have a direct connection with the plot and with the role the character in question plays in it; they are rich in intonations, fast-moving and often devious or ambiguous in some special way. Sometimes a whole dialogue will be built on an incomplete utterance or on mutual misunderstanding with implications, in certain cases, not only for style but for the plot, as well. In "The Third Ingredient," one girl talks about her trip and its unhappy outcome (she had thrown herself into the river in despair), while at the same time the other girl is preparing beef stew and lamenting the fact that she has no onion to put in it:
"I came near drowning in that awful river," said Cecilia, shuddering.
"It ought to have more water in it," said Hetty; "The stew, I mean. I'll go get some at the sink."
"It smells good," said the artist.
"That nasty old North River?" objected Hetty. "It smells to me like soap factories and wet setter-dogs—oh, you mean the stew. Well, I wish we had an onion for it." And so on.
A curious fact in this connection is that there is a kind of submerged analogy in the story between the role of the onion in the dish being prepared (meat and potatoes) and the role of the young man who appears at the end of the story (with onion in hand). The analogy comes out explicitly in Hetty's line with which the story ends. In another story ("The Ransom of Mack"), two friends carry on a conversation from which it is possible to conclude that Mack is getting married (a conclusion that Mack's friend does make). Taking his words in that meaning, the friend undertakes a whole complicated scheme designed to prevent the marriage from happening only to find out at the end of the story that Mack's words, "I'm going to marry the young lady who just passed tonight," plus his and the bride's subsequent words, meant only that Mack, no other suitable person being available, was going to perform the marriage rites himself.
Thus, in O. Henry's hands the short story undergoes regeneration, becoming a unique composite of literary feuilleton and comedy or vaudeville dialogue….
Source: B. M. Éjxenbaum, Excerpts, in O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, translated by I. R. Titunik, University of Michigan Press, 1968, pp. 1-31.
In the following excerpt, Langford offers a summary of events surrounding the publication of The Four Million, the collection including the story "After Twenty Years."
… In April, 1906, Porter's second book was published: The Four Million, a collection of stories selected almost entirely from back numbers of the World. Approaching the editor for permission to republish the stories, Porter was so diffident that he offered to write the World a free story in return for the favor he was asking: an offer which was naturally declined by an editor accustomed to granting such permission as a matter of course. The Four Million, containing such favorites as "The Gift of the Magi," "Mammon and the Archer," "An Unfinished Story," and "The Furnished Room," was well received by the critics, though not so enthusiastically as the opinions expressed some years later would lead one to expect. "These sketches of New York life are among the best things put together in many a day," the Critic said. "The author," explained the Independent, "thinks that no cold ‘Four Hundred’ should limit our interest, as there are at least four million people in the metropolis who are worth writing about…. A bit like ‘An Unfinished Story’ is of more value than many long and labored books upon social conditions." The Bookman, although preferring Cabbages and Kings, agreed with the publishers' comparison of O. Henry with Maupassant: "Beyond this we need say nothing." The book even attracted the notice of the Atlantic Monthly, whose reviewer wrote:
His stories are pervaded by gentleness. In symbolism and color his slang need not yield to that of Mr. George Ade; he knows his world as well, but he sees it with an eye for its beauty as well as its absurdity. There is imagination as well as vision, and beyond his expert knowledge of our colloquial tongue he possesses in the background, to be used when needed, a real style….
[By way of comparison with certain French writers:] Where their tendency is to forget that they are writing stories, to approximate as far as possible to a literal document, ‘O. Henry’ does not hesitate to round out, to fill in, to take advantage of coincidence, in short, to indulge his reader's weak-minded craving for a little human enjoyment…. And perhaps his picture with its glimmer of arc light and sunshine may be to the full as true as if it were altogether drawn in India ink and charcoal.
Looking through such reviews with Porter, his friend Hart MacArthur remarked: "You're a casual cuss. I would feel pretty happy if any work of mine should ever count for so much." To which Porter replied, "Train's late for any happiness, colonel."
It was after reviewing The Four Million for the Pittsburgh Gazette that George Seibel heard from one of his associates the story of the silver dollar which Porter had borrowed when he was preparing to move from Pittsburgh to New York. Seibel wrote up the story for the Gazette, and three months later, in July, Porter walked into the newspaper office to introduce himself while on one of his visits to see Margaret. Delighted at meeting the famous author, Seibel insisted on taking Porter home to lunch and afterward (since he was a member of the Board of Education) out to the auction of a run-down, discarded schoolhouse in one of the suburbs. "I've had a bit of experience in a land office," Porter told him. "I'll be an Eastern capitalist looking for investments, and maybe I can get you a better price by bidding up the property. I always felt I'd like to impersonate a plutocrat, and here's my chance at last." Porter's scheme worked, and the Board of Education was able to sell the property without incurring the loss which the members had feared was inevitable.
During the same summer, back in New York, Porter seems to have been sufficiently struck by a story called "Her That Danced," recently published in McClure's, to have expressed a wish to meet the author, a Mrs. Wilson Woodrow. A mutual friend, Archibald Sessions, then editor of Ainslee's, arranged a dinner for the three of them at the Café Francis, but Porter when he came was in one of his low moods. Mrs. Woodrow, who had been greatly flattered at the invitation, later wrote that her first impression of him was one of severe disappointment. For fully half of the evening Porter seemed "stolid" and so unresponsive that she "had the miserable feeling that I was a failure as a guest." Then, abruptly and unaccountably, Porter came alive, and in the light of the second half of the evening and of later meetings Mrs. Woodrow wrote: "I am sure that if his table-talk had ever been taken down in short-hand, it would have sounded very much like his written dialogue…. His wit was urban, sophisticated, individual…. It was packed with world-knowledge, designed to delight the woman of thirty, not of twenty, and yet I never heard him tell a story even faintly risqué. He was the most delightful of companions … and his wit never flagged; quite effortless, it bubbled up from an inexhaustible spring."
Porter's humor, Mrs. Woodrow suggested, was—like his formality of manner—a sort of protective armor worn by an extremely sensitive man. Of this hidden self she could only suggest the nature by describing two bare glimpses. At the time of their first meeting, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle had just been published, and Porter, like herself, was not eating meat after reading the book. On a later occasion they emerged from another restaurant to find rain pouring down to the accompaniment of lightning and thunder. In the cab that took them home the two of them crouched in apprehensive silence, for Porter had not outgrown his terrifying experience at the Halls' ranch in Texas.
Later in the same year or early in 1907 Porter met William Griffeth, who had succeeded Theodore Dreiser as editor of the Broadway Magazine and who tried to enlist Porter as a contributor. This proved a difficult undertaking because of Porter's chronic indebtedness to a small group of editors who had advanced him money for future stories. Griffeth, too, later commented on Porter's initial reserve. But after the ice was broken he found the man more interesting than his stories—a criticism which suggests what no one except Porter himself ever put so succinctly: that Porter was potentially a finer writer than he actually turned out to be, that his work never really did justice to his talent….
Source: Gerald Langford, "Chapter 11," in Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter, The Macmillan Company, 1957, pp. 197-209.
Edward C. Echols
In the following essay, Echols identifies various classical allusions that O. Henry used in his short stories.
In addition to its contribution along humorous lines, the classical allusion is employed by O. Henry with serious and often significant intent. The 375 serious allusions in his short stories vary from the obvious and casual to references which assume a rather advanced classical knowledge for full comprehension. The average reader may have no difficulty with Cupid, Psyche, Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, et al., but an appreciation of an "Autolycan adventure" and an "Autolycan adventurer" demands a better-than-average classical background.
The Classics find a broad range in O. Henry. Hotels have classical names: the Acropolis Hotel, The Hotel Lotus, the Hotel Thalia, the Hotel King Clovis. Parian and Carrara marbles are noted. Classical first names are frequent, often with symbolic meaning. Among the names are Septimius, Telemachus, Caligula, Artemisia, Aglaia, Calliope, Amaryllis, and the aptly-chosen Uncle Caesar of "A Municipal Report." The Morning Mars is a newspaper; there is a Minerva Magazine. There is a ship, the Ariadne, and a coal-black horse is named Erebus. Fifteen story-titles have classical overtones. It may be only coincidence that the premiere of O. Henry's one musical comedy was held in Aurora, Illinois.
The Classics stand as a convenient symbol of the educated man. In "Buried Treasure," a young man who had "all the attainments to be found in books—Latin, Greek …" and who quoted "translations from the Greek at much length," poses the question: "Can there be anything higher than to dwell in the society of the classics …?" By contrast, his unlettered rival says of himself that he never went "any further into Latin than simple references to Orgetorix, Rex Helevetii."
Two snowbound Westeners find occasion for regret: "If we'd studied Homer or Greek … we'd have some resources in the line of meditation and thought." Included in the description of a Westerner: "Any subject you brought up old Cal could give you an abundant synopsis of it from the Greek root…." A cattleman says of his traditional enemy: "I never had believed in harming sheep men…. I see one, one day, reading a Latin grammar on hossback, and I never touched him." The whole West is classical; "I mean the modern Indian—the kind that takes Greek prizes in college…."
A New York waiter-philosopher states the case for the educated man: "All the heroes on the bum carry the little book. It's either Tantalus or Liver or Horace, and it's printed in Latin…."
The Classics serve O. Henry most effectively in the many figurative comparisons. The more adequate similes include: as proud as Cicero; as proud as Julius Caesar; triumphant as Minerva; as simply as Homer sang; as big as the Iliad; quiet as a street in Pompeii; more like a dark horse than Pegasus; and crying like Niobe or Niagara.
Classical allusions add deft touches to personal descriptions. A face appeared as "clearly chiselled as a Roman emperor's on some old coin." An old negro had "a face that reminded me of Brutus." "Undisputed sway had molded him to the likeness of a fatted Roman emperor." "He wore a suit of dark cheviot that looked to have been draped upon him by an ancient Greek tailor…."
In "The Enchanted Profile," a girl who was "a holdover from the Greek classics" and "purely Paradisiac, not Olympian," turned "pink, perfect statue that she was—a miracle (shared) with Pygmalion only." Sunlight "burnished her heavy hair to the color of an ancient Tuscan's shield." "There were a thousand golden apples coming to her as Helen of the Troy laundries." "The bride wore a simple white dress as beautifully draped as the costumes of the ancient Greeks."
Sparta provides several references. "He was a lucky man … even though he were imitating the Spartan boy with an ice cream freezer beneath his doublet frapéeing the region of his heart." "It was the room of a Spartan or a soldier (!)." A Kentuckian, off to New York, "packed a carpet-sack with Spartan lingerie."
Still in the urban mode, "I can live as Nero lived while the city burns at ninety in the shade." The same city "seemed stretched on a boiler directly above the furnaces of Avernus." "‘… New Yorkers, the most progressive and independent citizens of any country in the world,’ I continued, with the fatuity of a provincial who has eaten the Broadway lotus." "But in New York you must either be a New Yorker or an invader of a modern Troy, concealed in the wooden horse of your own conceited provincialism."
The Classics point up the weather in "the January blasts (were) making an Aeolian trombone of the empty street" and "the Aeolian chorus of the wind in the house crannies." Markedly effective is: "At its worst … (snow) is the wand of Circe. When it corrals man in lonely ranches … the snow makes apes and tigers of the hardiest."
Latin makes a contribution. "Omne mundus in duas partes divisum est—men who wear rubbers and pay poll-taxes, and men who discover new continents." "You should know that omnae (sic) personae in tres partes divisae sunt. Namely: Barons, Troubadours, and Workers." Transients "carry their lares et penates in a bandbox." The weeks march along with "‘Tempus fugit’ on their banners" and two friends in the tropics help along "old tempus fugit with rum and ice and limes." An Unreconstructed Rebel, who asserts that "the Confederacy is running along as solid as the Roman empire," informs a Yankee in "Two Renegades" that "we sent a good many of ye over to old mortuis nisi bonum."
The following miscellaneous group will serve further to emphasize the range and subtlety of the allusions. The secrets of the ancients include "Etruscan inscriptions." An amateur night in vaudeville is an "illegal holiday of the Romans." A thug's "hand was itching to play the Roman and wrest the rag Sabine…." In "The Skylight Room," a girl climbs a "Stygian stairway" to an "Erebus of a Room." A tramp's "Odyssey would have been a limerick, had it been written," while a Westerner anticipates hearing an "Odyssey of the chaparral." In Mexico, "The mountains reached up their bulky shoulders to receive the level gallop of Apollo's homing steeds." "The bread of Gaul … (is) compounded after the formula for the recipe for the eternal hills." An editorial writer "lopped off the heads of the political hydra." In one of the best of the comparisons, a girl sees the disapproving congregation of her small village church as a "hundred-eyed Cerberus that watched the gates through which her sins were fast thrusting her."
O. Henry notes the decline in classical learning, apparently evident even in his day: "Where to go for wisdom has become a matter of serious import. The ancients are discredited…." Yet he falls back on the Classics as a frame of reference universally understood. It is doubtful that the writer of the present day can safely assume that marked degree of classical knowledge on the part of his theoretically better educated reader.
Source: Edward C. Echols, "O. Henry and the Classics," in Classical Journal, Vol. 44, No. 3, December 1948, pp. 209-211.
Hyder E. Rollins
In the following excerpt, Rollins analyzes O. Henry's mastery of the short story genre, claiming that although he does not consider O. Henry a great writer, he may be one of the best American writers of the short story.
… All critics, so far as I know, class O. Henry's stories as hyphenated, capitalized "Short-Stories"; but if they hold to the hide-bound a priori rules which require a short-story to fulfil the three classic unities, to deal with one character only, and to show rigid compression and condensation of details, they are hoist with their own petard. For O. Henry gleefully breaks every rule and heartily enjoys the critics' discomfiture. The only thing that may be confidently postulated of his stories is that they usually produce a single effect on the mind of the reader. This alone, it would seem, is enough to make a short story a "short-story": most certainly it was the ideal that Poe had in mind. O. Henry recognized no rigid, unalterable laws of structure: the story was the thing, and there was a best method of telling each story. Indeed he declared: "Rule I of story-writing is to write stories that please yourself. There is no rule 2. In writing, forget the public. I get a story thoroughly in mind before I sit down at my table. Then I write it out quickly, and without revising it, send it to my publishers. In this way I am able to judge my work almost as the public judges it. I've seen stories in type that I didn't at first blush recognize as my own."
The elucidation was unnecessary, for his stories plainly evince such workmanship. That O. Henry was a technical artist, few will deny: even his mannerisms, such as his interpolative comments on plot-structure and his pseudo-moralizing divagations, cannot debar his narratives from the short-story class. Nevertheless, it is to be regretted that he took so many liberties, for his mannerisms may soon cease to amuse, and they are likely to lower his rank in literature.
It was quite usual for him to ramble carelessly afield, making sundry vague remarks about the attitude of the Columbia College professors towards grammar and the plagiarism he is contemplating, and then to lament that, in thus sparring for an opening, he has forgotten to follow Aristotle's directions! Or to open a story with the casual remark that "It was a day in March," and to advise: "Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind." In later stories, such as "The Unprofitable Servant," he makes no ‘bones’ of confessing that he wrote thus in order "to swell the number of words" for which he was paid. Indisputably this is attractive, though one feels that it is unwarranted, that the author has taken an undue advantage to secure humor. The truth is O. Henry failed to take himself and his art seriously. He strove only to arrest the momentary attention of the rapidly moving mass of readers. And in his stories the first sentence, which is customarily some such remark as "No, bumptious reader, this is not a continuation of the Elsie series," invariably does this. Furthermore, since the preconceived effect that his stories attempt to produce is usually one of surprise or humor, his introductions always aid in producing this effect.
There is little skirmishing in the body of his stories: it progresses rapidly, and shows a rigid economy of words. O. Henry's mania for suppression of detail comes nearer to equalling that of "Guy de Mopassong" (as he calls him) and of other French writers than does that of any other American writer, not excepting Poe. He had a distinct aim, and he wrote every word with this aim in view. His stories are customarily short: not many run over three thousand words, and the majority contain about two thousand.
Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, nearly every one of his stories contains one or more digressions, which always seem necessary, and which remind one forcibly of Thackeray.
His conclusions—they are O. Henry's and no one else's. Children play "crack-the-whip," not for the fun of the long preliminary run, but for the excitement of the final sharp twist that throws them off their feet. So adults read O. Henry, impatiently glancing at the swiftly moving details in pleased expectancy of a surprising ending. The conclusion is an enigma: the author has your nerves all a-quiver until the last sentence. There are few explanations, the surprise comes quickly, and the story is finished. O. Henry is as much a master of the unexpected ending as Frank Stockton was of the insolvable ending, and one must admire his skill. For although these endings are unexpected, the author never makes any statement in the body that can be held against him. On the contrary, the body is a careful preparation for the dénouement, even if the most searching reader can seldom detect it…. But the continued use of the unexpected ending grows tiresome, and when one sits down and reads all or the greater part of the two hundred and forty-eight short stories, he feels that the biggest surprise O. Henry could have given him would have been a natural, expected ending. But it should be added that his surprise endings have none of the brutal cynicism which distinguishes de Maupassant's "Necklace" and Mérimée's "Mateo Falcone"; his endings, on the other hand, are genuinely humorous, genuinely sympathetic, and genuinely human.
For the sake of vividness the majority of the short stories are told in the first person. Either a character who participated in the action is the narrator; or an outsider tells the story as a participant told it to him; or the story is told apparently in the third person until the author intrudes with his own comments and makes it a first-person narrative. At other times the strict third-person narrative is used; but in whatever way the stories are told, O. Henry is always talking, always explaining his views.
Stages of plot as definite as those in the Shakesperean drama may be located in most of his stories, and they are well adapted for dramatization, as the recent success of Alias Jimmy Valentine, A Double-Dyed Deceiver, and others show. This goes to prove that even though O. Henry pokes fun at all rules, he obeys them in the fundamental particulars. He is a clever architectonist in spite of himself. While he prided himself upon his disregard of conventional rules and upon his originality, his technique (if one ignores his manneristic digressions) conforms closely to the very rules that he affected to despise.
Life is a mixture of smiles and sniffles and sobs, with the sniffles predominating, declared O. Henry in "The Gift of the Magi." The petty joys, the petty pretentions, the petty worries of his people confirm the statement; but he also has the idea that life is one constant surprise, that the unexpected continually happens. He is, then, a pure romanticist who strives earnestly for realistic effects.
[O. Henry's characters] are described by their actions, or by brief, trenchant sentences that are hurled at our heads, as "He wore heliotrope socks, but he looked like Napoleon." O. Henry uses rapid suggestive—never detailed circumstantial—description that is highly colored by bold figures of speech. Where many writers would waste three hundred words in a vain attempt to catalogue features so as to put an image of a character in one's mind, O. Henry can in twenty five words paint a clear, unforgettable picture. No other writer has excelled him in the use of suggestive description. Sometimes his characters are described by their unusual surroundings. But since he seldom assumes complete omniscience, it is rare that he attempts any psychological analysis.
Subjectivity of delineation makes our author's characters interesting chiefly as they reveal his views of life, and interest in characters is over-shadowed by interest in plots. But for briskness, sympathy, and humor of characterization, O. Henry has few peers.
Just as his plots and his characters are humorous in conception and in treatment, so the most striking trait of O. Henry as a stylist is humor. In most instances his fun bubbles out spontaneously, but The Gentle Grafter bids somewhat too plainly for laughter. His stories show few pathetic-comic mixtures, for he recognizes no pathos save that of monotony, of degradation, of lost ambition, which is inherent in the lives of people; but they do show mixtures of sentiment and humor that verge on the ridiculous. Some of his means for securing humorous effects have already been noted: other and less satisfactory means used to attain this result are a continual juggling of words, execrable punning, and a superabundance of faulty literary allusions.
Humor lightens even the brief descriptions that are scattered through his stories. There is little more tendency to adjectivity in his descriptions of objects than there is in his descriptions of persons. The force and vividness of his descriptions are due rather to unusual words, to an abundance of verbs that suggest sound and movement, to numerous and striking similes and metaphors.
About O. Henry's diction let me explain in the apt words of one of his characters: "That man had a vocabulary of about 10,000 words and synonyms, which arrayed themselves into contraband sophistries and parables when they came out." His vocabulary, which is really very large, is a servant, not a master. He had absolutely no respect for conventional usage. Words must be coined to express his thought, or the usual meaning of words must be distorted; O. Henry did both without compunction. In addition to this maltreatment of words (and in the mouths of his low characters it becomes mere punning), his vocabulary was stretched by an appalling number of slang words and slang phrases. There can be little doubt that it is the presence of slang that makes O. Henry appeal so strongly to the general reading public to-day; for the public is drawn to a writer who scorns academic niceties of speech and strikes out on a new path, untrammelled by convention. There is no doubt, further, that in his unexcelled mastery of slang our author was quite effective. But taste changes and, what is more pertinent, slang itself changes, so that his constant use of slang will some day count heavily against him.
Henry Ward Beecher, who is reported to have said that when the English language got in his way it didn't stand a chance, had a worthy disciple in O. Henry. For the latter not only made a servant of words, but he also made a servant of grammar and rhetoric. It is amusing when he writes a sentence abounding in pronouns, becomes confused, and cries in parentheses, "Confound the English language," but it is also cheap. Like Mr. Kipling he affects the verbless and fragmentary sentence, often with good results; and his paragraphs often lack ease of movement, composed as they are of intentionally jerky sentences. That O. Henry's piquant audacities of style are attractive is indisputable, but they are certain to lose their piquancy and to lower his rank in literature.
On the other hand, his stories have the absolute harmony of tone so essential to the short-story writer. Harmony is felt even in "Let Me Feel Your Pulse," a short story that opens with broad burlesque and ends in the subtly allegorical. There is, also, a nice proportion, an artistic condensation of details, and a vividness of style that call to mind Poe in America, Mr. Kipling in England, and de Maupassant in France.
Many of his stories are marred by local and contemporaneous allusions that in a few years will be pointless and vague…. However pleasing such allusions may be when they are penned, they fail to interest succeeding generations. The slanginess of his style, too, is certain to render him distasteful, perhaps unintelligible, to future readers, just as it has already hindered the translation of his stories into foreign languages. Slang is ephemeral. It will make one a writer for the hour, not a writer for all time. Realizing this, O. Henry had planned a series of new stories. "I want to show the public," he said, "that I can write something new—new for me, I mean—a story without slang, a straightforward dramatic plot treated in a way that will come nearer my ideal of real story-writing." "The Dream," which was to be the first of the new series, was broken off in the middle of a sentence by his death. In its incomplete form it appeared in the September, 1910, Cosmopolitan,—a more pathetic "unfinished story" than that of Dulcie.
If necessary, O. Henry's claim to permanence in American literature could be based, like Poe's, on his mastery of the short-story form, for in this respect no other American writer has excelled him. But he has other admirable traits: his frank individuality, his genuine democracy, his whole-souled optimism, his perennial humor, his sympathetic treatment of characteristic American life are irresistible.
For several years O. Henry has been the most popular short-story writer in America, and the "four million" have cried for more stories. It would be absurd to say that the inherent value of his work was not primarily the cause of his popularity, for although slangy mannerisms might attract readers, the latter will not be held if there is not something worth while in the stories themselves; and it seems improbable that the public will soon change from an enthusiastic to a Laodicean temper. To judge O. Henry as if he were a novelist is unfair. He wrote only short stories. He should be judged only by the short-story standard. And although I cannot consider O. Henry great, because of the limitations previously mentioned, yet I do believe that he will always be counted as one of the best American writers of the short story….
Source: Hyder E. Rollins, "O. Henry," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1914, pp. 213-32.
Fagin, N. Bryllion, "O. Henryism," in O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Eugene Current-Garcia, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 168; originally published in Short Story-Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Thomas Seltzer, 1923.
Hansen, Henry, "Foreword," in The Complete Works of O. Henry, Doubleday, 1953, pp. v-x.
Henry, O., "After Twenty Years," in The Complete Works of O. Henry, Doubleday, 1953, pp. 88-91.
Luedtke, Luther S., and Keith Lawrence, "William Sydney Porter," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880-1910, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 288-307.
"Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900: Frontier Justice," in Library of Congress American Memory Timeline, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/features/timeline/riseind/west/justice.html (accessed August 20, 2008).
Rollins, Hyder E., "O. Henry," in O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Eugene Current-Garcia, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 158; originally published in Sewanee Review, Vol. 22, April 1914.
"Settling the West," Web site of the New York Public Library, http://www.nypl.org/west/hw_settl.shtml (accessed August 20, 2008).
U.S. Census Bureau, "Table 2—Increase in Population of States and Territories at Each Census, 1790 to 1890," in Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part 1, http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1890a_v1-06.pdf (accessed August 20, 2008).
Courtney, Luther W., "O. Henry's Case Reconsidered," in American Literature, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1943, pp. 361-72.
Courtney gives a thorough examination of the case that sent O. Henry to prison, finding that the stories about his innocence are probably just the result of his fans' unwillingness to see their hero's flaws.
Gallegly, Joseph, From Alamo Plaza to Jack Harris's Saloon: O. Henry and the Southwest He Knew, Mouton, 1970.
Although "After Twenty Years" does not talk much about the West, the author's familiarity with life out on the frontier is implied throughout the story. This book shows how O. Henry was influenced by the time he spent there in his formative years.
Monkkonen, Eric H., Police in Urban America, 1860-1920, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
This book, part of the "Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Modern History" series, looks at how the rise of uniformed policemen during the named period helped shape the identities of the cities they patrolled.
O'Quinn, Trueman E., and Jenny Lind Porter, Time to Write: How William Sydney Porter Became O. Henry, Eakin Press, 1986.
This book combines biographical information about Porter's four years in prison with photos of places associated with his life around that time, and it includes twelve complete stories that he wrote while in prison.
Smith, Alonso, O. Henry, Martin and Hoyt, 1916.
This biography has the distinction of being written shortly after William Sydney Porter's death. Smith had access to original letters and manuscripts and to many people who knew O. Henry personally.