SOURCE: “O. Henryism,” in Short Story-Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923, pp. 29–47.
[In the following essay, Fagin provides an overview of O. Henry's short stories and praises the ingenuity of “The Gift of the Magi.”]
The mottoes of most of our fiction periodicals are told on their covers: “A magazine of clever fiction,” “A magazine of bright fiction,” “A magazine of entertaining fiction,” “A magazine of frisky fiction.” But with all the available supply of novel plot material exhausted by writers who had the good fortune of being here before our generation had an opportunity, what is left to us is neither clever, bright, nor entertaining. However, O. Henry proved that it was possible to take the same age-old material and brighten it up with a coat of sparkling cleverness. He had but to juggle his incidents in such a way as to make them follow one another in a most spectacular sequence. He had but to play upon the credulity of his reader. Like the stage magician, he said to his audience: “Observe that there is a tree here and a fountain there, and without moving a finger I shall reverse their positions. Now watch, presto! Here they are!” And the audience applauded, wondering how he did it, and crowned him king of the wizards.
The king of the wizards, then, occupies a most honorable position in our textbooks. Stories written in the vein of O. Henry sell more readily than stories written in the vein of any other master. There is a brightness, a snappiness, a cheerfulness of style about them that draws the artistic sensibilities of editors. And yet our insistence upon the emulation of O. Henry has not produced many other O. Henrys. Perhaps it is because O. Henry went to the highways and byways of North and Central America for his plot material which he then juggled to his heart's content, while our students go to O. Henry for their plot material. Perhaps also it is because O. Henryism was as much a part of William Sidney Porter as was his speaking voice which is buried with him.
A very young student once lodged a complaint against her own unruly self. “It is absolutely impossible for me to write a single sentence in the O. Henry way,” she said. “My stuff somehow doesn't have that swing—it's dead. I don't believe I shall ever learn. I am too sad of disposition, I suppose.”
That was one time I did not smile. “Why should you want to write like O. Henry?” I asked. “Why don't you try to wear the shape of shoes or the color of clothes he wore, or drink the kind of ginger-ale he preferred?” But I was sorry later for my unguarded outburst, for I realize that that was not the way to make story writers, not the kind that sell, at any rate.
After all, O. Henry's technique consisted mainly of a series of clever tricks, and tricks can be taught, even though not perhaps his dexterity in performing them. His was truly a gift of the Magi and not really a gift of the gods. Admitting that through his superficial cleverness there occasionally glimmers an uncommon understanding of and a sympathy for the people whose destinies he juggles, the fact remains that his example is that of clever execution rather than artistic conception. It remains needless, then, for us to point to anything else in his makeup save his successful technique. We read a dozen of his stories, call attention to their brilliant mannerisms and surprising twists at the end, and exhort our students to go and do likewise. Sometimes we go a little further and discuss the underlying psychology upon which O. Henry based his loops and twists—his belief that our modern reader was so well-nourished on stereotyped fiction as to guess the conclusion of a story by its beginning, and, consequently, O. Henry led him on to believe that his guess was being borne out until the very end, when a pleasantly startling disappointment was sprung upon him.
To substantiate our eulogies of the wizard and to impress upon the would-be writer the importance of studying and emulating O. Henry, we quote copiously from Stephen Leacock, Prof. C. Alphonso Smith, and numerous other O. Henry friends. We seldom, if ever, quote opinions of critics and editors who are hostile to O. Henry and his cult. Here is one editor, for instance, who actually believes that “the effects of such mannerism, trickery, shallowness, and artifice as distinguished O. Henry's work, are baleful on all literary students who do not despise them.”1 We know that this editor's opinion must not be credited with importance. His is only a small Greenwich Village publication. The checks that writers receive come from editors who do like O. Henry's ways; in fact, prefer O. Henryesque stories almost to the exclusion of any other type. Hence we examine the work of our students with a feeling of satisfaction. By far the greater number have imbibed our teachings. Their work shows a striving after cleverness, witty flippancy, grotesque slang, and an attempt to cap the dénouement with a novel twist, a perfectly surprising turn. Thus we know that our work is not in vain; at least some of our students are on the way to success.
Again, this is not a plea on behalf of those incompetents who are not O. Henryesquely gifted and are therefore not on the way to success. It is merely a dispassionate consideration of the profession of teaching story-writing and its existing standards and ethics. Since the O. Henry story is held up as the supreme model, it is only fair to inquire into the results thus produced. We have been so eloquent with pride on the progress of our short story. Since Professor Brander Matthews first expounded its philosophy, away back in 1884, and connected the two little words by a hyphen to distinguish this form beginning with an Initial Impulse and running up to a Climax and falling down to a Dénouement from the story which is merely short, it has become our prevailing form of literature. The quantity turned out annually is beyond the dreams of such a pioneer as Poe. But the quality—ah, that is another story!
What proportion of this wholesale output can be candidly, suppressing for the moment our desire to experience flattering sensations, added to our national literary treasury? How many memorable stories come to mind to waylay us with their poignant spell of subtlety and beauty—such, let us say, as Kipling's “Without Benefit of Clergy,” or Chekhov's “Ward No. 6,” or Maupassant's “In the Moonlight”? Few, isn't it? And peculiar, is it not, that though we have been heaping the warmest of praise upon Richard Harding Davis and Clarence Budington Kelland and George Randolph Chester and Richard Washburn Child and Mary Roberts Rinehart and a score or more of our other popular writers, the few memorable stories that do come to mind were not written by these favorites. How much of the O. Henryesque is to be found in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “Revolt of Mother,” or in Theodore Dreiser's “The Lost Phoebe,”2 or, to take a more recent example, in Anzia Yezierska's “Hungry Hearts”?3 These stories are everything that the wizard's stories are not. They are neither breezy, nor flippant, nor surprising; nor “refreshing.” Judged by our standards they are anomalies.
I am sufficiently steeped in our inspirational literature to be aware of the dangers of pessimism. The Doctors Crane and Orison Swett Marden and Walt Mason have left their effect upon my disposition. But it is only logical to deduct that if all the O. Henry standards that we have so triumphantly established and extolled for the guidance of our story writers have failed to produce a single great story to compare with the best that other countries which do not preach and practice O. Henryism have produced, there is something wrong with our standards. These are unusual times we are living in. Everything that has seemed to us wise and sound and sublime is coming in for a share of skepticism and revaluation. Unquestionable things are being questioned. Is it not a propitious time to attempt a revaluation of our short-story dogmas? What is the contribution of O. Henryism to our national letters and to the short story as a form of literary expression? How great an artist really was William Sidney Porter, the founder of the Cult? Is it sacrilege to attempt to answer these questions?
O. Henry left us more than two hundred and fifty stories. In the decade before his death he turned out an average of twenty-five stories a year. Mr. William Johnston, an editor of the New York World relates4 the struggles of O. Henry in trying to live up to a three-year contract he had with that paper calling for a story a week. There were weeks when O. Henry would haunt the hotels and cafés of New York in a frantic search of material, and there were times when the stories could not be produced on time and O. Henry would sit down and write the most ingenious excuses. Needless to state that O. Henry's stories bear all the marks of this haste and anxiety. Nearly all of them are sketchy, reportorial, superficial, his gift of felicitous expression “camouflaging” the poverty of theme and character. The best of them lack depth and roundness, often disclosing a glint of a sharp idea unworked, untransmuted by thought and emotion.
Of his many volumes of stories, The Four Million is without doubt the one which is most widely known. It was his bold challenge to the world that he was the discoverer—even though he gave the census taker due credit—of four million people instead of four hundred in America's metropolis that first attracted attention and admiration. The implication was that he was imbued with the purpose of unbaring the lives of these four million and especially of the neglected lower classes. A truly admirable and ambitious self-assignment. And so we have The Four Million. But to what extent was he successful in carrying out his assignment. How much of the surging, shifting, pale, rich, orderly, chaotic, and wholly incongruous life of New York is actually pulsating in the twenty-five little stories collected in the volume?
What is the first one, “Tobin's Palm,” if not a mere long-drawn-out jest? Is it anything more than an anecdote exploiting palmistry as a “trait”—to use another technical term—or point? It isn't New York, nor Tobin, nor any other character, that makes this story interesting. It is O. Henry's trick at the end. The prophecy is fulfilled, after all, in such an unexpected way, and we are such satisfied children!
What is the second story, the famous “Gift of the Magi”? We have discussed it and analyzed it in our texts and lauded it everywhere. How much of the life of the four million does it hold up to us? It is better than the first story; yes, much better. But why is it a masterpiece? Not because it tries to take us into the home of a married couple attempting to exist in our largest city on the husband's income...
Essay on The Gift of the Magi
4446 Words18 Pages
Many critics agree, “The Gift of the Magi” is, in all respects, an amazing and one of a kind story. One critic says, “Ironically, Fagin arrives at something utterly crucial to the success of 'The Gift of the Magi': that it has everything—an absorbing (if short) narrative drive and a twist ending that makes it wholly original” (Korb). Even renowned critic, Rena Korb, agrees; O.Henry did an excellent job with this story. Though O. Henry wrote many great stories, one of his most famous, and favorite, stories of all time is “The Gift of the Magi.” “The gift of the Magi” is a classic about a couple who sacrifices their happiness for the other. It is one of Henry’s most popular stories by far; even being remade many times. Such a popular story…show more content…
O. Henry included two more quotes, “ Her eyes were shining brilliantly….” and “…it terrified her,” to show that her emotions changed many times. Della's emotions went from being sad, to being hopeful of getting money, and then to terrified that she would no longer be accepted by Jim. Though Della's emotions change, Della is still static overall. Without being directly stated in the story, it is shown that Della loves Jim in the beginning and also loves him at the end. Della even went to lengths of having her hair cut off in order to please him with a great gift. Throughout the entire story, hints are displayed, telling the reader that Della loves Jim (Henry). A major show of this being that she cut her hair off just to get him a good present. Critic Rena Korb talks about the sacrifice of goods stating, “convey… unselfish sacrifices we make for those we love…. Not sentimental, but universal truth” (“The Gift of the Magi”). Interpreted, this means that people give up things close to themselves in order to please people they love. Everybody does it, so nobody can say that they have not, or would not. Della is no different. Also, since there is no concrete proof of these feelings, it leads to the realization that there is indirect characterization and also sort of shows that the story is not driven to characterize the people. “The Gift of the Magi” is a plot driven story, not a character driven one (“The Gift of the