I’ve read the biography of O. Henry and I knew I just have to read his works.
Henry, William Sydney Porter in real life, is a simple American who bore a lot of heartaches. He was born in North Carolina in 1862. He stopped his formal education at 15 but he pursued his love of reading and writing. How (figuratively) rich he was, for the world had turned into his school. He went through a lot of odd jobs—working in a drugstore, in a ranch, in a general land office, and in a bank.
As a teller, O. Henry began to show signs of poor money management. His accounts showed irregularities, but it was only later, after his wife of 10 years with whom he has two children died of tuberculosis, that he was prosecuted and convicted. He spent more than three years in prison where, with enough time on his hands, his short stories (and his pen name) were born. He purposely made O. Henry, after Orrin Henry the prison guard, as his nickname as a way to keep his identity a secret. He wanted it that way.
After he was released from prison, he moved to New York where he published many more short stories. These stories are known for their unexpected endings, humor, and I must add, brutal honesty. It seems that O. Henry took his observations at face value. However, he has this subtle way of excluding desperation in the desperate situations his characters are in. I mean, when a character is dying, the writer manages to still put a smile on him and cloud him with a convincing amount of optimism, which is, ironically, not in O. Henry’s real-life vocabulary.
It was surmised that the series of experiences he had that catapulted him into prison life as well as his prison life is like dark clouds around him for the rest of his life, no matter how shy, reserved, laid-back, and fun-loving he appeared to be.
O. Henry is a man who went through a lot, and yet his distressing experiences had not dampened his love for reading and writing nor had they damaged his eye for detail of the human emotions.
Reading through his stories, I felt like I met a certain man in some bank who looks like he is working behind his desk but is actually observing me interacting with his colleagues. When he gets to write his observations on paper, he gets every detail and color correctly.
It is a sad thought that at the age of 47, with money problems hounding him, he died due to stroke. If he hadn’t died that young, just imagine the many more short stories he would have produced. But I must say, he produced enough for him to be considered a great American short story writer.
I have read O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and The Skylight Room. Like the rest of his stories, these two short stories are filled with comedy and irony, two ingredients that O. Henry managed to mix well. And it seems that O. Henry is very conscious with money.
The Gift of the Magi is a Christmas classic. No wonder it was produced into a film 40 years after its publication. It tells the story of a couple who each has what the world would consider their greatest assets.
The story starts with Della the wife having only $1.87 to buy her husband a Christmas gift. Imagine her agony! After much deliberation, she sells her long beautiful hair in order to purchase Jim a gold watch. When they meet that night for dinner, they exchange gifts. Jim gives her the fancy combs she has always wanted. He has sold his watch to buy them. Instead of dwelling on the presents, though, Jim recommends that they proceed with dinner. O. Henry closed the story:
“But in a last word to the wise these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, they are they wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” (Source: The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry)
On the other hand, The Skylight Room is a beautifully written fairytale story of Miss Leeson, a poor yet bright and imaginative girl whose job as a freelance typist can only afford her the “skylight room” of Mrs. Parker the landlady.
The skylight room is dark and under-furnished. Its only view of the outside is the skylight through where Miss Leeson meets Billy Jackson the star. The affluent lodgers residing below the skylight room call the star “gamma” and other scientific names. But Miss Leeson insists on calling the star Billy Jackson. For her, it is her friend who knows her daily challenges and sorrows.
Jobs become scarce for Miss Leeson that one day, she climbs on her bed without eating dinner. She is suffering from starvation. When she is found the next day, an ambulance is called for. The young ambulance doctor knows enough about the skylight room and its effects to the resident. He takes care of Miss Leeson. You know the name of the doctor? He is William Jackson.
“Good-bye, Billy,” she murmured faintly. “You’re millions of miles away and you won’t even twinkle once. But you kept where I could see you most of the time up there when there wasn’t anything else but darkness to look at, didn’t you? . . . Millions of miles. . . . Good-bye, Billy Jackson.” (Source: The Skylight Room by O. Henry)
This is part of my endeavor to read more short stories and write my thoughts about them on this new blog. You can find more musings on other short stories here.