Monday, December 13, 2010

O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi"

In the first decade of the twentieth century, O. Henry was the most popular short-story writer in America. By 1920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the U.S. What was the secret of his success? Partially, it was the personality of the man whose voice was heard in the stories, a personality with which readers could identify and who spoke to some universal human need. William Saroyan once wrote that Americans loved O. Henry, for “He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who was also a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” One of the underlying assumptions of O. Henry’s stories is that there is some order in the world, some poetic justice that follows a plan. Everything happens for a reason in an O. Henry story, and everything fits into the overall pattern. Furthermore, O. Henry exploits a universal romantic wish that people are basically good and unselfish and possesses an inherent dignity.

O. Henry combines two different aspects of the short story that contributed to his success—the oral voice of the raconteur derived from frontier humorists and a highly patterned structure originated by Poe. Combining the local color and melodrama of Bret Harte with the ironic reversals and empathy for ordinary people of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry staked out his own territory of New York City and developed a storytelling voice more polished than the usual barroom wag who always seems to have one more tale to tell. He was a talented storyteller who would slap you on the back and stand you to a drink and a marketing specialist who knew exactly what buttons to push to make his audience react. He never really took himself seriously as an artist, preferring instead the title “journalist.”

O. Henry polished and formalized the kind of ironic reversal stories that Boccaccio innovated during the Renaissance. Russian Formalist critic of the 1920s, Boris Ejxenbaum, was one of the first to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form. In his brief study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. Basing his theories largely on the stories of O. Henry, he suggested that the short story was constructed on the basis of some contradiction or incongruity and amassed its whole weight toward its ending. Whereas the novel ended with a point of letup or unraveling, the short story "gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded."

The late nineteenth century focus on realism that made novels so popular and well respected marked a decline of interest in the short story that early nineteenth-century writers such as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe had stimulated. O. Henry’s facility in creating snappy, comic and sentimental stories renewed the public’s interest in the form. As a result of his success, many other writers sought to emulate him and many academics began to study the characteristics of the form. One result was the creation of short-story handbooks—quasi-academic treatises that attempted to teach others how to write a short story. In the best early history of the form, Fred Lewis Pattee listed “ten commandments” of the short story codified in these handbooks and taught in college courses and correspondence schools, all of which were derived from the stories of O. Henry.

As a result of O. Henry’s success and the handbooks that sought to reveal his method, the short story became formalized and static. Finally serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the "decline," the "decay," and the "senility" of the short story. Even Edward J. O'Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form America has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machine-like short story that both sprang from it and reflected it. The short story did not recover from this O. Henry formalization until the seemingly unstructured stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson gained popularity in the 1920s.

O. Henry’s most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” translated and reprinted every Christmas around the world, was written in three hours to meet a deadline that O. Henry had ignored for several days. Here’s the way I have heard about how the story was written.

Near the end of the year in 1905, O. Henry was commissioned to write a Christmas story for the World newspaper. He kept putting it off and missed the deadline. The man hired to illustrate the story went to O. Henry to try to get some idea about the story so he could do the drawings. But O. Henry had not written anything. He told the illustrator to draw a picture of a poorly furnished room. He continued: “In the room there is only a chair or two, a chest of drawers, a bed, and a trunk. On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand. He is playing with it while he is thinking. The girl’s principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That’s all I can think of now. But the story is coming.” A few hours before final deadline, O. Henry told his editor to lie down and rest. He started drinking a bottle of Scotch and began. Three hours later, he had “The Gift of the Magi” finished, and they set up the type right away.

The plot alone—a young woman sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for her vanished hair—is sufficient to make the story a classic about the spirit of Christmas. But it is also O. Henry’s avuncular storytelling voice and his use of a scenic film style that makes it so accessible and irresistible. The story opens on a scene right out of a pantomimed melodrama of the young woman Della in her modest apartment crying because she has no money to buy her husband a Christmas gift, that is, until she thinks of the brilliant yet terrifying idea of selling her long beautiful hair to a wigmaker.

When the young husband comes home and sees his wife with her hair cropped off, the reader has no way of knowing that the peculiar expression of his face is not shock at her changed appearance, but rather bemused recognition that she will be unable to use the gift he has purchased for her. When he opens the combs, the reader sighs at Della’s grand but seemingly worthless sacrifice. When she gives him the watch fob, Jim just flops down on the couch, puts his hands under the back of his head and smiles, telling her simply that he sold the watch to get the money to buy her the combs. The story then ends with O. Henry’s little homily about the wise magi, who invented the at of giving Christmas presents, suggesting that the two “foolish children” of his “uneventful chronicle” who unwisely sacrificed for each other the “greatest treasures of their homes” are indeed the wisest of all, for “They are the magi.”

This is one of the few significant Christmas short stories I am aware of. Great writers seldom write about Christmas.

Next week I will talk about three other Christmas stories: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and a third one—the most famous of all, and the best of all Christmas stories. Can you guess what it is? (not Dickens’s A Christmas Carol).

Please make some suggestions as to why you think there are few Christmas short stories, although there are many, many Christmas movies.

Cast a vote for your favorite Christmas story. Can you think of Christmas stories I have forgotten?


Anonymous said...

Hi, i just want to say hello to the community

Ann Graham said...

I can't think of any Christmas stories but just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate this column!

Anonymous said...

The Christmas story is a form of genre writing, often a romance (see the Hallmark channel etc.). The readers expect a happy ending. Of course the exception that proves the rule of the happy ending is "The Dead" by James Joyce. Great writers don't fulfill reader expectations, unless the reader is looking for depth and brilliance.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Dex. Of course, you are right about the problem of a genre story, and right again about "The Dead." Indeed, "The Dead" was the story I had in mind as the greatest Christmas story, and yes, I agree it is the exceptional happy ending that seems hard earned rather than sentimentally bestowed. Thank you, my friend. I especially like your statement about the only way great writers fulfill reader expectation.

Alex said...

I have to vote for A Christmas Memory as the greatest Christmas story. It is as an important part of Christmas as potato candy and buckeyes. I read it to Ean and the kids every year and it makes me cry every time.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Great blog, as always. How wonderful to be able to peruse your back blogs, their quality timeless.

There is a large volume of Christmas stories called A KENTUCKY SAMPLER, which I recommend to all who find their way here. The usual suspects are involved--Robert Penn Warren, Chris Offutt, Wendell Berry, James Still, and others of note--but also some little-known wonders too, such as Anne Selby's "Jack Saves Christmas."

A host of other good holiday stories come to mind now, including some great Thanksgiving stories.

You should read Richard Russo's story, "Horseman," which is the best Thanksgiving story I've ever found. Here's the link to my blog about it: