O. Henry poses the same problem for a history of the short story as Bret Harte does, for as with Harte, O. Henry's influence far exceeds his excellence as a short-story writer. However, like Harte, O. Henry was the right man at the right time, a writer who pushed the well-made formal nature of the short story to its furthest extreme. O. Henry--a local colorist writer focusing on the city of New York who so emphasized the ironic pattern of his stories that his name has become associated with the formulaic short story. O. Henry's popularity and his output was unprecedented. By l920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the U.S. Ironically, while he was being scolded by the serious critics in America, who preferred the more serious slice- of-life stories of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, in Russia, serious critics were praising O. Henry for his mastery of the complex conventions of story-telling.
With O. Henry, the endings of stories became a formalization of the kind of ironic reversals that Boccaccio had made popular during the Renaissance. Boris Ejxenbaum was one of the first critics 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 and the novel were not only different but inherently at odds, for while the novel is a syncretic form developed from collections or stories or complicated by manners and morals material, the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. The difference between the two is a difference in essence, said Exjenbaum, a difference conditioned by the distinction between big and small forms. Admittedly basing his analysis largely on the stories of O. Henry, he argued that the story was constructed on the basic of some contradiction or incongruity whereby, by itself very essence the story amassed its whole weight toward its ending.
As Eichenbaum has said, there is something of the structure of the joke about short stories in that they depend on the ending. However, the question here is why did Chekhov move away from the snappy ending while O. Henry continued to make it his forte? This may be an example of the usual prejudice against the short story or else a misunderstanding of what constitutes its basic nature. There is obviously some relationship between the structure of the short story and the structure of the joke, but there is obviously an important difference. What needs to be distinguished is the basic underlying structure of the joke (Freud may be the best help for this, as well as Koestler and other students of creativity) and the use of this structure for more serious material. Mickey Spillane once said that the only reason people listen to a joke or read a story is to find out how it ends. Thus jokes are closed forms with a punch line, whereas the open short story (like Eastman's notion of open parable) does not focus on closure in the traditional sense. I must check Kermode here on the notion of endings.
O. Henry wrote so many short stories so rapidly that he became the quintessential example of Edward O'Brien's accusation that the short story had become a machine-made product. However, his best-known stories are those that reflect the kind of reverse ending that he was famous for: "The Gift of the Magi," "Mammon and the Archer," "The Cop and the Anthem," "The Furnished Room" and "A Municipal Report," perhaps his most respected story. O. Henry is the writer with which Frederick Pattee ends his class history of the development of the short story, Pattee citing him as the master of "That reminds me of another" story, but a writer, for all his smooth slick style, of no depth, no thought, no philosophy, no moral complexity. The problem of O. Henry is that he is a master of technique, and to cite him as a representative short story writer is simply to say that technique is more important for the short story than them. This does not mean, however, that there is no thematic/structural complexity in O. Henry's stories, as a brief look at "The Cop and the Anthem" will show.
At the turn of the century the name O. Henry was synonymous with the short story as a form. And for many readers still, the notion of what a short story is derives from the kind of trick or twist ending associated with such O. Henry stories as "The Gift of the Magi," that sentimental story about the poor young couple--he who sold his watch to buy combs for her long hair and she who sold her hair to a wig-maker to buy a chain for his gold watch. Not many O. Henry stories deal with serious issues in a serious way; they are either sentimental or else they are comically ironic. "The Cop and the Anthem" is of the latter kind, but just because it does not carry a heavy theme or a serious idea does not mean that it will not repay a close study.
"The Cop and the Anthem" can be used to make students sensitive to the importance of point of view and ironic structure. The first thing students might notice about this story is the language, riddled as it is with high-sounding esoteric words. Students might be asked to characterize someone who says "cognizant of the fact that" rather than "knew," or "eleemosynary" rather than "charitable." The technique O. Henry uses here is to give the storyteller language typical of the central character, Soapy, the bum, as a way of mildly ironically mocking him. The language makes Soapy sound important, and indeed the irony of his character and situation is that although he is a bum, he acts as if he is of a high social status.
Indeed the character of Soapy is as important to this story as its ironic structure, in which every action that he takes creates a reaction opposite to the one he wishes. The basic irony of the story is that as long as Soapy is "free," that is, loose in the city, he is not free at all, because of the coming winter. However, if he were in prison, he would indeed be "free" to enjoy life without fear. However, Soapy does not want something for nothing; he is willing to pay for his room and board by going to some effort to commit an act that, according to the law, will get him in jail. He knows that what society calls charity is not charity at all, but that he will have to "pay" for philanthropy by being preached at and lectured to.
The additional problem, of course, is that although Soapy breaks the law, he does not act like a criminal. Moreover, although Soapy tries to be a "crook" there are real crooks out there, such as the umbrella thief, who thwart him, for he finds he cannot really steal from one who has already stolen. Finally, there are those, such as the streetwalker, who although they might not look as if they were outside the law, are indeed criminals; one cannot violate the legal rights of one who is outside the law.
Thus, Soapy seems "doomed to liberty." Of course, a story with an ironic, mocking tone such as this one, in which a bum who talks like a gentleman tries to get himself thrown into jail but continually fails, can only end one way. The ultimate irony of course is that Soapy, who does not want something for nothing and who goes to a great deal to get thrown into jail, finally does get thrown into jail for doing precisely nothing.