Yes, yes, we know.
We are fossils since we still take delight in the moribund practice of reading books.
Among the many works of fiction that have passed through these old hands, few have been as gratifying as the short stories by O.Henry, the nom de plume of American writer William Sydney Porter.
O.Henry is, of course, best known for the surprise endings in his short stories. There’s invariably a sting in the tail.
The twist-in-the-ending apart, we also like O.Henry’s elegant prose, oftentimes with a hint of mischief lurking close by.
Many years back, in our lost decade as we were were aimlessly trudging down the cold streets of Toronto we came upon an used book store on Gerard St run by an odd couple (an young man who seemingly had a lost air about him and his older seemingly worldy-wiser girlfriend).
One of the first books we found on top of a precarious heap in the small bookstore was The Four Million, a collection of fine short stories by O.Henry.
Although money was tight in those years, we quickly decided the book must rightfully belong to us. Over the years, we’ve dipped into this 87-year-old book on countless occasions.
Here’s an excerpt from one of our favorite stories in the collection, The Cop and the Anthem (a short account of a homeless man in New York City desperate to get arrested in a bid to escape the rigors of the coming winter):
The hibernatorial ambitions of Soapy were not of the highest. In them there were no considerations of Mediterranean cruises, of soporific Southern skies or drifting in the Vesuvian Bay. Three months on the Island was what his soul craved. Three months of assured board and bed and congenial company, safe from Boreas and bluecoats, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable.
For years the hospitable Blackwell’s had been his winter quarters. Juat as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his humble arrangements for his annual hegira to the Island. And now the time was come.
But as the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.
Despite his best efforts to get arrested and irritating the bejesus out of more than one policeman nearby, our homeless friend finds that goal elusive. Soapy falls into a funk and what do you think happens next?
But long before The Cop and the Anthem, we read The Gift of the Magi followed a few years later by After Twenty Years.
The Gift of the Magi is likely O.Henry’s best known work even among those not known to be friends with books because it often constitutes a part of the high school English curriculum in India.
Of all the love stories – real, feigned and fictional – we’ve stumbled upon in books and movies and friends’ tales over so many decades none come anywhere close to the poignant ending of The Gift of the Magi.
Among the other well known O.Henry stories are Man About Town, A Cosmopolite in a Cafe and The Coming-out of Maggie.
It’s that very rare O.Henry story that doesn’t afford at least some joy.
Read “The Cop and the Anthem” on classic reader.. felt like how you felt about “Paranormal Activity”.. disappointed. 🙁
The twist was probably very clever in 1905, but not any more. I guess I am not as enthralled by pretty prose as you are.. or maybe I am.. why else will I be hanging out at SI.com 😉
What about Gift of the Magi?
That too disappointing?
Is ‘The Gift of the Magi” about the wrist watch belt and the ivory comb?
I remember feeling very sad when that story was taught to us as an English lesson.
Another writer who specializes in this “sting-in-the-tail” kind of endings is one Hector Hugh Munro, aka SAKI.
The last line of his story would almost overturn all that had been written thus far.
You will not be disappointed by his short stories.
Back in 1985-87, there was a TV serial on Doordarshan called Katha Sagar, which was based on the short stories written by SAKI, O.Henry, Anton Chekov and others.
Well executed, these episodes invariably left a poignant feeling although I was too young to understand.
Although reading of books as a habit is dwindling, I hope these classics will continue to be read, just as music of 50s, 60s and 70s in India is still more popular than that of the present day.
1. You write: Is ‘The Gift of the Magi” about the wrist watch belt and the ivory comb? I remember feeling very sad when that story was taught to us as an English lesson.
2. We may have read some short stories by Saki though we can’t remember offhand. Will pick up his book soon.
3. You write: Back in 1985-87, there was a TV serial on Doordarshan called Katha Sagar….
Seen very little of Indian TV.
O.Henry is one of my favorite authors.
I’ve read many of his short stories in School textbooks and later,even bought a book,which had a collection of all his works.
No one can beat him,when it comes to providing an ironic twist at the end of the story! 😉
Some say Saki’s stories also have interesting twists. Let’s see.
Hmm.. Did not have experienced O.Henry’s short stories. Now that you brought it, I’ll certainly attempt to get ’em.
I do not derive the same feel & pleasure of reading a book, in an e-book. Do you?
(from a parking spot on Walnut St in Philadelphia)
We are not that keen about e-books either.
Maybe when we buy a Kindle! 😉
One O Henry story that cracks me up is “A Harlem Tragedy”.
That being told I have to say that in terms of twists in the tail, Saki outdoes O. Henry. Roald Dahl too has quite a few stories that simply blow your mind away with their sometimes witty and sometimes macabre but almost always surprising endings.
A Harlem Tragedy is absolutely delightful.
Will review Roald Dahl here in a few weeks.
have read saki’s “the open window”… was in school’s literature coursebook…
Have you read any of short stories of munshi premchand… I guess no one can be so incisive as he was. Although predictable miseries where always the main course, but the way of his telling the story could even melt a stone.
Just wanted to mention it.
Some Saki stories in our school years, yes. But Munshi Premchand, no but we are familiar with his Neroesque Shatranj ke Khiladi.
‘Gift of the Magi’.. was on school syllabus.. used to read all the stories even before the school started. so it was easy once they start analysing , or plain mugging up during classes. loved most of the stories they recommended.. count of Monte Cristo and stuff.
BTW have you seen ‘Raincoat’? I feel its ‘Gift of the Magi’ and felt it was good when it released. Haven’t seen it since, but the ‘it was good’ feeling has struck with me. think you can watch Aishwarya Rai acting here (or maybe not) but the others and the story have done well. Have a see. some nice characterizations and good dialogue.
You write: BTW have you seen ‘Raincoat’?
No, we haven’t seen the Raincoat, we’ve only read The Overcoat (by Nikolai Gogol).
Hard to conceive of Aishwarya Rai and acting in the same sentence.
I’m not sure about Aishwarya Rai’s acting either,but the dialogues were crisp, maybe that caused the illusion of acting.
sometime back .. well a few years back.. I bought the complete stories of O.Henry thinking I’ll read all of his stories.. but the size of the book(huge), and the small print has made it unreadable, now its used for what I think it was designed for, decorating the bookshelf. This has made me go for smaller anthologies, though the greediness of having all the stories does take over sometime.
Gogol’s Overcoat, was great, read it on the net(gutenberg.org), its listed as ‘The Cloak’.
Have you watched ‘Viy’ the older one, I’m not sure about the newer one but the old one is great if you like cheap special effects horror fare. the story is by Gogol. The shortstory I think would be more tongue in cheek ( got it on the net, as I type this ).
Give ‘Gibran’ a try, I’m not sure if its your area of interest.. the 2nd link when you search for gibran has all his works. gutenberg.org has ‘madman’.
1. Netflix doesn’t have the 1967 Viy or the new one either though they are supposed to be getting the old one.
2. You write: Gogol’s Overcoat, was great, read it on the net(gutenberg.org), its listed as ˜The Cloak
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s book/film Namesake, Gogol’s Overcoat plays a key role in saving young Ashoke Ganguli’s life in the horrific train crash. Many years later, the grateful father (Irrfan Khan) names his son Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn).
3. Gibran, we tried some book 15 years back….not sure if we completed it or abandoned the effort halfway.
4. You write: a few years back.. I bought the complete stories of O.Henry thinking I’ll read all of his stories.. but the size of the book(huge), and the small print has made it unreadable, now its used for what I think it was designed for, decorating the bookshelf
A similar thing is happening to us with Montaigne’s essays but we’ll push back the devil.