Rescuing O. Henry



Comment about the book Stories by O. Henry


I was in Campinas, walking around downtown, in the first days of January. After a visit to the Palácio dos Azulejos, which houses the Museu da Imagem e do Som (MIS), my hostess and I walked along Rua Ferreira Penteado and entered a modest used bookstore, where we found the fabulous book by the American O. Henry containing 22 of his short stories, selected and prefaced by José Paulo Paes.

O. Henry was the pseudonym used by William Sidney Porter (Greensbore, North Carolina, 11.09.1862 – New York, 05.07.1910), having become one of the most popular short story writers in his country.

In “Notícia sobre O. Henry” (p. 7-12), José Paulo Paes informs that the writer lost his parents when he was still a child, having been adopted by an elderly aunt, a teacher at a private school, who stimulated his taste for reading. . He attended school until he was fifteen. From then on “his only teachers were Life, which he always loved, despite its disconcerts, and books, which he read with fervor, but without method” (p. 7). He worked with his uncle in a drugstore from his hometown, he had a tuberculosis crisis and went to live on a sheep ranch in Texas, but he soon abandoned it and settled in Austin, working in an office, creating a humorous weekly with an ephemeral life and, afterwards, “began to collaborate in the Daily Post, from Houston, where he wrote a column of humorous chronicles” (p. 8).

His earnings were insufficient to survive, supplementing his income as an accountant at an Austin bank. He was accused of having taken a thousand dollars from the establishment; he was already married and had a daughter. Afraid of being arrested, he flees to New Orleans and, from there, takes a ship to Trujillo, Honduras, leaving his family behind. He only returns to the US to care for his wife, who is seriously ill and dies days after his return. He turned himself in to the police, handing his daughter over to her grandmother's care. Accused of embezzlement, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison at the Ohio Federal Penitentiary. “For good behavior, his sentence was shortened to three years and three months: the prison director, sympathizing with him, employed him as a pharmacy assistant and, later, as a night nurse at the penitentiary hospital” (p. 9).

His first stories were written in prison, the texts being sent, already signed with the pseudonym that would make him famous, to a friend in New Orleans, who forwarded them to New York publishers. The curious thing is that O. Henry “took his pseudonym from the name of the head guard at the Ohio Penitentiary, Captain Orrin Henry” (p. 9). According to Paes, it was the confessions of a cellmate that helped him write “Uma Reforma Reestablished”, which was also adapted for the theater.

O. Henry left prison in 1902, aged 40, going to live in New York, which he called Baghdad-Over-the-Metropolitan, residing almost always near Madison Square and Irving Place, in rented rooms. He worked hard, as he depended on his production to pay the bills: “pressured by editors, always demanding new stories to meet public demand – who were delighted with his good-humored way of narrating and his moderately rosy view of dramas of life, (...) he wrote an average of one story a week and, in his period of greatest activity (1902-1910), produced [about] three hundred. The posthumously published omnibus volume, which brings together his entire production, comprises six hundred complete short stories” (p. 10).

Her writings weave small webs involving “lonely and hopeful people – girls who (…) were drawn to the big city by love or by the desire to make a career, and who became the playthings of fate; young men eagerly looking for a position; vagabonds and misfits who accepted adversity with an air of bragging and sometimes exhibited sentimental and romantic attitudes” (p. 10).

O. Henry's popularity, right at the beginning of the last century, arrived quickly and his stories were disputed by several magazines. His collections soon appeared, consolidating his name in the publishing market. José Paulo Paes remembers that the first of them is from 1904 – Cabbages and Kings, containing narratives of adventure and revolution set in a fictional country in Central America (p. 10). However, it was The Four Million (1906) who, making use of a more or less innovative formula (“the tale of twist or unexpected ending”), caused a sensation at the time (p. 11).

While the critics turned their noses up, the public loved the use of this formula, not caring about the superficiality of the characters or the artificiality of the plots (p. 11). This made his other books fall even more into the graces of the great mass of readers - cases of The Trimmed Lamp e heart of the west (both 1907); The Voice of the city (1908); Options e Roads of Destiny (1909) and, in 1910, two others: strictly Business e Whirligigs. Three more of his books were published posthumously (p. 11).



In addition to selecting the stories from this Stories by O. Henry, among the various books cited in previous lines, José Paulo Paes translated 8 of them – the other 14 were versed by Alzira Machado Kawall. Unfortunately, the edition does not record the dates of the original publications.

Perhaps “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf” are some of the author's best-known stories, in which lovers or loved ones sacrifice themselves to benefit partners and/or friends, with unexpected, even surprising, endings. “In Twenty Years Later”, with only four pages, everything is said in an effective and even disconcerting way. The clerks of fine stores, who live in rooms rented for 2 or 3 dollars a week and who want, if possible, a “good marriage” with rich boys, are present in “Fourpenny Boyfriend” and “The Decorated Lamp”. Daily expenses, the price of clothes, meals and the necessities of life in New York appear more prominently in “A Água Furtada”, while in “Uma Reforma Restaestablished” and “O Guarda e o Hino” the theme of social regeneration is handled masterfully.

Rudolf Steiner is the main character of “A Porta Verde”; “Ephemeral Visitors from Arcadia” brings together Harold Farrington (James Mac Manus) and Héloise D'Arcy Beaumont (Mamie Siviter), who pretend to be millionaires, with fake names, for a few days, at the magnificent Lotus Hotel, in Manhattan.

“Caminhos do Destino”, in turn, is the longest story in the collection. Set in Ancien Régime France, it opens up three narrative possibilities for the action of sheep shepherd and unpublished poet David Mignot, none of which leads to a result that makes him happy. “Arabian Night in Madison Square”, “Two Gentlemen on Thanksgiving Day” and “Dick Whistler's Christmas Stocking” deal with the participation, in different contexts, of homeless people, which completely change the course of the stories. “May, Matrimonial Month”, registers the suspicion of a millionaire's daughter regarding the behavior of her rich father's caregiver, because “she knew that elderly men and women with thick waists jumped like trained fleas to the ridiculous music of May, jaio mocking month. She had heard, before, of foolish old gentlemen who married their governesses” (p. 38).

“Manon and the Archer” tells the story of a millionaire, totally attached to material values, who helps his son win the love of an indecisive young woman. “The Room for Rent” deals, in reality, with a search and its tragic consequences, taking place in a decaying house on the lower West Side, endowed with an illusory comfort, with ruined furniture, “with worn brocade upholstery on a sofa and two armchairs, the cheap mirror stretching between two windows, one or two engravings in a gilded frame, a metal bed in a corner” (p. 89).

In the aforementioned “The Decorated Lamp” Nancy, 20 years old, arrived in New York from the interior, willing to look for a job, “because at home there wasn't enough food”. She works as a clerk in a large department store. She comes with her friend Lou, who “is a treadmill in a manual laundry, and earns by the piece” (p. 163). Nancy earns 8 dollars a week and goes through real contortions to live, feed and dress. Her ultimate goal was to arrange a good marriage. “Thus, she kept her lamp decorated and lit to receive the bridegroom when he appeared” (p. 173).

Masterfully, O. Henry writes that she prepares herself for this in her own workplace: “The curriculum of a large store is vast” (p. 168). She adds: “I don't think many consider a store to be an educational institution. But the store where Nancy worked was a school for her. She lived there surrounded by beautiful things, which spoke to her of good taste and refinement. If you live in a beautiful atmosphere of luxury, the luxury belongs to you, let your money or someone else's pay for it” (p. 167). For the storyteller, her position in the store was favored. The music room was close enough for her to hear and become familiar with the works of the best composers - at least, to acquire that familiarity which went through understanding the social world in which she was vaguely trying to set a tentative and anxious foot. She absorbed the educational influence of art articles, of elegant and expensive fabrics, of ornaments that are almost culture for women ”(p. 168).

Maybe the new generations don't know or know little about O. Henry's stories. I had the privilege of reading something close to a dozen of them, still in my teens, published in magazines or in widely circulated anthologies. Afterwards, I never had contact with his texts again. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Editora Carambaia, in 2016, translated by Jayme da Costa Pinto, launched Tales (248 pages). It may be a good opportunity to try to fill this gap. Despite the differences in style and focus, here and there, when I read them, I find some of their footprints in the novels of the great John Fante (1909-1983).

*Afranio Catani He is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education of UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.



O. Henry. Stories by O. Henry. Selection and Foreword: José Paulo Paes; Translation: Alzira Machado Kawall and José Paulo Paes. São Paulo, Cultrix, 1964, 216 pages.


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