Thursday, May 2, 2024

Quote of the Day (O. Henry, on Dixie in The City That Never Sleeps)

“While Coglan was describing to me the topography along the Siberian Railway the orchestra glided into a medley. The concluding air was ‘Dixie,’ and as the exhilarating notes tumbled forth they were almost overpowered by a great clapping of hands from almost every table.

“It is worth a paragraph to say that this remarkable scene can be witnessed every evening in numerous cafés in the City of New York. Tons of brew have been consumed over theories to account for it. Some have conjectured hastily that all Southerners in town hie themselves to cafés at nightfall. This applause of the ‘rebel’ air in a Northern city does puzzle a little; but it is not insolvable. The war with Spain, many years' generous mint and watermelon crops, a few long–shot winners at the New Orleans race–track, and the brilliant banquets given by the Indiana and Kansas citizens who compose the North Carolina Society have made the South rather a ‘fad’ in Manhattan. Your manicure will lisp softly that your left forefinger reminds her so much of a gentleman's in Richmond, Va. Oh, certainly; but many a lady has to work now—the war, you know.

“When ‘Dixie’ was being played a dark–haired young man sprang up from somewhere with a Mosby guerrilla yell and waved frantically his soft–brimmed hat. Then he strayed through the smoke, dropped into the vacant chair at our table and pulled out cigarettes.”—American short-story writer William Sidney Porter, aka “O. Henry” (1862-1910), "A Cosmopolite in a Café," in The Four Million (1906)

Recently, I have taken to dipping into more of the short stories of the writer we know as “O. Henry.” I don’t know how much the younger generation has been exposed to him in high school or college, but when I was growing up he was nearly inescapable, cropping up constantly in anthologies (especially his Christmas tale “The Gift of the Magi,” which I discussed in this post from over 13 years ago).

As a matter of fact, more certainly than the presence of a New Yorker-style short story, there is an O. Henry one: i.e., one featuring an ironic, usually witty, reversal.

Those surprise endings became a trademark for the writer. The problem, such as it is, boils down to this: When read in bulk, the novelty wears off.

And when I write “bulk,” I mean bulk. The collection I’m reading now is called 100 Selected Stories. This paperback is substantial, totaling more than 700 pages.

But even here, it only begins to tap the writer’s astonishing output. Estimates of the number of his short stories that I’ve seen on the Internet range from 300 to “more than 600”—all collected in nine volumes published from 1904 to 1909, the year before his death.

So yes, after reading one of these stories after another in rapid succession, you are so sure a surprise is coming that it ceases to be surprising.

But, as I’ve been discovering by reading him in a collection as well as in viewing a DVD of a largely forgotten 1957 TV series, The O. Henry Playhouse, starring the great character actor Thomas Mitchell, other traits of the author besides the surprise twist come to the fore.

The quotation at the start of this current post, for instance, brought me up short. It highlights one of his less remarked upon but equally rare skills, as a social historian.

While plying his trade as a short-story writer in the early 1900s, O. Henry set many of his tales where he lived, in Manhattan—or, as he put it, “Bagdad-on-the Subway.”

The city was coming into its own as an international melting pot, and the writer was there to chronicle it all, from society swells in elegant restaurants and hotels to fleabag dumps on the Bowery.

O. Henry depicted all these characters without snobbery. He would have felt himself the least inclined of anybody to judge: After all, he carried with him the secret stigma of serving three years for embezzling from a bank in Austin, Texas, in the 1890s.

One last point: this passage also reveals O. Henry as a Southern writer. Such fiction is more than just novels and short stories written by and/or about people who live below the Mason-Dixon line, or in the states comprising the vanished Confederacy. The other quintessential element of such works is storytelling.

O. Henry’s yarns came from sitting around listening wherever he went. But, as a longtime resident of Texas who started using his pseudonym in New Orleans while briefly on the lam for his crime, he also had an affinity for Southerners.

Being too young to have fought in the Civil War for his native state of Ohio, he would not have heard the “Mosby rebel yell” emitted by the “dark-haired young man” with a shudder, but with curiosity, and maybe even affection.

(For more on O. Henry as a social historian with a Southern affinity, I urge you to read David Madden’s August 2014 article in the Citizen-Times of Asheville, NC—the city, incidentally, where O. Henry is buried, near his second wife and daughter from his first marriage.)

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