DG Martin | Comics, O. Henry, and this chronicle
It has happened again.
As noted in this column recently, the Library of America honored the late Elizabeth Spencer on June 1 by adding an 864 page volume of her work to their series. This month, he’s adding another North Carolina-connected author to his series, popular short story writer O. Henry.
The new volume, “O. Henry: 101 Stories,” is released this week. O. Henry was the pen name of William Sidney Porter, who was born in Greensboro in 1862 and raised there. Shortly after obtaining a pharmacist’s license and working in his uncle’s business, he moved west to work on a ranch in Texas. After spending time in prison for a crime related to lack of money, he traveled to New York.
He found a home in the streets and bars of the city, where he met the ordinary people who inspired his extraordinary stories. He was, according to Louis Menand, writing in the June 28 edition of The New Yorker, “a prodigious drinker, with a reputation for being able to manage his alcohol.”
His alcoholism and rowdy life may have triggered his writing, but it wasn’t good for his health. He died in 1910, aged 47, in part from cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes and an enlarged heart.
He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, not far from the grave of another North Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe. Some visitors leave a few pennies on O’s grave. Henry.
Some leave exactly $ 1.87.
For many fans of O. Henry, their favorite story is “The Gift of the Magi”, which takes place in New York on Christmas. A miserable couple struggle to find the money to buy a nice gift.
The story begins: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty hundred of them was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer, greengrocer, and butcher until their cheeks burn with the silent charge of parsimony that such closeness involved. Three times Della has counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
Finally, Della sells her beautiful hair for $ 20 to buy a gold chain for her husband’s precious pocket watch. You remember what happened. Otherwise, you can guess.
Such human dilemmas and remarkable endings made and still do. Henry one of the country’s favorite writers.
Like Charles Dickens, he is admired more by us ordinary readers than by the literary elite.
Working for the Sunday World newspaper, he wrote a new story every week.
Menand suggests that such regularly written stories should be viewed “on the comic book model – which is indeed what they were when they appeared once a week in the Sunday World.” Some weeks your favorite comic is more entertaining than others, but you still read it because you know what you’re going to get. The same goes for the stories of O. Henry. Porter had a formula; he had a set of character types; and he had a distinctive verbal palette.
As an aside: I try, not always successfully, to persuade my editors that my weekly columns look like comics.
Menand continues, “The writer begins with an idea of how readers will feel when they finish reading, just as a lyric poet begins with a nonverbal state of mind and then builds a verbal artifact that evokes it.
Not everyone will agree that the stories of O. Henry are the same as good poetry. But this reader admits that reading “The Gift of the Magi” and many of its stories can bring tears to my eyes every time I read them.
On my next trip to Asheville, I will leave $ 1.87, including 60 cents, on O’s grave. Henry.
Note: Ben Yagoda, editor of the O. Henry volume, is scheduled for an O. Henry event in Greensboro on September 2 with Scuppernong Books at the Greensboro History Museum and co-hosted by the Greensboro Library. He will be in conversation with Jim Dodson, founding editor of O. Henry magazine.
DG Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5:00 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. and other times.