O. Henry is as Readable as Ever

Thanks to high school anthologies, many of us have read O. Henry’s work “The Gift of the Magi.” And while it is a fine enough story (if a bit sappy for my tastes), it is not really representative of the whole of O. Henry’s corpus. For that, I strongly recommend a collection of his short stories. (I’ve been reading the Barnes and Noble edition–which is excellent; but this one is cheaper and looks to have the same stories in it.)

Image result for ransom of red chief
Image: Wikipedia

If you’ve not heard of him, “O. Henry” is the pen name of William Sydney Porter. He used a pen name not just because that was all the rage at the time, but because he spent some time in prison for embezzlement. In addition to being an ex-con, he was also a licensed pharmacist and a writing machine–at one point cranking out nearly a story a week for three years straight.

More importantly, O. Henry was also a transitional figure in American short story writing. He is the bridge between the 19th century style of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe and the 20th century style of William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and E.B. White. He is also a pioneer in the Western genre, influential on fiction set in New York City, and comfortable writing stores set in the South. In other words, O. Henry is an important writer who happens also to be a delight to read.

All that to say that O. Henry is worth reading for his literary impact, his style, and his simply delightful storytelling ability. But he is also worth reading for the twist, which will be familiar to readers of the Bible. Whether Western, Southern, urban, or whatever, almost all of his best stories involve some kind of twist ending. [Spoilers hereafter.] Undoubtedly many people know the twist of the “Gift of the Magi.” Many O. Henry stories involved that–some happy, some not so much. In the “Ransom of Red Chief”, it is the kidnappers who end up paying the ransom in a proto-Home Alone narrative. In “The Skylight Room” the young man unknowingly dies in the same room his lost fiance had died in. etc.

At first, as I was reading through this volume, I thought this would turn into a tedious trope. Fortunately, O. Henry is a good enough author (and his stories are well enough curated) that so far this has not been the case. What’s more, the more I read, the more I started to think about how similar this is to the Gospel. We too have a story (albeit not a fictional one) with a twist. The man who is born into a lowly family in obscure corner of the planet is the Lord of all creation. The condemned criminal on the cross is paying for the sins of His people. The peasant laid in a stranger’s grave is raised from the dead in glory. It’s no wonder that O. Henry’s stories still hold up after more than a century.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where the West and the South come together, but New York City is distant in many ways.

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