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Monday, July 31, 2017

Summer Reading Book Review: Best Stories of O. Henry

Book Title: Best Stories of O. Henry

Author: O. Henry (William Porter)

Reviewed By: Thomas P.

Probably most Americans of a certain age recall reading some O. Henry stories when they were in grade school or high school. Certainly, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief" were popular selections among that level of reading and their poignancy and humor still remain today. I remember reading them in my freshman or sophomore year of high school, some 50 years ago. So picking up a volume of O. Henry stories was an easy thing to do. Sure enough, the stories had a familiar feel to them. Other than the two named stories, I didn't remember any of the other tales in this volume. There are 38 in all, ranging from the two excellent examples given above to some that have long since faded from America's collective memory. Still, reading them evoked an America on the verge of greatness, its cities expanding at an amazing rate, with people flocking into those cities and bearing their own stories of love, ambition, hope, and despair. O. Henry was there to chronicle them. This he did with a precision that still draws authors to read his works 11 decades after his death.

Mr. Henry, who in real life bore the moniker William Porter, had a sharp eye for pathos and was excellent at drawing it out, evocative of other authors from the time during which he wrote. His unique characteristic was the utilization of a twist at the end of his stories, bringing an unexpected turn of events into laser-like focus, usually with only a couple of sentences at the denouement. Mr. Porter's own life ended tragically after repeated bouts of alcoholism, resulting in his too-early death at age 48. He likely would have loved to have used his own life as a template for one of his own tales. In any event, from the date of O. Henry's death, his format of brief, punchy stories delivered with wit, pathos, tears, and joy has been frequently (if not incessantly) used by other authors, but with seldom-matched success.

If you have never availed yourself of O. Henry stories, here is an excellent book with which to begin. Like most good authors, Mr. Henry tosses off brilliant insights with singular force. As an example, I almost didn't read the two short stories mentioned in my first paragraph. After all, even though it was 50 years ago, I still remembered the context of both short stories I had read in high school. By great good fortune, I did reread both. How grateful I am that I did, for had I bypassed them, i would have never recalled this nugget nestled in the first few lines of "The Gift of the Magi". Writing about Della, the female half of the couple contemplating Christmas gifts for each other, O. Henry has this to say about life, as contemplated from the distaff side, "Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating." If Mr. Henry's view seems somewhat stilted from our position more than a century after he wrote those lines for people of an entirely difference society, one must reflect that the line still resonates with some people as being an effective summary of the life's skein of events and our response to them.

When O. Henry was writing, America was still more rural than urban. However, cities (especially New York) were growing at an astounding rate. O. Henry bridges the divide. Although he is most frequently described as a story-teller cut from the urban mold, more than a third of these stories focus on rural America. O. Henry's stories range from the still wild American West to back-hills Tennessee to cow-town Alabama and Arkansas to the big city. When he writes of the city, it is almost exclusively of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York. And Mr. Henry captures the boisterousness like few have ever done.

With so many stories, it is inevitable that some will fall flat. Others may strike me as particularly insightful whereas you might view them as a "take it or leave it" sort of view. Still, I found several worthy of some contemplation after reading. In no particular order, here are some of the better stories I found in the volume: "The Gift of the Magi", The Ransom of Red Chief", The Cop and the Anthem", "The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein", "A Retrieved Reformation", "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen", and "The Last Leaf". Besides Mr. Henry's two most popular stories, I would especially call your attention to "The Cop and the Anthem" and "The Last Leaf". So as not to spoil your reading by inadvertently giving away the endings, I will refrain from commenting on the stories themselves, but I think you will find all of the ones I have mentioned to be worthy of your time.

When reading stories from a different time and society, it is inevitable that some characteristics of a bygone period are reflected in story dialogue and action we would either today find not acceptable or would explain away as products of a previous age. There is no difference here. The otherwise fine offering of "The Duplicity of Hargraves" is tinged with a racial overtone that would never pass muster with a contemporary editor (this despite the fact that O. Henry's protagonist uses a disguise for the very nicest of reasons). Similarly, "A Harlem Tragedy", which is meant to be dark comedy, sees its humor fall flat due to the nature of the actions taken in the story. Really, it is hard to see how this was considered funny even at the time, much less now. These two stories, however, are aberrations. They fall outside of the normally insightful views that O. Henry produced. Do not let them destroy the loving, witty, bizarre and unusual comments that are scattered throughout the other 36 stories.

Perhaps you will find other stories that touch you whereas I did not find them so appealing. That is the glory of O. Henry. His stories affect each of us differently, yet they are so frequently still fresh and poignant. I hope you have the opportunity to read this volume.

Find Best Stories of O. Henry in our catalog.

Summer Reading programs are over for this year, but you can still submit reviews of books you want to share. All you have to do is fill out our online form or email a short review (at least 5 thoughtful sentences - without giving away the ending!) to news@roselle.lib.il.us and we will publish your review here in the Books, Music & More blog.

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