O. Henry (1862–1910)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology
Last month Story of the Week featured O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and we were surprised by the outpouring of enthusiasm for the story, which for some readers was a pleasant discovery—and for many others a welcome rediscovery of a tale fondly recalled from their childhood years.
Yet, in one significant way, “Red Chief” is not typical of O. Henry’s stories. Although he was raised in North Carolina, worked as a banker in Texas, lived as a fugitive in New Orleans and Honduras, and served time in a federal penitentiary in Ohio, the majority of his stories—and certainly most of his best fiction—are about New York and New Yorkers. He had initially set his earliest stories in Central America and Texas, but by the time he published his second book, The Four Million, he was dedicating most of his writing to the residents of the city where he lived for the last eight years of his life. The vastness and diversity of the metropolis not only allowed him to escape and hide his past as a felon but also inspired the weekly pieces he wrote for the New York World. He was entranced by the city’s many distractions and temptations: “When I first came to New York, I spent a great deal of time knocking about around the streets. I did things I wouldn’t think of doing now.” His friend Charles Alphonso Smith agreed, “If O. Henry’s chief quest in New York was for ‘What’s around the corner,’ his underlying purpose was to get first-hand material for short stories.”
For the last decade New York City has particularly haunted as well as enchanted us each year on the anniversary of 9/11—which is also, as it happens, O. Henry’s birthday. And so we offer as tribute one of the many parables he set in New York, the city in which he rebuilt his image and re-created his own version of the American dream. A reminder of the resilience of New Yorkers, “The Duel” is a parable about two new additions to O. Henry’s “four million.” The first, a businessman, boasts that he has managed to grab the city by the throat in conquest; the second, an artist, seems world-weary and beaten down by the “challenge to a duel” the city offers to its newcomers. In the words of literary historian Shaun O’Connell, O. Henry portrays both men as addicted to a hallucinatory city with “vast powers to shape the wills and color the minds of its residents.”
Notes: O. Henry’s story is sprinkled with several New York City references of the period. Hendrik Hudson (p. 382) refers to Henry Hudson, the English navigator who explored the region around the area that became New York; it was also the name of a steamboat stationed in New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century. John L. Sullivan (p. 383) was the first heavyweight champion in gloved boxing. The hero Lockinvar, or Lochinvar (p. 384), was featured in a ballad by Sir Walter Scott. May Irwin (p. 384) was a popular vaudeville actress; E. S. Willard (p. 384) was a British actor who appeared in many successful Broadway productions between 1890 and 1905. Famous for his extravagant gambling habits, John W. Gates (p. 385) owned American Steel and Wire Company, which was eventually sold to J. P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel. Edna May Pettie (p. 385) was an American actress who became famous in the London production of The Belle of New York. Mandragora (p. 386) is the genus name for mandrake, which causes delirium and hallucinations when ingested.
The gods, lying beside their nectar on ’Lympus and peeping over the edge of the cliff, perceive a difference in cities. Although it would seem that to their vision towns must appear as large or small ant-hills without special characteristics, yet it is not so. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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