Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ransom of Red Chief

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion

Although William Sidney Porter had very little schooling, he was a voracious reader as a teenager. “I did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years,” he wrote, “than I have ever done in all the years since, and my taste at the time was much better than it is now, for I read nothing but the classics.” This literary background proved valuable when, as a man in his late thirties, he was imprisoned in a Ohio federal penitentiary in 1898—after fleeing to Honduras as a fugitive—on a charge of embezzling from the bank in Austin, Texas, where he had been an employee. (Some of his more supportive biographers contend that the only crime he committed was sloppy and informal bookkeeping.)

During his exile and subsequent three-year incarceration, he wrote his first stories and, through an intermediary, placed a number of them in magazines under various pen names, particularly as “O. Henry.” During the decade after he was released from prison in 1901, until his death in 1910, the newly reformed O. Henry wrote between three hundred and five hundred stories—a count that varies depending on which of his works are considered “stories.” In an ironic denouement that surely would have astounded the author (who hid knowledge of his conviction from his readers until the day he died), the Austin courthouse in which he was convicted is now O. Henry Hall, which houses the administrative offices of the University of Texas system.

O. Henry became especially famous for twist endings, for creating endearingly humorous characters, and for fabricating new words and instantly understandable malapropisms. The term “banana republic” was perhaps his most lasting coinage, appearing in 1904 in Cabbages and Kings, his first book of stories, many of which were set in Central America. (For the last three decades, the O. Henry Museum in Austin has sponsored the O. Henry Pun-Off in honor of the author’s dedication to linguistic acrobatics.) Yet in spite of his love of wordplay and invented colloquialisms, his childhood friend and biographer Charles Alphonso Smith points out that O. Henry’s humor is “only marginally a thing of words and phrases. . . . His characters are not humorous because they say funny things. They say funny things because they are humorous.”

One of O. Henry’s most enduringly popular stories featuring this brand of “humorous” character is “The Ransom of Red Chief,” which appeared shortly after his death (in the collection Whirligigs) and has ever since been an inspiration for countless plays, movies, and adaptations for both adults and children. It was selected by comedian Andy Borowitz for the newest Library of America collection, The 50 Funniest Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion.

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It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama—Bill Driscoll and myself—when this kidnapping idea struck us. . . . 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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