Sunday, September 5, 2021

An Unfinished Story

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From O. Henry: 101 Stories

Shop Girls, c. 1912, oil on canvas by American artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885–1968). Art Institute of Chicago.
“It is not often that O. Henry expresses loathing for anybody,” biographer C. Alphonso Smith wrote a century ago in the introduction for a volume collecting some of the late author’s best stories. “It is worth noting, however, that the three most loathsome characters in our twenty-five stories are pilloried for the same offence, their treatment of women.”

Before William Sydney Porter became the famous writer O. Henry, he read various sketches by a writer named Anne Partlan, who scraped out a living designing advertisements, selling jokes and anecdotes to magazines, and taking on assorted menial work. One of her early short stories, which appeared in the new business magazine Success, captured his attention. “When I read ‘Among Themselves,’” he later told her, “I resolved, some day to camp on your territory.” The story, a parable told from the points of view of pieces of furniture in a bedroom, recounts the travails of the apartment’s past working-class residents, focusing on a student, a shopgirl, and an artist—three down-on-their-luck types who would populate O. Henry’s writings. When he arrived in New York City, Porter looked Partlan up and she showed him around town, introducing him to her friends and attending various social gatherings. “He had absolutely no pose,” she recalled. “‘The Unfinished Story’ and ‘The Third Ingredient’ were taken straight from life. That is why there is never anything sordid in the little stories. We were poor enough in our dingy rooms, but he saw the little pleasures and surprises that made life bearable to us.”

In his biography of Porter, Smith points out that there were two “strata” of New York society that seemed to most interest him: “those who were under a strain of some sort and those who were under a delusion. The first stirred his sympathy; the second furnished him unending entertainment.” His sympathy led him, in his own way, to become an armchair advocate for the underpaid laborer. Several dozen stories by O. Henry feature working women—actresses, secretaries, models, waitresses, servants—living hand to mouth in the “dingy rooms” of New York. One of the more famous stories, “The Trimmed Lamp,” opens mid-thought on the subject of “shop-girls”:
Of course there are two sides to the question. Let us look at the other. We often hear “shop-girls” spoken of. No such persons exist. There are girls who work in shops. They make their living that way. But why turn their occupation into an adjective? Let us be fair. We do not refer to the girls who live on Fifth Avenue as “marriage-girls.”
Eugene Current-García, a founding editor of the Southern Humanities Review who published a study of O. Henry’s writings, explains why these tales, most of which first appeared in the New York Sunday World, resonated with millions of readers. “The strong appeal of stories like these, which dramatized so glaringly the contrast between the millionaire’s world of values and the shopgirl’s, tells us much about the taste of a period just becoming fully aware of the hardening class structure which a burgeoning industrial era had imposed on America’s democratic society,” He adds that Porter’s “sympathetic portrayal of the working girl’s hard lot was a new phenomenon which drew enthusiastic response chiefly because it was so accurate in minute details. . . . He knew the kinds of rooms they lived in, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the working conditions they endured, and the simple pleasures and dreams they could afford to make life bearable.”

Yet Current-García, who was writing in 1965, echoed the views of his fellow critics and contended that O. Henry’s group of tales featuring “the agonized working girl is perhaps the least satisfactory of all his metropolitan vignettes,” at least “for the mid-twentieth-century’s reader’s taste.” He acknowledges, however, that in the years and decades after their publication, critics responded far more favorably to these stories. One survey in 1914 by Bookman magazine asked literary figures to list their favorite O. Henry story; the most frequently mentioned stories included several depicting the new class of women workers—and “An Unfinished Story” was on more of the lists than was any other selection.

O. Henry’s tales of the working class—and especially of independent women living on shoestring budgets—have received renewed attention in recent years by both social historians and literary scholars. These stories “reverse the condemnation of the working girl implicit in so many mass-market magazine stories” of the period, Laura Hapke contends in the 1992 study Tales of the Working Girl. “O. Henry was no crusader [but] he brought a documentary specificity to the working girl’s battle against circumstances rather than her capitulation to them. . . . The angle of vision is far more the girl’s than the moralizer’s.” In The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story (2006), Martin Scofield argues that although O. Henry rarely suggests how the fate of the American working woman could be improved by anything other than a change in mores, his “characters are not just helpless damsels in distress, and some of his stories open up new possibilities for attitudes in gender.” Most recently, in an essay published in The New Yorker just two months ago, Louis Menand writes:
Virtue in O. Henry’s world is generally rewarded, and virtue is found mainly among ordinary people, particularly working women, for whom Porter had a soft spot, and people who live outside the law, like small-time crooks, tramps, and other types keen to avoid the attention of the cops.

For O. Henry, it’s the men in suits—the bankers, millionaires, and politicians—who are the true grifters, pretending not to be the exploiters of working men and women that they truly are. His heart is with the marginalized and the downtrodden. Porter believed that their lives had genuine human interest, and, as a short-story writer, he is on their side.
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Notes: The four photographs arranged near a mirror in Dulcie’s room are of Lord Herbert Kitchener, a British army officer who at the time of the story was serving as commander-in-chief in India; William Muldoon, a wrestling champion and proponent of the physical culture movement; the eighteenth-century Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, an English courtier whose close friendship with Queen Anne enabled her to rise through the ranks and acquire considerable power at court; and Benvenuto Cellini, the sixteenth-century Italian sculptor.

The “flames of Tophet” of the opening sentence often refers to a place near Jerusalem where the Canaanites offered children as sacrifices but is also used, as O. Henry does here, as a reference to Hell. Higher criticism is a method of scholarship that examines the historical context in which a text, especially the Bible, was written. Hamburg edging is a kind of embroidered work used for trimming. Hoffman House was a restaurant and hotel at Broadway and 25th Street in Manhattan. “Sammy” is a song written in 1902 by Edward Hutchison and James O’Dea; it was used the following year in the stage musical production of The Wizard of Oz.

Some of the information about Anne Partlan in the introduction above is from “The Creation of The Four Million,” a thesis by Gary Kass.

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We no longer groan and heap ashes upon our heads when the flames of Tophet are mentioned. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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