Sunday, May 15, 2022

Conscience with Art

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

Hand-colored photographic postcard of R. B. Mellon Residence, ca. 1911–15, printed by I. Robbins & Co., Pittsburgh, PA. Image from eBay.

Built in 1909 and torn down in 1941, this 65-room mansion was the home of Richard Beatty and Jennie King Mellon; the estate is now Mellon Park. Along this section of Fifth Avenue (known as “Millionaires Row”) in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh were mansions built by financier Andrew Mellon (Richard’s brother), H. J. Heinz, oil executive John Worthington, electricity magnate George Westinghouse, steel company executives F. T. F. Lovejoy, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy industrialists, many of whom were passionate collectors of art—a fact that supplies the plot of O. Henry’s story.
In November 1906, the editors of McClure’s filled the magazine with twelve pages summarizing what readers could expect to see in forthcoming issues, and they included the following statement: “In five years of magazine writing, O. Henry has reached the top of current fiction. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is remarkable, and he grows with every story. More stories of New York, the field of his great book The Four Million, will appear in McClure’s in the coming year.” The same announcement also previewed a new story, “The Namesake,” by Willa Sibert Cather, who had recently joined the staff of the magazine and who became its managing editor in all but name for more than four years.

There were a number of reasons Cather and the rest of the staff of McClure’s could feel confident about O. Henry’s future contributions: the contract the author had signed for a dozen stories at $300 each, his famous productivity (he published a total of 121 stories in 1904 and 1905), and his extraordinary history with the McClure publishing empire. In 1898 the McClure Newspaper Syndicate had distributed to newspapers O. Henry’s first story, “The Miracle of Lava Canyon,” under his real name, W. S. Porter. “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” his first story in a magazine (and the first he published as O. Henry) appeared in the December 1899 issue of McClure’s. In addition, his first two books, including the collection The Four Million, were published by McClure, Phillips & Co.

Yet readers will search in vain looking for a single original story by O. Henry in the issues of McClure’s that appeared during 1907—or at any time during Cather’s tenure as editor. William Sydney Porter’s health had begun to worsen as his drinking increased. He went to Asheville to get unhappily married, and he returned to New York with overwhelming financial obligations. He published “only” 23 stories over the course of the year—a feat most authors would envy, but a shortfall which upset the many editors to whom he had promised stories and from whom he had received hefty advances—some of which he had to return. “Every time I pick up a magazine and see one of your stories,” the editor of Collier’s complained, “I am thoroughly envious and wish that you had something for us.” A curious item listed in an estate auction catalog in 1945 is a letter sent on New Year’s Eve, 1907, from a fed-up editor who “tersely asks O. Henry for a promised story which is long overdue.” The letter was signed by the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who was managing The Delineator at the time.

Almost half of the stories that O. Henry did manage to finish in 1907 featured an affable con man named Jeff Peters, a character that made his debut in 1903 in “The Atavism of John Tom Little Bear.” That first tale appeared in Everybody’s Magazine but was never included in the collections of O. Henry’s stories published in his lifetime. He brought Peters back for “The Ethics of Pig,” published in Munsey’s Magazine in 1906, and “A Man Higher Up,” in the February 1907 issue of The Times Magazine—an illustrated publication that lasted exactly four issues before it went bankrupt. O. Henry then polished off another ten Jeff Peters stories, and they were distributed nationally that summer by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in a series called “The Gentle Grafter.” The San Francisco Call, for example, published one episode each Sunday from June 9 to August 11. The following year, all twelve of the later Jeff Peters stories were gathered with two additional stories portraying other fraudsters in the new collection The Gentle Grafter, published by McClure’s book division.

The Jeff Peters stories grew out of Porter’s three years as a convict at the turn of the century, when he was serving a prison sentence for embezzlement from the bank that employed him in Texas. He worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison hospital, and it seems likely he first drafted some of these tales while he was still an inmate. “The Gentle Grafter portrays the stories told him on his night rounds,” recalled the head pharmacist Dr. John M. Thomas. “I remember having heard him recount many of them. He wrote quite a number of short stories while in prison and it was a frequent thing for me to find a story written on scrap paper on my desk in the morning, with a note telling me to read it before he sent it out.” Perhaps the best-known story in the collection is “Conscience in Art”; in just six short pages, the criminal principles and linguistic malapropisms of the swindler Jeff Peters finally meet their match in the ethically challenged Andy Tucker.

Notes: The term “nature fakers” was used by Theodore Roosevelt in a September 1907 article decrying some literary naturalists. Connecticut wrappers refers to tobacco grown in the Connecticut River Valley and used to wrap cigars.

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“I never could hold my partner, Andy Tucker, down to legitimate ethics of pure swindling,” said Jeff Peters to me one day. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.