Every Christmas season, I watch about a dozen or so favorite holiday films. One of them is “O. Henry’s Full House.” The 1952 film offers five adaptations of O. Henry’s great short stories with Christmas themes. The film features fine directors for each story, such as Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, Henry King, and notable actors as Charles Laughton, Fred Allen, and Marilyn Monroe. Author John Steinbeck is the film’s narrator.
The film highlights O. Henry’s humor, drama, pathos and irony. The stories presented in the film are “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Last Leaf,” and my favorite, “The Clarion Call.” The story stars Dale Robinson as a cop who is indebted to a crook portrayed by Richard Widmark.
O. Henry, the pen name of William Sidney Porter, has many admirers, like me, and those admirers will enjoy a new collection of his stories published by the Library of America, called “O. Henry: 101 Stories.”
As crime is my primary interest and beat, I particularly love O. Henry’s short stories about crime. There are several crime stories in “O. Henry: 101 Stories,” such as the classic “A Retrieved Reformation,” “After Twenty Years,” and “The Girl and the Graft.”
“O. Henry: 101 Stories” was edited by Ben Yagoda. He noted although that although O. Henry is mostly known for stories with a twist ending, such as “The Gift of the Magi,” the majority of his stories do not have surprise endings and are not sentimental.
“O. Henry painted an almost ethnographic portrait of the American con man in `The Gentle Grafter,’ and published another sharp and clever collection of linked stories in `Cabbages and Kings,’ about misfits and their misadventures in a fictional Central American `banana republic’ (O. Henry coined the term),” Mr. Yagoda said in an interview.
“Born in North Carolina, he spent his twenties and early thirties in Texas, and offered a careful and affectionate depiction of the just-before-the-turn-of the-century American West in such stories as `The Return of the Troubadour.’ A bit post-modernly, he wrote many self-conscious stories about writers and editors,” Mr. Yagoda said.” Perhaps his most characteristic theme was hidden identity and disguise, surely influenced by his own secretiveness about the fact that he was convicted of embezzling funds from the Texas bank where he worked as a teller, spent more than three years in prison, and took great pains to hide this for the rest of his life.”
Ben Yagoda said that O. Henry set more than one hundred stories in New York City, his adoptive hometown. “O. Henry’s New York stories present the city with journalistic precision and have a wide geographic, architectural, and social scope, taking place in Coney Island and the Tenderloin and Madison Square, and peopled by tycoons and shop girls, vaudevillian, and bums.”
Mr. Yagoda said that O. Henry had a fondness for wayward protagonists, such as outlaws and rogues. “O. Henry was born into a well-to-do family in North Carolina, but after he moved to Texas, he never hobnobbed with bigwigs, even after reaching a high level of literary fame in New York,” Mr. Yagoda said. “His prison experience was important in many ways, including that conversations with other inmates gave him so much material—for the famous safe-cracker short story `A Retrieved Reformation,” for the con-man stories in ‘The Gentle Grafter’ such as `Conscience in Art,” for a fascinating how-to piece called `Robbing a Train,’ for the overlooked gem `After Twenty Years.’”
Mr. Yagoda notes that in New York, he gravitated not so much to bigwigs as to those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, “… storekeepers, homeless people (like Soapy in `The Cop and the Anthe’), and, especially, the underpaid, harassed, and put-upon shop girls and young working women, some of whose stories he told in `The Last Leaf,’ `An Unfinished Story” and `The Trimmed Lamp.’”
“It’s fascinating that O. Henry arrived in New York in 1902, at the age of 40, having never set foot there previously, and almost immediately adopted it as his second home. Within a year he was setting most of his stories in the city, and in December 1903 was engaged by The Sunday World newspaper to write a short story every week, an arrangement that continued for a remarkable two years,” Mr. Yagoda said.
O. Henry died of alcohol-related illness in 1910, and, as Mr. Yagoda points out, O. Henry’s “The Rubaiyat of a Scotch Highball” is unflinchingly about an alcoholic.
O. Henry continues to be read today as he is entertaining and insightful, and “O.Henry: 101 Stories” offers a fine collection of his work.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, and thrillers.
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O. Henry: 101 Stories
O. Henry, Editor Ben Yagoda
Library of America, $25.49, 840 pages, Published July 13, 2021