On the Horizon: The Legacy of O. Henry
The Complete Works of O. Henry consist of two volumes totaling 271 stories and 1,700 pages. These statistics are all the more impressive when we learn that all the stories were written within about ten years—from 1900 to 1910, the year of O. Henry’s death. Unfortunately it is for this energy, rather than any literary achievement, that these two volumes arouse our admiration. For, when all is said and done, O. Henry was a hack, and his writing bears all the traits of the hack—slipshodness and repetitiveness both of subject matter and treatment, with occasional ironic hints that he knew he was a hack. Perhaps it is a mistake to publish such a writer in bulk; what virtues he has are most evident in isolation (when one reads his stories in anthologies they seem better than when read together). Yet, though his stories have no great interest as literature, they document some of the important changes that were taking place in American writing in general, and in America’s opinion of itself, in the first years of this century.
O. Henry was a “popular” writer; the great majority of his stories were written in what he thought was the vernacular—in some kind of dialect, either of a rural region or of a district in a city. But unlike previous works in the tradition of colloquial writing, O. Henry’s dialect turns out to be quite remote from speech; one is tempted to say that it is entirely artificial. What the reader witnesses in these stories is the corruption and attenuation of the relation between popular writing and the people it purports to describe.
About the Author