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The Man Who Invented Manhattan
Fewer than half of O. Henry’s short stories actually take place in New York, but we still see the city through his eyes
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
For most of this century, and often against the starkest evidence, New York City has persisted in seeing itself as “Baghdad on the Subway,” an Arabian Nights swirl of color, motion, tough characters with soft hearts, soft characters with sturdy hearts, tinsel, tears, and laughter. This is largely O. Henry’s doing. It was his stories, his portrait of the city in the decade ending in 1910—its shopgirls named Delia, Delia, or Dulcie, its derelicts and cops, its struggling, forever loyal couples, its ambitious artists and showgirls, its neighborhood streets and parks, its boarding houses and furnished rooms, its “sports” and “swells"—that gave New York much of the jaunty, plucky, raffish image it wears to this day.
O. Henry’s stories of this New York go on forever. By 1920 nearly five million copies of his books had been sold in the United States. There have been dozens of radio and stage dramatizations and motion-picture versions of his stories. The Four Million , the most famous of his anthologies, has been succeeded by volume after volume of collected stories. Even his early newspaper pieces were collected, as late as 1939, and he has been translated widely into other languages.
He was not a serious chronicler of the iron city like his contemporaries Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Edith Wharton; his arch style and intimate manner are more akin to the Broadway columnists of the day and the Tin Pan Alley lyricists who are his real descendants. But despite everything he avoided and glossed over about New York, everything he gilded and cartooned, he was a peerless manufacturer of sentiment who knew how to make his readers as happy as his characters. He had that pleasing touch. It pleased writers as different as Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Vachel Lindsay, James M. Cain. It still pleases the reading public, if not the professors.
Efficient short stories, commercial or not, are playlets, little one act dramas. O. Henry’s, written to fill a newspaper column or two, are tinier than most. They are read in a flash. That is the way he wrote them. But they represent an enduring legend that O. Henry did the most to create. Even in New York, the “terrible town,” as that New Yorker Henry James called it on his return from England in 1905, when O. Henry’s star was at its brightest, most people are good at heart. They are cheerfully jealous of the “swells” but do not expect to join them. They make so little money that there is a lot of belt tightening, but they do not expect advancement in this life. What they do expect, what they most earnestly hope for—is romance, a big date on Saturday night, perhaps even a carriage ride or a boat trip down to Coney Island.
Marriage, not the big money, is what O. Henry’s people lived for. And marriage in O. Henry is generally ideal, a state of self-sacrificing bliss, as in his most famous tale, “The Gift of the Magi.” Anyone with the slightest sentimentality about Old New York gets a kick out of that ancient world as O. Henry drew it—icemen, organ grinders, brass cuspidors, powder puffs with rice powder, “mashers,” “confidential clerks,” “typewriters” (meaning typists), cops (always Irish), with walrus mustaches, talking in dialect.
What a lovely world that was. Someone gets knocked out in traffic and wakes up in the gutter to be greeted by a surgeon asking, “How do you feel, old man?” It was a world of scotch with hot water, cigar stores with a light always burning above the counter, boarding houses on Eighth Avenue for “theatrical people.” A cabby gets so drunk he forgets he was just married—in the Little Church Around the Corner—to the young girl he is driving about.
Delightful as these touches are, no one reads O. Henry just for the period history. You cannot reconstitute an authentic New York from these comforting characters, a whole city’s worth of people who find happiness in virtue. But O. Henry had a direct interest in such a quest.
In the spring of 1902 a stocky blond Southerner who would one day describe himself as looking like “a healthy butcher” arrived in New York. He had come via Pittsburgh, leaving his motherless daughter with her grandparents, to pursue what he had barely begun, a career as a writer. He had already published a few stories and was to write nearly three hundred in his short lifetime. Some early ones had been signed Olivier Henry; before long this became O. Henry. The author’s real name was William Sydney Porter, and he had a good reason for a pseudonym. He had just gotten out of jail.