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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
So inextricable is O. Henry from the sentiment about Manhattan that he helped to create that it comes as a surprise that only (forty of his stories were set in the city and that he lived and wrote in New York for only eight years. Most of his early tales were written for Ainslee’s; one issue included three, under three different pseudonyms. By July 1903 he was writing a weekly piece for the popular and lively New York World’s Sunday edition. At the same time, Munsey’s Magazine had first refusal on all his magazine pieces, to be paid for at the magnificent rate of ten cents a word.
Porter boasted that he could find material anywhere and produced at least one story, “Springtime àla Carte,” about a typist of menu cards, on the basis of no more than a restaurant bill of fare, just to show that he could do it. When the pressure was on for the weekly story for the Sunday World—very often that meant that an editor was sitting on the couch in Porter’s room, waiting for him to finish a piece for which he had long since had an advance—Porter needed to look no farther than the headlines of the World for inspiration:
E. BURKE SCOTT, TREASURER OF FRANK DANIEL OPERA COMPANY, MISSING WITH WEEK’S RECEIPTS
ACTOR GEORGE MONROE DIES IN A SALOON WHILE WIFE AND DAUGHTER PRAY AT HIS SIDE FOR HIM TO BE HEALED
HOTEL GOTHAM OUSTS A PICTURE SALESMAN
His favorite haunts were mostly downtown—Gramercy Park, Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building, lower Fifth Avenue with its shops and restaurants, Herald Square, the Village, the boarding houses and razzmatazz of Hell’s Kitchen and the theater district, Pete’s Tavern on Irving Place, whose fine long bar and tile ceiling survived Prohibition intact and which still looks remarkably close to the way it did when Porter drank there. New York in the early 1900s had its share of the grit and grimness of today’s city, and crime, corruption, scandal, disease, homelessness, and prostitution were part of the city’s daily life then as now. But in O. Henry it is essentially a visitor’s city, a New York in which most people, at least, seem to be seeing it all for the first time. It was picturesque, something gently to love and gently to mock at the same time, what the poet Wallace Stevens as a young newspaper reporter rejoiced in as “the electric town that I adore.” Did O. Henry adore it? There is an unmistakable Southerner’s condescension in his style. It could be witty, it could be sly, but it would always smack of the intelligent didact, the lover of fancy words and echoes of classic Shakespearean quotations. Still, his stories are charged throughout with inexhaustible good feeling. There is no real urban menace; there are just snapshots of the “Imagine that!” kind. The only real disturbances in O. Henry come from lovers missing each other by death’s intrusion. Just occasionally, even marriage becomes restrictive, mildly boring. (O. Henry’s second marriage was not happy.) His strong narrative sense was whipped up by the demands of his Sunday-supplement audience for stories that, even if they did not always end happily, had the supreme merit of always being resolved. That was the one thing Wharton, Dreiser, and Crane found most uncharacteristic of American lives.
But even if O. Henry was essentially an outsider, he had a certain authority that derived from his tone, the diction that could perform such high-wire somersaults for him, and the energetic forward momentum of his plots that worked things out in just half a newspaper page.
It is for his sympathetic portraits of “little” people, mostly women, that O. Henry is best known—for his shopgirls, typists, laundry workers, women living with the barest of decencies in furnished rooms on $6.00 a week.
What did $6.00 a week mean in the decade ending in 1910? O. Henry’s primary outlet, the New York World, sold for one cent in New York and Jersey City, two cents elsewhere, five cents on Sunday. Stetson hats could be purchased at Saks for around $3.00. Fourteen-inch ostrich plumes, regularly $2.98, were on sale at Bloomingdale’s for $1.29; men’s suits for $12.88. Five rooms with bath could be rented at 404 East Fifty-second Street for $22.00 a month. Girls were sought to pack cigarettes, to label bottles, to work on mangles, and (“over sixteen only”) to be generally useful in a laundry, for $5.00 a week.
One of O. Henry’s girls dines on veal chops and fritters for twenty-five cents and leaves a lavish tip of ten cents. Coffee was two cents. The rich could buy a top-of-the-line thirty to thirty-five-horsepower Bosch Magneto automobile for three thousand dollars, and New York arrivistes could maintain fine apartments, dress well, dine out frequently, hire servants, and generally show off for less than twenty thousand dollars a year.