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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
In O. Henry’s story “One Thousand Dollars,” the “calm … forty, and sequestered,” ironic clubman named Old Bryson lists what a thousand dollars might buy: “One man may buy a happy home with it and laugh at Rockefeller. Another could send his wife South with it and save her life. A thousand dollars would buy pure milk for one hundred babies during June, July, and August and save fifty of their lives. You could count upon a half hour’s diversion with it at faro in one of the fortified art galleries. It would furnish an education for an ambitious boy. I am told that a genuine Corot was secured for that amount in an auction room yesterday. You could move to a New Hampshire town and live respectably two years on it. You could rent Madison Square Garden for one evening with it… .”
What has always been most touching in O. Henry stories is the gallantry with which his ordinary workers and couples struggle to maintain dignity and make ends meet. In “A Service of Love,” Joe Larrabee, an aspiring painter, and his wife, a hopeful singer, rejoice over thirty-three dollars. “Thirtythree dollars! We never had so much to spend before. We’ll have oysters tonight,” says Delia, the wife. “And filet mignon with champignons,” adds her husband. “Where is the olive fork?”
In his ironic drawl O. Henry conveyed his concern for strugglers in a battle with fate and circumstance not of their own making; when he feels engaged, he can be eloquent. In “An Unfinished Story” Dulcie, who sells “Hamburg edging”—a kind with lace—in a department store for a salary of six dollars a week and lives in the third-floorback of a West Side brownstone, has a date with a “swell.” She has fifty cents left over from her week’s wages and decides to use it for a bit of glamour.
“Dulcie stopped in a store where goods were cheap and bought an imitation lace collar with her fifty cents. That money was to have been spent otherwise—fifteen cents for supper, ten cents for breakfast, ten cents for lunch. Another dime was to be added to her small store of savings; and five cents was to be squandered for licorice drops… . The licorice was an extravagance—almost a carouse—but what is life without pleasures?”
This is the story that ends with O. Henry’s famous cri de coeur. He imagines himself at the Last Judgment:
”… I dreamed that I was standing near a crowd of prosperous-looking angels, and a policeman took me by the wing and asked if I belonged with them.
” ‘Who are they?’ I asked."
“’Why,’ said he, ‘they are the men who hired working-girls, and paid ‘em five or six dollars a week to live on. Are you one of the bunch?’"
"‘Not on your immortality,’ said I. ’I’m only a fellow that set fire to an orphan asylum, and murdered a blind man for his pennies.’”
When the tone works less well, it spins along like filler, words at wholesale to occupy the relentless demands of a weekly magazine, and it can become irritatingly artificial. But when O. Henry is fully at the throttle, he pulls it all together into something of small but genuine sublimity. In his most cherished and anthologized story, “The Gift of the Magi,” written at the specific request of the Sunday World for a Christmas story that was “faintly religious,” O. Henry’s affectionate compassion pushes what is otherwise a slight piece of treacle into a little masterpiece on the transforming power of domestic love. Delia and Jim, a young couple, live in one of O. Henry’s six-dollar-a-week furnished flats. Christmas is coming, and there is no money.
O. Henry made his readers feel that he had shown them to themselves exactly in the form that they would have chosen; he still defines New York to itself.
“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eightyseven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”
Between them they have two treasures: Jim’s gold watch, which had been his father’s and grandfather’s, and Della’s beautiful dark hair that reaches to her knees. In order to buy Jim a Christmas present, Delia sells her hair for twenty dollars, spending the proceeds on a “platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design … worthy of the watch.” Jim comes home for dinner and stares at Delia’s cropped head.
“‘Jim darling,’” Delia says, “‘don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present.’"
” ‘Don’t make any mistake, Dell … about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going awhile at first.’”