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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
Jim has bought Delia a magnificent set of combs for her hair. Then he says, in one of O. Henry’s loveliest, most controlled passages: “‘Dell … let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy you combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.’"
“The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”
O. Henry was consistently visual, an able cartoonist sensitive to the look of the city, inside and out. Part of the continuing pleasure in reading him lies in the visual details, which his pinch of sardonic distance gave the quality of a Dutch interior seen through a scrim. In ‘The Furnished Room” he shows us: “A polychromatic rug like some brilliantflowered, rectangular, tropical islet lay surrounded by a billowy sea of soiled matting. Upon the gay-papered wall were those pictures that pursue the homeless one from house to house: The Huguenot Lovers, The First Quarrel, The Wedding Breakfast, Psyche at the Fountain. The mantel’s chastely severe outline was ingloriously veiled behind some pert drapery drawn rakishly askew like the sashes of the Amazonian ballet. Upon it was some desolate flotsam cast aside by the room’s marooned when a lucky sail had borne them to a fresh port—a trifling vase or two, pictures of actresses, a medicine bottle, some stray cards out of a deck.”
When he is in the streets of what, echoing Melville, he calls “this great water-girt city,” O. Henry gives us its “formidable, pitiless, restless, fierce angles … waiting in the dark… .” In “Squaring the Circle” a mountain man from Kentucky arrives in Manhattan and is made vertiginous by its pitiless rush forward. “He looked four ways, and saw the world hurled from its orbit and reduced by spirit level and tape to an edged and cornered plane. All life moved on tracks, in grooves, according to system, within boundaries, by rote… . People streamed by in straight rows; the horrible din and crash stupefied him.”
Most often O. Henry gives us types, sometimes mere types (as many a greater artist has done): the respectable women corseted and plumed, or modest and discreet; the “floozies,” fallen women who come to see the error of their ways before the story ends. His men are sentimentalized husbands or beaux or their rough-and-tumble counterparts—brawlers and bullies, sports and swells. There are romantic, often maudlin attachments, but no suggestion of sex, except, ever so faintly, among the fallen sorts. When true love enters the picture, O. Henry’s New York can be all valentines. That this is a false impression of reality is attested by the many ads of the period for cures for “blood poisoning in all its stages” by quacks with comforting names like Old Doctor Grindie and Old Doctor Grey. Porter himself, who lived most of his New York years as a bachelor and was called by his friends in the reticent vocabulary of the time a “full-blooded man,” frequented prostitutes and sometimes found women by placing personal ads.
Nothing combines O. Henry’s mixture of charm, irony, and sentimentality better than his story “The Cop and the Anthem,” with its vagrant hero, Soapy. “On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.” Winter is coming: Soapy wants to spend it in a warm jail. He tries everything he can think of to get arrested. The cop—an O. Henry cop with a brogue who says “Lave them be"—cannot be induced to oblige. Finally, when Soapy has decided to mend his ways, to go straight and get a job, he is arrested for vagrancy. The O. Henry ending in its purest form. These are the endings we crave, openly or secretly, before ambiguity becomes an acquired taste. The artist has released us, has knitted up all the raveled threads, and has sent us on our way, content. Of course it’s not realistic. Instead, it’s satisfying.
With stories like Soapy’s as well as in the ones that strike a deeper chord, O. Henry made his readers feel that he had shown them to themselves exactly in the form they would have chosen. Who can resist that heart of gold, that diamond in the rough, even now? O. Henry still defines New York to itself, still offers us the eternal fairy tale of urban life-as-possibility. The silken lure of New York remains “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” and New Yorkers pride themselves on their combination of thick skin, soft heart, and extraordinary resiliency. They still cling to that O. Henryesque optimism that there is a future in which it is possible to have confidence.