The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 1939


Among the Great Story-Tellers:

O. Henry Passes the Test

--Bibliographical Note By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: This little article was perhaps inspired by a coincidental meeting with the Knopfs at the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro, N.C., O. Henry's hometown, on April 15, 1939. (Cash later recalled the meeting as occurring during the summer in "Publishers Exploring for Talent" - October 29, 1939.) The Knopfs had come to coax Cash to get the book done by summer so that it could make the fall publisher's lists. (As Cash recounted, they softened the meeting by asking him for clues on fresh writing talent in the region.) Cash told them that he had finished another sixty pages of manuscript which he hoped would be the last section of the book and that this sheaf only needed to be typed into final draft form. (W.J. Cash: A Life, by Bruce Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991, p. 152.) Instead, the book continued to grow and delays continued to occur for another year until he finally packaged the last of it and sent it to the Knopfs on July 27, 1940--and this coming only after a withdrawn threat made in January by the Knopfs that they would publish what they had if he did not finish by April, 1940. (Id., pp. 161-162)

The push to finish is evidenced by his diminishing contributions to the book-page in 1939 and 1940, slowing to only a handful in the latter year--though his contributions to the editorial page remained consistent throughout, as his interest in the South was, after the September 1 invasion of Poland, everyday distracted by the growing war crisis in Europe.

The reasons for the delays were truly known only to Cash--perhaps, in part his need for perfection, part his need to rest from the grind of trying to write the book while maintaining a full-time schedule producing editorials for The News, and part, the fear of letting his baby go out into the world of general readership--maybe coupled with the notion that he had not yet fully explored the material enough to satisfy himself that it was all the truth fit to print on the subject at the time, and that despite glowing testimonies from all who had received advance reads. But, such it is, and the Knopfs knew it, with the persistent perfectionist. And the result was, by the enduring nature of the book, well worth the minor delays.

For Cash has passed the test he lays down here for the writer--that the work shall go on being read long after the writer's death. The Mind of the South has never been out of print in 58 years, with a new edition having been published in 1991. Few books lay claim to such longevity.

(For Cash's own early short stories written while a student at Wake Forest, see Poetry and Fiction, accessible from the homepage.)


Did you ever hear of a man named Oliver Henry who published a story called "Rouge et Noir" in Ainslee's magazine back in 1901? Or one named James L. Bliss, who published one called "While the Auto Waits" in the same magazine about the same period and who answered to the name John Arbuthnottt? Well, you have. All these names were early pseudonyms of William Sydney Porter, known to the world as O. Henry.

So much and other curious things I discover from thumbing through Paul S. Clarkson's "A Bibliography of William Sydney Porter," just issued by the Caxton Printers in a limited edition of 600 copies, to sell for $5.

For a man afflicted with both laziness and neurasthenia (which from some experience I am inclined to think is often associated with laziness), and who in addition got started late, O. Henry got an amazing amount of work done. Altogether, he produced some 280-odd short stories, making up 14 volumes, besides "Let Me Feel Your Pulse," half story and half factual account of his own experiences with the neurasthenic devils. And that, mind you, in the short period of ten years--in which he still found time to go on jags, to play poker, and get himself a wide reputation as a good fellow.

The overwhelming great part of his work was originally published in the New York Sunday World, and paid for at newspaper rates, so that his earnings from them were not large. It was not until a short time before his death--when he was "discovered" by Witter Bynner, a cub editor in the office of McClure's, that his work began to appear in the better magazines. Bynner had a hard time putting it over even then. The McClure reader had rejected O. Henry's "Tobin Palm" when Bynner happened upon it and promptly proclaimed it the best story he had ever seen. But he had to go to old man McClure himself to win his point and get it published.

Critics have long looked down their noses at O. Henry. And not without reason. His stories with the invariable trick ending, have undoubtedly had a bad effect on short story writing in America and in some measure account for the machine-made tripe which now fills the popular magazines. Moreover, his slang is sadly dated, and his attempts to be clever often ended in making him sound merely cheap and flip. For all that, however, he certainly had the essential story teller's gift in a high degree. He had a sense of humor as authentically American as Mark Twain's own. And he had a remarkable capacity for getting down the very feel of his time and place. The social historians are already finding him useful.

But regardless of critics and social historians, the people like him. His books are among the most widely read of all American books in our time, though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century. Moreover, their popularity in foreign countries is continually rising, and he has been translated into most of the languages. And that, masters, is the ultimate test that not even the critics can sneer down--that people go on reading a man after he is dead.

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