A Gift for Story

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” was first published on this day in 1905. The author’s seasonal stories, tenement settings, and sentimental themes have earned comparisons to Dickens, his style praised as the place where “American journalism and the Victorian tradition meet.” Though some biographical details are unreliable, O. Henry’s life has its own Dickensian elements — for example, his first published story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” was written while he was in prison. However fictional, the story surrounding “Magi” is an enjoyable one, the following summary taken from Richard O’Connor’s O. Henry: The Legendary Life of William S. Porter:

Henry was a drinker, a free spirit and a notorious procrastinator, but so famous that all was tolerated. He had promised a Christmas story to the New York Sunday World, for which they had set aside the center of the magazine section. When no story arrived, the newspaper’s desperate illustrator, sent to Henry’s apartment to beg for some hint of what to do, was told to draw a poorly furnished room: “…On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand. He is playing with it while he is thinking. The girl’s principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That’s all I can think of for now….” The illustrations were done and sent to press, but still no story. More begging messengers were sent to Henry’s apartment, to be told that he was “empty as a brass drum.” At the eleventh hour and facing disaster — a magazine with blank center pages, except for some mysterious drawings — the editor sent a final plea. Henry poured scotches for the reporter who delivered it, and for himself: “I’ve thought of an idea but I need a living model. I’m going to write a story about you and your wife…. I think that you two are the kind who would make sacrifices for each other. Now stay on the sofa and don’t interrupt.” Henry finished “The Gift of the Magi” several drinks and three hours later, and the editor had it set in type by evening.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.