Read an Excerpt
From Victoria Blake’s Introduction to Selected Stories of O. Henry
During O. Henry’s most productive year, 1904, he wrote and published sixty-five stories, an impressive number made more so by the fact that the following year he published fifty more. During this time he had a contract with the New York World that called for a story a week, a pace that would have run other writers dry but that O. Henry kept up for more than two years. Along with the panoply of magazine stories, he published ten books from 1904 until his death in 1910. All told, O. Henry penned some 300 stories during a literary career shorter even than that of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s. O. Henry said once that every story he ever wrote was published somewhere, and at his peak his stories were worth nearly a thousand dollars each on the literary marketplace.
O. Henry worked at a whirlwind speed, producing more over a shorter period than any other writer of his time and cultivating a literary demand unmatched by anyone, anywhere, in the history of American letters. By 1920, 5 million copies of his books had been sold in the United States alone, a staggering amount considering the size and scope of early-twentieth-century publishing in America. In 1919, when the annual O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories volume was inaugurated, his name had become synonymous with the short story, a measuring stick against which all other stories published during that time were held. He was a six-foot shadow to which other writers (including Joseph Conrad, Paul Charles Joseph Bourget, Edith Wharton, and H. G. Wells) were compared. But O. Henry himself was held above comparison. “It is idle to compare O. Henry with anybody,” said Henry James Forman, in a statement that nicely summed up the prevailing attitude toward the author; “the combination of technical excellence with whimsical sparkling wit, abundant humour, and fertile invention is so rare that the reader is content without comparisons” (Smith, O. Henry Biography, p. 12; see “For Further Reading”).
During his lifetime and immediately following his death, O. Henry’s reputation rose to unparalleled heights, but in the late 1910s the foundation of this reputation started to crumble. One critic publicly denounced him as a “pernicious influence” on the American short story, concluding that he had done irreparable damage to the form. Others saw him as nothing more than a comic writer whose stories were simply trumped-up journalism with overhashed trick endings and undue sentimentality, and they dismissed him with a shrug and a wave.
As an indication of O. Henry’s fall from vogue, by 1930 he was the subject of only ten published master’s theses and three books of personal remembrance. In the 1940s and 1950s, there appeared only a single published dissertation and one scholarly article. By the 1960s, the shadow cast by O. Henry’s reputation seemed to have shrunk from a six feet to six inches and it appeared that the cult of O. Henry was not only dead, but dead and buried. Today, the critics and scholars who by their attention raise and uphold a writer’s position in the canon of American letters largely ignore him. So what happened? How did the reputation of a writer of O. Henry’s stature, talent, and fame rise and fall so meteorically? And, most important, was his fall justified?