Stories are a part of life. They’re everywhere. We relate them over the phone to friends who live miles away. We share some tales of our youth to our children during those rare moments when we have their undivided attention. We hear their own stories when we ask how their days went at school. We read short stories to our grandchildren at bedtime—sometimes their favorite ones, over and over at their insistence. The personal stories we exchange with our families and friends help us through difficult decisions, tough times, and losses. And on that last note, the eulogies that are read capture the essence of lost loved ones through stories that help to keep their memories alive.
It’s no wonder, then, that published short stories have made a huge comeback. Story salons have emerged, inviting people to verbally share their stories with others. Numerous publications have offered additional contests to writers for their short stories of 1,000 words or less.
Once upon a time, (no, this isn’t the beginning of a story), writers of short stories used to be thought of as practicing their craft which might, someday, evolve into a novel. That is no longer the case. The great American short stories do not take a back seat to the great American novel. Short story collections by one author, as well as anthologies by many, are front and center in libraries and in homes.
There are many authors of the past who became well-known for their short stories—effective tales that had a lasting impact on readers. Let’s explore one of those authors, O. Henry.
Henry was born William Sidney Porter in North Carolina in 1862. He left school at age fifteen, and his subsequent jobs included working in a drugstore, on a Texas ranch, and in a bank. He began to write short stories, some of which appeared in newspapers. When he was arrested for stealing funds from the bank, he served three years in prison, during which time he wrote and published several more short stories.
Porter used a number of pen names in the early part of his writing career, but the chosen name “O. Henry” seemed to attract much attention from editors and the public. And during his most prolific writing period, which started in 1902, “O. Henry” was used exclusively by Porter when he moved to New York City to be near his publishers.
While in New York, he wrote hundreds of short stories, including one story per week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. Many of O. Henry’s stories are set in NYC in the early 20th century. O. Henry’s witty and playful stories dealt with ordinary people, like policemen, waitresses, and others. He loved the city, which he called “Bagdad-on-the-Subway.” His stories had plot twists and surprise endings that readers adored.
Here are a few of O. Henry’s most famous stories:
“The Gift of the Magi” is about a young couple who is short of money but desperately wants to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife, Della, sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s watch. Unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his own most cherished possession, his watch, to buy jeweled combs for Della’s hair. The basic premise of this story has been imitated and re-told countless times.
“The Ransom of Red Chief” tells the story of two men who kidnap a boy of ten. The boy turns out to be such an obnoxious brat that the desperate men ultimately pay the boy’s father $250 to take him back.
“The Cop and the Anthem” is about a homeless man named Soapy, who tries to get arrested so that he can have a roof over his head in jail instead of sleeping out on the winter streets of New York City. Despite his efforts at disorderly conduct, petty theft, and other misdemeanors, Soapy fails to draw the attention of the police. Discouraged, he pauses in front of a church where an organ tune inspires him to clean up his life—but, ironically, he’s charged with loitering and sentenced to three months in prison.
“The Duplicity of Hargraves” is a short tale about a nearly destitute father who takes his daughter on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he spends his last few dollars to treat her to a play. Typical of O. Henry’s stories, this one has a surprise ending.
Henry’s final work was “Dream.” It was a short story intended for the magazine, The Cosmopolitan, but it was left incomplete at the time of his death in 1910.
Henry is just one of many authors whose short stories made them famous. Stay tuned for more reviews of American writers from the past whose excellent works inspired today’s well-recognized authors of short stories.
-Francine Pappadis Friedman