O. Henry, Conscience in art (#Review)

Followers of the short story form will probably know of O. Henry, the pen-name of American author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Although he also wrote poetry and non-fiction, Henry was best known for his prodigious short story writing. His legacy, as Wikipedia says, includes the O. Henry Award, which is an annual prize awarded to outstanding short stories. The award was first made in 1919, and since then the winning stories have been published in an annual collection. I was introduced to this via the 2003 collection which includes stories by writers like A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. You can see the quality we are talking about. The 2003 issue also introduced me to another writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose “The American Embassy”, I read from the collection, and whose novel, Half of a yellow sun, I went on to read as a result.

All this is to introduce the fact that Library of America (LOA) recently published an O. Henry short story, and I thought I’d share it here.

“Conscience in art”

LOA, as always, provides some introductory notes to the story, starting a bit mysteriously in this case, by referencing the turn of the century Pittsburgh millionaires, such as electricity magnate George Westinghouse, steel company executives F. T. F. Lovejoy, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy industrialists. Many “were passionate collectors of art”. Then they make their point, because this fact, they say, “supplies the plot of O. Henry’s story”. It’s worth pointing out, too, that an article referenced by LOA, says that Henry disliked Pittsburgh.

LOA goes on then to say that in November 1906, the editors of McClure’s magazine, wrote that

“In five years of magazine writing, O. Henry has reached the top of current fiction. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is remarkable, and he grows with every story. More stories of New York, the field of his great book The Four Million, will appear in McClure’s in the coming year.” 

O. Henry, LOA continues, had signed a contract for a dozen stories at $300 each. This might sound a big ask, but he was famously productive, having published 121 stories in 1904 and 1905. However, as it turned out, not one O. Henry short story appeared in McClure’s that year, largely because his health was declining as his drinking increased. Henry did, however, write some stories that year, with nearly half of them, says LOA, featuring “an affable con man named Jeff Peters” who had debuted in a 1903 story. Some ten or so Jeff Peters stories were distributed nationally by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in 1907 in a series they called “The Gentle Grafter.” 

Then came the information that surprised me, because I don’t know Henry’s story. LOA says that these Jeff Peters stories came out of Porter’s three years in prison – for embezzlement – at the turn of the century. He worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison’s hospital, and is believed to have first drafted some of these tales during that time. According to LOA, the prison’s head pharmacist Dr. John M. Thomas reported that many of the stories were told to Henry on his rounds. Thomas said that he would frequently “find a story written on scrap paper on my desk in the morning, with a note telling me to read it before he sent it out.” LOA says that “Conscience in Art” is perhaps the best-known story in the collection. In it, they say, “the criminal principles and linguistic malapropisms of the swindler Jeff Peters finally meet their match in the ethically challenged Andy Tucker.”

So, the story concerns two con men, Peters who has some conscience – “I never believed in taking any man’s dollars unless I gave him something for it” – and Tucker who had no such qualms. Tucker comes up with the idea of swindling the Pittsburgh millionaires, who, Tucker tells Peters, will be easy to meet because:

‘They are rough but uncivil in their manners, and though their ways are boisterous and unpolished, under it all they have a great deal of impoliteness and discourtesy. Nearly every one of ’em rose from obscurity, … If we act simple and unaffected and don’t go too far from the saloons and keep making a noise like an import duty on steel rails we won’t have any trouble in meeting some of ’em socially.’ 

Tucker comes up with an art fraud plan, and of course there’s a twist in which Tucker manages to succeed in a scam in a way that doesn’t offend his accomplice’s tender conscience! I’ve only read one other O. Henry story, “The gift of the magi” – which is often compared with Guy de Maupassant’s “The necklace”. It’s an intense story, and different to “Conscience in art”, which is lighter, more comic, in tone. However, behind the lightness is some insight into those heady turn-of-the-century times in the US when faith in rags-to-riches held rein, and perhaps, Henry’s attitude to the rich.

Have you read any O. Henry? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

O. Henry
“Conscience in art”
First published: by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (July 1907); then collected in The gentle grafter (1908). 
Available: Online at the Library of America

24 thoughts on “O. Henry, Conscience in art (#Review)

  1. The Gift of the Magi is a story most people in the U.S. used to read in school, at some point before or during High School (grades 9-12). I used to teach the first-year college composition course by telling students that they couldn’t save their thesis statement for an O. Henry ending (meaning it can’t be a surprise).

    • Haha, good one Jeanne. I rather guessed that story might have been one of those school set texts!

      BTW I haven’t forgotten your Disgrace post. We have been travelling the last two weeks and I’ve read and written very few blog posts. On way home now and expect my time to free up a bit after Wednesday. I’m greatly looking forward to reading your post.

  2. I have, I believe, read every O. Henry short story !
    That huge influence on my early life, my father, had them all in his large and wonderful library: pink hard-backs they were, and much loved as well as much read. There must have been about a dozen of them ..
    And of course I have to add that I can remember very few – very, VERY few – of them.
    All I do recall is sitting in my father’s study, curled up in his big reading chair with one of these deckled-edge books, a long way away ..

    • Oh how great M-R. Your father was a great reader then too have all those. I think it’s hard to remember a lot of short stories. I only remember a very small percentage. But the enjoyment of reading them and the cumulative effect you get makes it worthwhile.

  3. Back in the 1980s, a girlfriend mentioned the plot of the Disney movie “Ruthless People”. I said, Why, that’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry. How many others who were not English teachers noticed this I don’t know–I had read the story probably in junior high school, but I’ve forgotten plenty from those days. The best I can say of the movie is that it could have been worse.

    “The Gift of the Magi” is often anthologized. The story of criminals I remember best is about a safecracker who is planning to go straight; but I though I remember the plot, I don’t remember the title.

    An essay by Guy Davenport, collected I think in The Geography of the Imagination, remarks that all of the letters of “O Henry” appear in sequence in “Ohio Penitentiary”. As I recall it, the essay is mostly about a novel called Cabbages and Kings.

      • Ha, thanks M-R, I had to check that because both of you seem very familiar with Henry. According to Wikipedia, it’s a novel comprising interlinked short stories! Sound like he couldn’t get away from the form!

    • Thanks George for your insight. It’s great hearing from people like you and Jeanne because it adds so much context. I hadn’t thought of checking O. Henry re films but it makes sense. Short stories are great fodder for movies. I remember being surprised years ago about how many Somerset Maugham short stories have been adapted to film.

      Have you read any of his novels?

      • I have read very little of O. Henry’s work, at most four short stories. I do recognize that I should read more of it.

        In Maugham’s case, the movies were explicitly based on the novels or stories, and carried the same titles, weren’t they? I’m thinking of Rain and The Razor’s Edge, the ones I’ve heard of.

    • The Gift of the Magi is the one that I’ve read. Wikipedia says that its sentimentality makes it a popular story at Xmas, which is probably how I came across it, in some anthology with A Christmas Carol in it…
      It is sentimental, but it’s a beautiful story all the same.

  4. Well thank you WG for introducing me to O Henry. I can imagine him putting down his bottle long enough to knock up something to keep the intellectuals happy. (No, I didn’t think much of the story). It did make me wonder though if Miles Franklin’s use of neologisms was American influenced.

  5. O. Henry is incredibly famous in the U.S., and I doubt there is a single person who hasn’t encountered “The Gift of the Magi,” whether it be the story or the Mickey Mouse version. I’m sure I’ve read lots of his stuff. I’ve read O. Henry prize winning story collections. The thing I always remember is that he wrote mostly while in prison and developed his style there. I will say, having taught in a prison for a year, there are so, so, so many stories that circulate that place, you’d never run out of material.

    • Thanks Melanie. I rather thought that would be the case re “The gift of the Magi” . A bit like Henry Lawsons “The drover’s wife” here though I’m not sure it is stll the case. Your comment about prison and stories doesn’t surprise me.

        • That makes sense though I’ve not read enough to know whether I’d feel the same. Conscience is not one that emotionally devastates you, for example, and is funny in its way. The one who gets hurt is a naive, gullible rich man with more money than sense but that’s not uplifting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s