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 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.
“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