This Day In Literary History
On April 10th, 1906, The Four Million, the classic short story collection by the legendary American writer O. Henry, was published. It contained two of the author's most popular stories - The Cop and the Anthem and The Gift of the Magi.
The Cop and the Anthem is set in New York City. It's late autumn, and with winter coming, a homeless hobo called Soapy isn't looking forward to sleeping out in the cold.
Soapy decides to get himself arrested so he can spend the night in a warm jail cell. He tries swindling, petty thievery, vandalism, and pretending to be publicly intoxicated, but he just can't get arrested.
When Soapy tries sexually harassing a young woman, she turns out to be a prostitute. Heartbroken, he moves on. As the sun begins to set on a cold night, he finds himself standing outside a small church.
Inside the church, the organist is practicing. Soapy listens to him play. Moved by the music, he contemplates his life and decides to clean up his act and get himself a job and a home. Lost in reverie over the prospect of a brighter future, Soapy is approached by a cop - who arrests him for loitering.
The Gift of the Magi, considered O. Henry's most beloved story, is a heartwarming Christmas tale. Jim and Della are a poor young married couple living in a modest little apartment.
Although poor, they each have a valuable possession that they take pride in. Della has her beautiful, long flowing hair, while Jim's prize possession is his grandfather's pocket watch.
It's Christmas Eve, and Della has just under two dollars to spend on Jim's Christmas present. Desperate, she decides to sell the only thing of value she has - her hair. She sells it for $20 and buys a shiny platinum fob chain for Jim's treasured pocket watch.
When Jim comes home, she gives him his present and tells him she sold her hair to pay for it. He fixes her with an expression “that she could not read, and it terrified her.” Then he gives Della her Christmas present - a set of expensive, fancy combs for her hair. He sold his grandfather's pocket watch to pay for them.
The couple is left with two Christmas presents they can't use and one invaluable gift they take great pleasure in - their deep love for each other. The story ends with the author comparing their sacrificial gifts to each other with the biblical gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus:
The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication.
And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.
O. Henry was the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862. A voracious reader as a child, he took up writing in his twenties. While living in Austin, Texas, in the late 1880s, he wrote short stories and founded a humorous weekly literary magazine called The Rolling Stone.
Porter supported himself by working at a bank, which would lead to his downfall. He would be accused of embezzlement and fired, but not indicted. He moved to Houston, where he worked on his magazine and also wrote for the Houston Post.
During this time, the bank where Porter had worked was audited by the feds, who arrested him on federal embezzlement charges. He fled, and while on the lam, went to Honduras, where he coined the term "banana republic" to describe that third world Latin American country and others like it.
When Porter learned that his wife was dying of tuberculosis, he returned to Texas and surrendered. He was granted bail so he could remain with his wife pending an appeal. After she died, Porter lost his appeal and was sentenced to five years in a federal prison in Ohio.
While serving his time, Porter continued to write. He used several pseudonyms, settling on O. Henry - the name he was becoming famous under. He had a friend in New Orleans forward his stories so that publishers wouldn't realize that he was in prison.
After serving three years of his five year sentence, he was paroled for good behavior. The year after his release from prison, O. Henry moved to New York City, which was the mecca of the publishing world.
He would become one of the great masters of the short story, writing nearly four hundred of them. The critics of the day were rarely kind to O. Henry, but his readers loved him and couldn't get enough of his stories.
Sadly, O. Henry's life would be cut short by chronic health problems such as diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and an enlarged heart. These problems were caused or worsened by his heavy drinking. He died in 1910 at the age of 47.
Quote Of The Day
"Write what you like; there is no other rule." - O. Henry
Today's video features a complete reading of O. Henry's classic short story collection, The Four Million. Enjoy!