Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book: Heart of the West, part 2

Yesterday, I started this commentary on some O. Henry stories that were set in the West. Today I’m talking about his use of realistic detail and his portrayal of romance in these stories. 

Realism. Don’t get the idea that O. Henry is just spinning yarns with no regard for the actual West they take place in. They are full of flourishes that come from direct observation. 

For one example, here’s his description of a rattlesnake-infested prickly pear flat in “The Caballero’s Way.” Texan folklorist J. Frank Dobie says there’s never been one described better.
With dismal monotony and startling variety the uncanny and multiform shapes of the cacti lift their twisted trunks and fat, bristly hands to encumber the way. The demon plant, appearing to live without soil or rain, seems to taunt the parched traveler with its lush gray greenness. It warps itself a thousand times about what look to be open and inviting paths, only to lure the rider into blind and impassable spine-defended “bottoms of the bag,” leaving him to retreat, if he can, with the points of the compass whirling in his head.
Prickly pear cactus
You can’t make this stuff up.
For more examples, there’s a collection of utterly believable cowboys in “The High Abdication,” in which a tramp is discovered to be a ranch owner’s long lost son. The story is improbable, the turns of plot likely only in a comic universe. But it’s grounded in realistic details of a sharp-eyed observer with a photographic memory.
Homeless and broke, his tramp Curly wanders along in a “drizzling, cold Texas rain,” described by O. Henry as “an endless, lazy, unintermittent downfall that lowered the spirits of men and raised a reluctant steam from the warm stones of the streets and the houses.”
Curly gets in out of the weather and finds a warm, dry place in a wagon. The wagon delivers him while he sleeps to a ranch far from town, where six desperate cowpunchers are waiting impatiently at the ranch store for a delivery of tobacco. “The boys were smokin’ cut plug and dried mesquite leaves mixed in when I left,” one reports.
Illustration for "The High Abdication"
Meanwhile, the storekeeper “stood in the door, snapping the red elastic bands on his pink madras shirtsleeves and looking down affectionately at the only pair of tan shoes within a forty-mile radius.” When he explains that what he thought was his last case of tobacco “happened to be” something else, one of the cowboys says, “You’ve sure got a case of happenedicitis.”
The desultory conversation goes on as the cowboys wait, lounging on the front step and watching the road from San Antonio for a sign of the supply wagon. To pass the time, they order up cans of fruit to eat, which the storekeeper opens with a hatchet. “For a while,” we are told, “the only sounds to be heard at the store were the rattling of the tin spoons and the gurgling intake of the juicy fruits by the cowpunchers.”
At moments like this, O. Henry lets his horses graze while we simply absorb the local color. The real world rushes in to fill the narrative space with sweet detail. Then, as when the supply wagon finally arrives, we’re off again into improbable turns of events that entertain us with their contrived conflicts and unexpected resolutions.
As Curly is put to the test as a new hand on the ranch, he gets hazed by the other cowpunchers. They give him their version of the silent treatment for three days. Then they roughly wake him from sleep with gunfire and dragging a saddle over his bedroll, giving him a chapping when he protests. After an hour of this, they finally welcome him as a “stirrup brother.” You can tell that O. Henry was fully familiar with the rules of fraternal camaraderie on the range. 
Lt. Sandridge from "The Caballero's Way"
Romance. Many of the stories are, in fact, about courting. We have already mentioned the tender love that springs between ranger lieutenant Sandridge and his Mexican sweetheart in the Cisco Kid story, The Caballeros Way.” Hearts are deeply bruised, however, by an outlaw’s cunning. One, in fact, stops beating forever.
In “The High Abdication” there are separated lovers who meet half way between the ranches of their long-feuding families. Their secret meetings are related in a high dramatic style. Alas, loyalty to family trumps the desires of the heart. She will always be his “halfway” girl. It could be opera – well, horse opera anyway. “Ride carefully over them badger holes,” he says as they part.
Normally in these stories, the romance is occasion for far broader comedy. In “The Pimienta Pancakes,” a chuck wagon cook competes with a sheep man for the affection of a local woman.  Whenever he tries to persuade her to surrender the secret of a pancake recipe, she demures. She’s been told, he finally learns, that he’s mentally unstable and talk of pancakes can bring on a psychotic episode. She swiftly marries the other suitor.
In another story, “The Handbook of Hymen,” two friends vie for the affections of a woman, promising that whichever of them she chooses, they will remain best friends. Their “dates” are thus always three-somes, so that neither of the men gets an unfair advantage. (We’re already beyond the realm of probability, you may have noticed, but this is O. Henry, and you say, “OK, then what happens?”)
One of the men tries to impress her by waxing poetic without letup. The other recites facts to her from a reference book he’s memorized. A starry sky occasions a lecture, for example, on the time it takes for starlight to reach Earth. Finally, when he saves her from a burning house and gives her the wrong remedy for smoke inhalation, she doesn’t seem to mind. You get the sense that she’s been partial to him all along – facts or no facts.
Making room for romance in his stories, O. Henry creates a comic world that’s different from the Wolfville of Alfred Henry Lewis. Similar in many other ways, their stories diverge on this subject of gender relations. O. Henry’s men may do it clumsily, but they make an effort to meet women half way. Lewis’ men prefer their exclusive male fraternity.
"Last of the Troubadours" published July 1908
Wrapping up. This is not meant to be the final word on O. Henry. The man wrote over 300 stories (one source says 600), most of them during a single decade. They were published in newspapers and magazines, such as Munsey’s Magazine, Everybody’s Magazine, and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World magazine. Some appeared again in ten published collections. Amazingly, he achieved this despite being a serious alcoholic and dying at the age of 47. (Lewis’s was a similar story.)
Proper evaluation of his work and his contribution as a storyteller would go far beyond the cursory reading I have given to a handful of his stories. But he needs to be included here as an early writer about the frontier West.
How he fits in is hard to say. He did not contribute to the outpouring of novels about the West after Wister’s The Virginian. His stories seem more a part of an established tradition of journalistic writing. But to be honest, I’m just guessing. I need to do some more reading about him.

Further reading. O. Henry’s stories are in the public domain today and many can be found online. A selection of 70 stories is available here. A selection of 271 stories can be found here.

You can read the original of “The Pimienta Pancakes” as it appeared in McClure’s Magazine, December 1903, illustrated by Frederic R. Gruger.
Picture credits:
1) Prickly pear, alexandgregory.com
2) Story illustrations, 1993 edition of Heart of the West
3) Magazine cover, philsp.com

Coming up: Review of The Left Handed Gun (1958)


  1. I was grinning the other night when I was playing REd dead redemption. They have realisitic "looking" cacti, but man you can just ride through them. If it were real I'd have spines embedded in my own spine by now.

  2. Never thought of O Henry in the western genre, thanks for enlightening me