Monday, August 30, 2010

Book: Heart of the West

O. Henry
O. Henry was the pseudonym of short story writer William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Given a casual acquaintance based on “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” you may not think of him as a writer of westerns. In a way, he was.

A good many of his stories are set in the West. Though a native of North Carolina and at the end of his life a New Yorker, he lived in Texas for health reasons for fourteen years during his twenties and early thirties (1882-1896). After two years there on a sheep ranch, where he learned to ride and shoot, he settled in Austin, working as a pharmacist, draftsman, and bank teller.

The bank job led to a turn of fortune straight out of one of his stories. History remains unclear about the facts of the case, but after an investigation, a federal court found him guilty of embezzlement. He then left Texas to serve three years of a five-year sentence in the Ohio pen. There he began publishing stories under various pen names – among them the one that remained his nom de plume, O. Henry.
Ohio State Penitentiary, Columbus, Ohio
Style. A collection of his stories set in the West appeared in 1907, called Heart of the West. Imagine Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville yarns (reviewed here a while ago) read aloud by W. C. Fields, and you’ll get something of their spirit.
Like Lewis, O. Henry loves wordplay. He will put together a long shopping list of things that would not normally end up together:
Me and Mack would light our pipes and talk about science and pearl diving and sciatica and Egypt and spelling and fish and trade winds and leather and gratitude and eagles, and a lot of subjects that we’d never had time to explain our sentiments about before. “The Ransom of Mack”
It doesn’t have to be a long list either. Here he makes a point about how lapses in conversation are not unusual among Texans:
In Texas discourse is seldom continuous. You may fill in a mile, a meal, and a murder between your paragraphs without detriment to your thesis. “Hearts and Crosses.”
Like Lewis, he can freely mix regionalisms, slang, and occasional flights of inflated diction for humorous effect. Clarity is flung to the winds when a simple insult, for instance, must surrender to this kind of expression:
I never exactly heard sour milk dropping out of a balloon on the bottom of a tin pan, but I have an idea it would be music of the spears compared to this attenuated stream of asphyxiated thought that emanates out of your organs of conversation. “The Handbook of Hymen”
Here one of his characters explains to his friend how he’s never really understood women:
I never had the least amount of intersection with their predispositions. Maybe I might have had a proneness in respect to their vicinity, but I never took the time. I made my own living since I was fourteen; and I never seemed to get my rationcinations equipped with the sentiments usually depicted toward the sect. I sometimes wish I had. “The Ransom of Mack”
After all that verbal meandering, I love the directness of those last five words. They are the unvarnished expression of a simple, poignant truth.
The characters in his stories reach for phrases from Latin and other languages, as well as classical allusions, often maladroitly. We’ve already seen “the music of the spears” above. As a further example, Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis come out as Squills and Chalybeates. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam gets mangled into Ruby Ott and Homer K. M.
As characters reach for more elevated language, the malapropisms multiply. A lady friend tells a man that his friend is no gentleman, then objects when he tries to raise a defense. “It’s right plausible of you,” she says,” to take up the curmudgeons in your friend’s behalf; but it don’t alter the fact that he has made proposals to me sufficiently obnoxious to ruffle the ignominy of any lady.”

Duncan Renaldo as The Cisco
O. Henry’s West. Some of his western stories could take place anywhere. But a few belong without question to the west Texas frontier. O. Henry was, after all, the creator of the Cisco Kid.
His Cisco Kid is a mythical version of the already mythical Billy the Kid. He’s a gun-slinging young outlaw with a record of having killed eighteen men. He’s the heart throb of many a maiden. And he has a straight-arrow lawman on his case, ranger Lieutenant Sandridge (cf. Pat Garrett).
A sweetheart of the Kid falls in a big way for the handsome, fair-haired Sandridge, and when she betrays her outlaw lover, he betrays her right back. Like Billy, the Cisco Kid eludes capture, and Sandridge is left broken-hearted. It’s a long journey from there to Hollywood and Duncan Renaldo, but “The Caballero’s Way” is how it all got started. (For more on this subject see Henry’s Western Roundup.)
"The Caballero's Way," published July 1904
Another story, “The Reformation of Calliope,” could only take place in the (mythical) West. Here the Calliope of the title is a man given to episodes of shooting up the frontier town of Quicksand. It’s a rollicking satire of the gun-happy dime novel, which Clarence E. Mulford perpetuated in his Bar-20 stories. Imagine the Three Stooges doing their own version of High Noon, and you’ll get the idea.
The ending, however, is pure O. Henry, who can shift from farce to sentimentality at the drop of a hat. A mistaken identity and the arrival of Calliope’s dear old mother on a train not only restore order to Quicksand but bring about a change of heart in all concerned.
Finally, there’s the story “The Last of the Troubadours,” which Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie reportedly called “the best range story in American fiction.” This statement is widely quoted, and I’m hoping to locate it in his book, Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, because I’m not sure what he meant. The story is also commonly said to be included in Heart of the West, but I found it instead in a posthumous collection, Sixes and Sevens (1911).

Illustration for "The Last of the Troubadours"
For any writers reading this, “The Last of the Troubadours” is a tribute to the gift that storytellers bestow on anyone with the ability to appreciate their talent. If anything, this story comes closest to magical realism. It could be an episode in One Hundred Years of Solitude. If you’re a writer, you should read it. I will say no more.
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. Another selection of 271 stories can be found here.

More next time.

Picture credits:
1) photo portrait,
2) Ohio penitentiary,
3) Duncan Renaldo,
4) Magazine cover,
5) Illustration for “The Last of the Troubadours,” 

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


  1. I've read quite a few of his and have one big collection. I always enjoy them.

  2. Thanks for the story recommendation and link. I read that one long years ago and had forgotten about it until I started reading it again. A fine sentiment.

  3. I've got a book of his westerns. His use of language is definitely very interesting. :-)

  4. Bill Porter remains my all-time fave western writer!

    I love every western he wrote. I once sat down with the COMPLETE STORIES and found them all... they are scatteered through all the volumes but the book HEARTS OF THE WEST does contain the real masterpieces like "Caballero's Way," "The Higher Abdication," and my personal fave "The Pimienta Pancakes."

    Two not-to-missied classics that appear in his other collections are "the Passing Of Black Eagle" from ROADS OF DESTINY and "The Hiding Of Black bill" from OPTIONS.

    At one time I was so enamored of O. Henry that I read several books about him in a row. In one of them [I cannot now remember which] there was a recollection from Al jennings, the real-life train robber, that Porter would sit in prison [Jennings was his cellmate] and read the pulpy 1late nineteenth century western "dime novels" with a big grim on his face. That particular biographer believed that Porter's western stories were basically an ingenious literary reworking of those "blood and thunder" kids' tales, informed by Porter's experienced understanding of the actual west and resulting in something truly special.

    The theory is really interesting when you consider that most of these tales have titles you would associate with those old dime novel Sagas ["A DOUBLE-DYED DECEIVER," "THE CAPARRAL PRINCE" etc.]

    In WAIFS AND STRAYS, the last posthumous collection, there is the following tribute written by Henry james Forbian:

    "no one, it is safe to say, has brought so much fun and humour to the Western story. Cattle-king, cowboy, miner, the plains and the aparral--material of the 'dime novel'-- but all treated with the skill of a Maupassant, and a humour Maupassant never dreamed of. The merest sketch of them has a certain substance to it. Yet it is idle to compare O. Henry with anybody. No talent could be more original or more delightful."

    NUFF SAID, eh?

  5. Charles, it's fun to see someone's eyes light up when you mention O. Henry, and they've been a lifelong fan.

    Bill, yes, it's a sweet story.

    Joanne, his style still seems fresh, though the word choice is sometimes from another century.

    Albie, thanks for all the background and extra info. I've recently read THE HIDING OF BLACK BILL and A DOUBLE-DYED DECEIVER. Thanks for mentioning them. There are so many stories about where his name came from, and he probably started many of them, but one is that it's a compression of the words [Oh]io P[en]itenia[ry].

  6. O. Henry was big reading, especially when I was away on trips. he and ol` Loius l`Amour! Lol! God knows how many books I read, they were a real breath of fresh air. I could get lost in them between tours. Never lost the enthusiasm for O Henry. He had a "flowery" approach in his use of the spoken word, always made me laugh.

  7. O. Henry is where it all started for me. I recently commented on the centennial of his passing. His short story titled "After Twenty Years" is what made me want to write.

    Terrific post, Ron.

  8. I need to educate myself. I've read only a few O. Henry, and enjoyed them all. I didn't know he was so prolific.