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0. Henry-in "accusive eyes," "accusive talk”, “accusive silence"-that it deserves a place in the dictionaries of the future. His mastery is seen, however, not only in new formations but in new uses. He writes of "the petitionary music of a violin,” the rattle of cabs and “the snarling of the electric cars," "the stale infestivity of a table d'hôte," "a flashy fellow with a predatory eye,” a tramp obeying his surly master "with propitiatory alacrity,” “the priceless and induplicable flag," a woman tiding over "the vast chasms of nicotinized silence” with music from her guitar, an atmosphere "international with cigarette smoke,” “cheap fellows, sonorously garbed," a man "with salamandrous thumbs, serving the scalding viands." These words are all in the lexicographer's stable but the harnessing is O. Henry's.
When O. Henry takes liberties with the form of words rather than with their meanings, his so-called audacities suggest comparison with those that Sheridan immortalized in the speech of Mrs. Malaprop. But there is a fundamental difference. Mrs. Malaprop says: You must “illiterate him quite from your memory”; don't try "to extirpate yourself”; he is “a progeny of learning"; a certain woman does not "reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying’’; I laid “my positive conjunctions on her never to think on the fellow again”; someone is as headstrong as "an allegory on the banks of the Nile," etc. These are blunders adroitly chosen by Sheridan, but they are nothing more than blunders. They cause laughter, but they do not quicken thought. They belong in the same class with the verbal mutilations of Mrs. Slipslop in Fielding's Joseph Andrews.
But O. Henry's audacities mark a distinct advance. Instead of making nonsense they suggest sense. Apart from their humor they often drive home the intended idea with a vividness impossible to any other words. Compare the malapropisms already cited with these O. Henryisms: There was an Indian Territory feud of which I was press-agent, camp-follower, and "inaccessory during the fact"; it was a large, conglomerate building, “presided under by a janitor”; the third day of the rain, Andy walked out to the edge of the town “to view the mudscape”; he was a fierce little old man who “regarded himself as especial mastiffin-waiting to protect the two young artists”; the duty of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World is "to offer a cast-ironical welcome to the oppressed of other lands”; for table-talk and fireside companions, sheep "rank along with five-o'clock teazers”; if you know anything about the thief, "you are amiable to the law in not reporting it”; it (a town named Guayaquerita] is a clear case where Spelling Reform "ought to butt in and disenvowel it”; Clara, the negro servant, spoke in tones "half-contemptuous, half-Tuskegeenial.”
O. Henry's made or misused words, like Sheridan's and Fielding's, resemble in sound the canonical words, but instead of having no meaning they are made to carry a new meaning. We laugh not merely because standardized forms have been unceremoniously shattered, but because out of the fragments there suddenly emerges a new and un
expected idea. In Sheridan we admire the brilliant consistency with which Mrs. Malaprop's arrows fall wide of the mark. In O. Henry we admire the added cleverness that speeds the arrow not to its conventional target, it is true, but not to the ground; it glances from its goal and strikes squarely another target which we did not know was in that neighborhood. Mrs. Malaprop mutilates; O. Henry transmutes.
A similar difference is seen between 0. Henry's cleverest misquotations and the misquotations of other humorists. A study of the question would show, I think, three general stages in the art of humorous misquotation. The first stage is illustrated by Chaucer's rooster who flatters and pacifies his wife at the end of a long controversy by telling her:
For, also siker as In principio,
Here there is no tampering with the quoted words. They are given accurately by Chauntecleer, liberty being taken with the translation rather than with the quotation proper. 0. Henry rarely attempts this kind of inversion, though his most notable example happens to be drawn, as was Chaucer's, from a Latin quotation. Thus Henry Horsecollar is made to say: "Then we'll export canned music to the Latins; but I'm mindful of Mr. Julius Cæsar's account of 'em where he says: 'Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est; which is the same as to say, 'We will need all of our gall in devising means to tree them parties.”
The second stage in the evolution of effective misquotation brings Mrs. Malaprop again to the fore. She differs from Chauntecleer in quoting inaccurately but, as before, no new meaning or application is superadded to the quotation as a whole. As in the case of individual words, Sheridan makes her blunder and blunder egregiously, but there is no scintillation from the blunder. It is, mere mutilation. “Then his presence," she says, “is so noble! I protest when I saw him, I thought of what Hamlet says in the play :—Hesperian curls--the front of Job himself! an eye, like March, to threaten at command !-a station, like Harry Mercury, new-'? Something about kissing—on a hill—however, the similitude struck me directly.”
In the third stage, O. Henry's priority and primacy seem to me equally assured. Jeff Peters, for example, in explanation of how he and another gentle grafter lost their booty, remarks: “We were selfcurbed. It was a case of auto-suppression. There was a rift within the loot, as Albert Tennyson says.” In another passage Jeff tells how a mine owner, having lost his fortune, climbs to the top of a house and jumps off on a spot "where he now requiescats in pieces.” Andy Tucker, Jeff's partner, wants to go to the Riviera for leisure and meditation: "I want to loaf and indict my soul, as Walt Whittier says.” A con
noisseur in the ordering of fashionable dinners is described as one “to the menu born.” Spenser's famous warning in The Faerie Queene, “Be bolde, be bolde, and everywhere be bolde. Be not too bolde,” is changed into “Be bold; everywhere be bold, but be not bowled over.” “A straw vote," says O. Henry, "only shows which way the hot air blows." "Strong drink,” we are assured, “is an adder and subtractor, too." A perfect example of the difference between autocracy and democracy is seen in 0. Henry's metamorphosis of Tennyson's line into "the fierce light that beats upon the thrown-down.” Many other examples might be given, but enough have been cited to show that in forays of this sort O. Henry's endeavor was to bring home a new message from time worn expressions. He pours new wine into old bottles. This is essentially different from Chaucer's practice and from Sheridan's. O. Henry tries to be re-constructive where they are usually content to be negative or destructive.
But O. Henry's humor is not at bottom verbal. It does not inhere in tricks of style or in mannerisms of phrase. He had only one mannerism, a way of massing alliteration. With the poets alliteration is chiefly a matter of euphony; but O. Henry uses it to condense, to heighten, to intensify, to lift quantity or quality into quick and vivid saliency. It takes the place of more elaborate description as well as of more detailed enumeration. When he says the outing was to include "parks, picnics, and Pilsener,” I detect an almost parsimonious economy of words. When he describes the cattlemen of an older day as “grandees of the grass, kings of the kine, lords of the lea, barons of beef and bone," I feel that nouns cunningly marshaled have beat adjectives even at the adjectival game. When he declares that “the Madness of Manhattan, the Frenzy of Fuss and Feathers, the Bacillus of Brag, the Provincial Plague of Pose seized upon Towers Chandler," I know that Towers is in for a fall. When he pits an empty-headed Apollo against a suave tongue and adds: “It's the larynx that the beauty doctors ought to work on. It's words more than warts, talk more than talcum, palaver more than powder, blarney more than bloom that counts—the phonograph instead of the photograph," I am convinced as by a deluge of cogent argumentation. When Mrs. Widdup is introduced as "fair, flustered, forty, and foxy," I know her and know her unforgettably both exteriorly and interiorly.
But O. Henry's humor is only marginally a thing of words and phrases. Coruscation, in other words, was with O. Henry merely the by-product of creation. It was never central or controlling. His characters are not humorous because they say funny things. They say funny things because they are humorous. O. Henry's humor has been acclaimed by a world of grateful readers because, like the humor of Shakespeare and Molière and Cervantes, it rises naturally and spontaneously from the situations in which his characters are placed. The situations become themselves creative; they belong to the elemental nature of comedy. They are matrix rather than mould, and the humor
is born rather than made. Review the situations in The Handbook of Hymen, A Cosmopolite in a Café, The Brief Début of Tildy, A Lickpenny Lover, Two Renegades, The Gift of the Magi, The Cop and the Anthem, Makes the Whole World Kin, The Lady Higher Up, The Pendulum, The Making of a New Yorker. In each of these the stage is set by a master. There is subtle thought, even profound thought, not so much in the working out of the plots as in the selection and forestaging of such humorous situations as make the plots work themselves out. Humor is released rather than manufactured. It plays hide and seek with pathos in many of these stories and not infrequently both humor and pathos come before the footlights hand in hand to receive the plaudits of an audience that finds it hard to say which is which.
A special distinction of O. Henry's humor is that it is never divisive. On the contrary, it fuses and re-unites. As soon as you read one of his stories you want to read it aloud to others. But you do not have to pick your audience for fear that feelings will be hurt. Rich or poor, educated or illiterate, employer or employee, black or white, man or woman-all will find their common heritage of humanity reached and enriched. Much of the stage humor of today, certainly that of the school of Wilde and Shaw, derives most of its sparkle from what has been called "the neat reversal of middle-class conceptions." There is no such reversal in 0. Henry. Instead of pitting class against class he reveals class to class. In Mammon and the Archer, for example, it would be hard to say which is the more human and lovable, Aunt Ellen, who is gentle and sentimental and spiritual, or Anthony Rockwall, the retired manufacturer and proprietor of Rockwall's Eureka Soap, who "bets his money on money every time.” Read the story and try to make the award. In The Handbook of Hymen, the matter-offact man is contrasted with the ultra-imaginative man, the statistical with the poetical mind. In its two leading characters the story is a sort of miniature Don Quixote: Sanderson Pratt, like Sancho Panza, is the factualist; Idaho Green, like the Knight de la Mancha, is the romanticist. But the balances swing impartial at the end. Neither devotee is derided. The theme is illuminated, but the two contestants are awarded equal honors by the reader. Both characters are extremists, but they are too human, too much like you and me, for O. Henry's ridicule to fall on either.
In The Duplicity of Hargraves, Best Seller, The Rose of Dixie, and Thimble, Thimble, O. Henry sets himself the task of staging the traditional differences between the Southerner and the Northerner. The subject was a delicate one, but there is no tincture of prejudice in the portrayal. Is not O. Henry the only one of our fictionists in whose hands regional differences never curdle into sectional differences ? He finds his differential and makes it clear as day, but Yankee and Southerner join equally in the laughter. The differential is seen to be but a rill in the river of our common humanity; it discloses but it neither dis
severs nor discredits. Makes the Whole World Kin is the title of only one of O. Henry's stories, but it sums the service of them all.
One element in O. Henry's art seems not to have been touched on by the critics, an element that is as distinctive as his humor. I mean the way in which he saturates his stories with the atmosphere of the background. The French call it milieu, the Germans stimmung, but O. Henry has added something to both. I do not refer now to the larger geographical backgrounds. It goes without saying that his Latin-American stories are accurately Latin-American, that his New York stories have the New York atmosphere, that his Western stories are distinctively Western, and that his Southern stories have the flavor of the South. But O. Henry goes further than this. He circumscribes his locale and makes it a perceptible force in the development of the story. Rooms, boarding houses, hotels, stores, cafés, restaurants, ranches, parks, squares, streets, and street intersections are almost human in O. Henry. If they do not speak, they have life, character, temperament. Stories are commonly divided into three parts, background or setting, character or characters, plot or plan; and the first is thought of as the stationary locale where the story takes place. In many stories the locale is mentioned at the beginning and then dismissed. Not so in O. Henry's pages. His backgrounds are no more initial than terminal. They are continuous. They constitute a felt presence in the conduct of the characters. 0. Henry was not only a student of environment; he was an interpreter of character in its relations to environment. He read men and women in their context. This is why it is so difficult to re-tell an O. Henry story effectively. We name the characters, we summarize the plot, we explain the point of it all, we say where the story takes place. But something has gone out of it. That something is the encompassing and vitalizing background. When we have mentioned or described the locale, we are done with it. But in the story it was inwrought into the very texture of the style. It conditioned the talk; it flavored the adjectives; it nominated the nouns; it moved with the verbs. Try to re-tell The Brief Début of Tildy, a perfectly simple plot, but so shot through with the restaurant atmosphere that to omit it is to omit the integration of the plot itself.
0. Henry touches upon this theme in A Matter of Mean Elevation: "It has been named 'environment,' which is as weak a word as any to express the unnamable kinship of man to nature, that queer fraternity that causes stones and trees and salt water and clouds to play upon our emotions. Why are we made serious and solemn and sublime by mountain heights, grave and contemplative by an abundance of overhanging trees, reduced to inconstancy and monkey capers by the ripples on a sandy beach?” But the environment into which O. Henry pushes his prow are man-made rather than nature-made. Run through a dozen or more of his stories with this thought of environment as one of the co-operant characters in the unfolding of the incidents. If you do not crown O. Henry as the laureate of the background, you will at least