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The Four Million
O. Henry

£6.00

O. Henry’s short story technique is the gold standard of the pithy, often unbelievable tale with a humorous twist, America’s answer to Maupassant. He turned to writing late in life, after he had spent time in prison. His life had been coloured by hapless adventure, fuelled often by mistake or negligence, and this informs his writing: his stories reflect casual abandon or a carefree observation of the human condition; he was adept at describing the resourceful ways that his characters deflected difficult or compromising situations. 25 short stories, set in turn of the century New York.

AMERICAN RETRO : AR05
C format paperback (216mm x 135mm)
gatefold cover, 160pp
cover design by Alexandra Andries

Biography

HENRY was the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). He was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. His mother died when he was three, as did one of his two brothers. He was raised in the home of his paternal grandmother; his father, a physician, was more obsessed with inventing a perpetual motion machine and drinking whisky than tending to his children. Porter’s great uncle had been governor of North Carolina, and his upbringing was law-abiding and middle class. Porter worked in his uncle’s drugstore from the age of sixteen and qualified as a licensed pharmacist just before his nineteenth birthday. A moderately humdrum early life included useful if modest artistic skill and much reading, especially of the classics (One Thousand and One Nights and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy were his favourites); his Aunt Lina, who had tutored him throughout his older teenage years, had encouraged a voracious reading habit.

When schooling was finished, outdoor work on a ranch was sought to alleviate a persistent adolescent cough. He settled in the warm climate of Austin, Texas from 1884, where he gained a surprising reputation as a broncobuster and where he recovered health. Brief work for a drug company and cigar store followed. His social life was rich, and he started to write short stories in his spare time, mostly westerns that he destroyed. His writing was encouraged by his new wife, Athol Estes, a consumptive with whom he had eloped in 1887. He worked for four years as a survey draftsman and cartographer for the Texas General Land Office, resigning when his political promoter lost office; this setting provided ammunition for future stories such as Georgia’s Ruling and Buried Treasure.

Porter’s work as a teller at the First National Bank of Austin Bank did not end well: casual administration and porter’s lackadaisical attitude led to his suspension, dismissal, and an eventual charge for embezzlement once the federal auditors became involved. Before his indictment he had earnt a wage as a satirical journalist; he contributed stories and cartoon sketches to his own satirical start-up, The Rolling Stone, and then for The Houston Post. In a desperate impulse and whilst changing trains to attend his trial, he determined to flee to New Orleans and then on to Honduras, where there was no extradition treaty. Here he made friends with the larger than life Al Jennings, a notorious train robber who became a silent film star and later an attorney; Porter’s story Holding Up A Train was inspired by this meeting. Jennings, too, wrote a book in 1921, about their encounter, Through the Shadows, which recalled also the time they had spent coincidentally in prison, and their later reconciliation in New York.

Porter returned to the United States in 1897 after three years absence, to comfort his wife who was near death. At his subsequent trial he offered no defence, was found guilty of embezzling $854.08, and was committed to a five-year sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary. His pharmacist qualifications meant that he had an easy time; he was released early for good behaviour in July 1901, when he returned to his daughter and in-laws to Pittsburgh.

He had always written short stories but had become practised during his stay in the Penitentiary. He published at least 14 stories in magazines under several pseudonym; manuscripts were placed through the wife of a fellow imprisoned banker, a deceit to mask his criminality. The first of these stories, The Miracle of Lava Canyon, was published in McClure’s Magazine, September 1898. He became a prolific writer after he settled in New York in early 1902 at the request of his publisher. It is estimated that he he wrote 381 stories in eight years, with clockwork regularity to begin with; he contributed weekly to the New York World Sunday Magazine, for example, and he built up a dedicated readership quickly.

His subject matter may appear as virtuosic, but was culled always from his own experience. When he had started writing for The Houston Post, he was to be found loitering often in hotel lobbies hunting for story subject matter. His first book, Cabbages and Kings, was published in 1904; its stories are set often in a midwestern American town that might have been anywhere in Texas, and a few other of its tales were set in coastal Latin America towns that might have been anywhere in Honduras. (The phrase “banana republic” comes from two of the stories published in this volume, The Admiral and Two Recalls). From 1904 he turned to write mostly of New York, his new locale and a verdant playground of plot and humorous mischief. Two motifs typically contained in his work are the imposter (or someone in disguise), and the idea that fate shapes a life above all else. These two features in many ways sum up Henry’s own hapless adventure, fuelled ordinarily by his own negligence or mistake. His stories reflect casual abandon or a carefree observation of the human condition, and he was adept at describing the resourceful ways that his characters deflected difficult or compromising situations.

The Four Million was Henry’s second collection of short stories, published in 1906, and it contains many of his most anthologised tales – The Gift of the Magi, After Twenty Years, The Skylight Room, The Furnished Room and The Cop and the Anthem. Its title was a response to a newspaper editorial by Ward McAllister, a self-appointed grandee of the New York ‘knickerbocracy,’ who was hostile to the drift of outsiders to the city, perhaps like Porter, though especially those from the midwestern states. He had claimed that there were only 400 people in New York worth knowing, a limited number who mattered or who felt at ease in the ballrooms of its high society: “If you go outside that number,” he warned, “you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.” Porter was a populist in every aspect, and held that all were of interest. He was fascinated by New York life – he referred to it as “Bagdad-on-the-Subway” – and once remarked that he could live a lifetime in each of its streets. He delighted especially in its commonplace aspect and cast his roving eye with a playful intent to find humour; he heightened a demotic tale with romance and colour. 99 of the 115 stories he published in 1904 and 1905, the hightide of his brief career as a writer, deal with some facet of the city’s life.

Porter’s second marriage proved to be difficult. Sarah Lindsey Coleman had been a teenage sweetheart with whom Porter had corresponded when settled in New York; he met her again on a return visit to North Carolina. She was a writer and was to publish a novella of their romance, Wind of Destiny. But by now his heavy drinking affected both how he conducted his life and his health; his writing suffered also, and he was not so productive in his later years. Most of the thirty or so stories that date from this period tend to relate nostalgically even wistfully to his youth, and focus upon the confusions of antebellum culture in the South. Porter died in June 1910 from cirrhosis of the liver, diabetic complication and an enlarged heart.

He wrote over 400 short stories, longer pieces as well, usually immensely witty with exaggerated twists at their end. He rejoiced in the unfortunate and jinxed, difficult situations and the ingenious ways often in which people escape from them. The critics derided them, yet many of these stories live on in the popular imagination and have been the basis for successful film or television adaptation. A Retrieved Reformation, for instance, became a successful Broadway play in 1910 and was filmed three times before 1928, this last by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, its first sound film with dialogue sequences. In 1918, the O. Henry Memorial Award was founded, to be awarded each year to the author of America’s best judged short story.

 

Pen name

When imprisoned, Henry wrote to his mother-in-law: “I am absolutely innocent of wrongdoing in that bank matter… I care not so much for the opinion of the general public, but I would have a few of my friends still believe there is good in me.” Shame of his own conviction meant that his daughter was never told that he had spent time in prison. He kept his identity secret from all but a few friends; he used numerous pen names – Oliver Henry, S. H. Peters, James L. Bliss, T. B. Dowd, and Howard Clark – but settled finally on O. Henry some time in 1902 (although he had published first using this name in McClure’s Magazine, December, 1899, Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking). In 1909 he remarked in an interview with The New York Times:

“It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: I’m going to send out some stuff. I don’t know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one. He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. Here we have our notables, said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, That’ll do for a last name, said I. Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me. Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then? asked my friend. Good, said I, O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.

“A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver. And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.”

Others have attested that there was a prison guard in Ohio named Orrin Henry; Etienne Ossian Henry was a French pharmacist that Porter may have come across whilst working in the prison pharmacy; or the letters were simply culled from Ohio Penitentiary. Some believe that Porter chose the pseudonym in memory of his childhood cat, Henry the Proud, who answered to the William’s call of “Henry, Oh Henry.”

 

Book's contents

TOBIN’S PALM
A palmist’s predictions come true.

THE GIFT OF THE MAGI : a young couple with little money each make personal sacrifices to give each other gifts for Christmas.

A COSMOPOLITE IN A CAFÉ : a tale about world travel.

BETWEEN ROUNDS : an act of kindness interrupts a couple’s violent pastime.

THE SKYLIGHT ROOM : the tale of young woman stricken by poverty and societies shortcomings.

A SERVICE OF LOVE : a couple unknowingly makes sacrifices for one another.

THE COMING-OUT OF MAGGIE : for a young woman, sudden popularity follows an invite to a dance.

MAN ABOUT TOWN : the author’s search for a man about town yields surprising results.

THE COP AND THE ANTHEM : a vagrant with a creative solution for dealing with the cold city streets during winter, attempts in vain to be arrested

AN ADJUSTMENT OF NATURE : a young man deceives a rich fellow in order to prevent him from marrying a waitress.

MEMOIRS OF A YELLOW DOG : a dog despises the masters coddling treatment.

THE LOVE-PHILTRE OF IKEY SCHOENSTEIN : a pharmacist conspires to diminish the capacity of a rival suitor.

MAMMON AND THE ARCHER : an idealist believes money cannot help him acquire the things he truly desires.

SPRINGTIME Á LA CARTE : a woman fears she has been forgotten.

THE GREEN DOOR : a man’s sense of adventure helps a girl in need.

FROM THE CABBY’S SEAT : a cab driver’s apathy affects every aspect of his life.

AN UNFINISHED STORY : a poor working girl’s tale.

THE CALIPH, CUPID AND THE CLOCK : a Prince in disguise provides assistance to a stranger.

SISTERS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE : one bride helps another.

THE ROMANCE OF A BUSY BROKER : a broker makes a request of his stenographer, having forgot his previous request.

AFTER TWENTY YEARS : a long planned meeting between old friends has unexpected consequences.

LOST ON DRESS PARADE : an architect intends to deceive a young woman, unaware of her own deception.

BY COURIER : a couple employs the services of a unreliable messenger.

THE FURNISHED ROOM : a man rents a room, unaware of the identity of the previous tenant.

THE BRIEF DÉBUT OF TILDY : Tildy finally receives the attention she has long desired.

Extract

After Twenty Years

The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few. The time was barely 10 o’clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh de-peopled the streets.

Trying doors as he went, twirling his club with many intricate and artful movements, turning now and then to cast his watchful eye adown the pacific thoroughfare, the officer, with his stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace. The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.

When about midway of a certain block the policeman suddenly slowed his walk. In the doorway of a darkened hardware store a man leaned, with an unlighted cigar in his mouth. As the policeman walked up to him the man spoke up quickly.

“It’s all right, officer,” he said, reassuringly. “I’m just waiting for a friend. It’s an appointment made twenty years ago. Sounds a little funny to you, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll explain if you’d like to make certain it’s all straight. About that long ago there used to be a restaurant where this store stands—’Big Joe’ Brady’s restaurant.”

“Until five years ago,” said the policeman. “It was torn down then.”

The man in the doorway struck a match and lit his cigar. The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow. His scarfpin was a large diamond, oddly set.

“Twenty years ago to-night,” said the man, “I dined here at ‘Big Joe’ Brady’s with Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world. He and I were raised here in New York, just like two brothers, together. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune. You couldn’t have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth. Well, we agreed that night that we would meet here again exactly twenty years from that date and time, no matter what our conditions might be or from what distance we might have to come. We figured that in twenty years each of us ought to have our destiny worked out and our fortunes made, whatever they were going to be.”

“It sounds pretty interesting,” said the policeman. “Rather a long time between meets, though, it seems to me. Haven’t you heard from your friend since you left?”

“Well, yes, for a time we corresponded,” said the other. “But after a year or two we lost track of each other. You see, the West is a pretty big proposition, and I kept hustling around over it pretty lively. But I know Jimmy will meet me here if he’s alive, for he always was the truest, stanchest old chap in the world. He’ll never forget. I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it’s worth it if my old partner turns up.”

The waiting man pulled out a handsome watch, the lids of it set with small diamonds.

“Three minutes to ten,” he announced. “It was exactly ten o’clock when we parted here at the restaurant door.”

“Did pretty well out West, didn’t you?” asked the policeman.

“You bet! I hope Jimmy has done half as well. He was a kind of plodder, though, good fellow as he was. I’ve had to compete with some of the sharpest wits going to get my pile. A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him.”

The policeman twirled his club and took a step or two.

“I’ll be on my way. Hope your friend comes around all right. Going to call time on him sharp?”

“I should say not!” said the other. “I’ll give him half an hour at least. If Jimmy is alive on earth he’ll be here by that time. So long, officer.”

“Good-night, sir,” said the policeman, passing on along his beat, trying doors as he went.

There was now a fine, cold drizzle falling, and the wind had risen from its uncertain puffs into a steady blow. The few foot passengers astir in that quarter hurried dismally and silently along with coat collars turned high and pocketed hands. And in the door of the hardware store the man who had come a thousand miles to fill an appointment, uncertain almost to absurdity, with the friend of his youth, smoked his cigar and waited.

About twenty minutes he waited, and then a tall man in a long overcoat, with collar turned up to his ears, hurried across from the opposite side of the street. He went directly to the waiting man.

“Is that you, Bob?” he asked, doubtfully.

“Is that you, Jimmy Wells?” cried the man in the door.

“Bless my heart!” exclaimed the new arrival, grasping both the other’s hands with his own. “It’s Bob, sure as fate. I was certain I’d find you here if you were still in existence. Well, well, well!—twenty years is a long time. The old restaurant’s gone, Bob; I wish it had lasted, so we could have had another dinner there. How has the West treated you, old man?”

“Bully; it has given me everything I asked it for. You’ve changed lots, Jimmy. I never thought you were so tall by two or three inches.”

“Oh, I grew a bit after I was twenty.”

“Doing well in New York, Jimmy?”

“Moderately. I have a position in one of the city departments. Come on, Bob; we’ll go around to a place I know of, and have a good long talk about old times.”

The two men started up the street, arm in arm. The man from the West, his egotism enlarged by success, was beginning to outline the history of his career. The other, submerged in his overcoat, listened with interest.

At the corner stood a drug store, brilliant with electric lights. When they came into this glare each of them turned simultaneously to gaze upon the other’s face.

The man from the West stopped suddenly and released his arm.

“You’re not Jimmy Wells,” he snapped. “Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man’s nose from a Roman to a pug.”

“It sometimes changes a good man into a bad one,” said the tall man. “You’ve been under arrest for ten minutes, ‘Silky’ Bob. Chicago thinks you may have dropped over our way and wires us she wants to have a chat with you. Going quietly, are you? That’s sensible. Now, before we go on to the station here’s a note I was asked to hand you. You may read it here at the window. It’s from Patrolman Wells.”

The man from the West unfolded the little piece of paper handed him. His hand was steady when he began to read, but it trembled a little by the time he had finished. The note was rather short.

Bob: I was at the appointed place on time. When you struck the match to light your cigar I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn’t do it myself, so I went around and got a plain clothes man to do the job.
JIMMY.