OP-ED: O. Henry: Oh Hero!

By Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben
I am a writer.

That is what I am. That is what I do. If an examination were performed on my soul, instead of hearing a heartbeat, a stethoscope would quickly detect the clickity click of fingers on a keyboard, or the soft scrape of a number two pencil against the narrow rules of a yellow legal pad.

I decided to become a writer when I was seventeen, because reading was what I loved to do most, and the only way I could figure out how to spend the rest of my life reading was to write for a living.

So far, it has worked.

The decision to write, however, was no more a guarantee of a literary lifestyle than if I had scrawled “I will be a writer” on a steamed-up mirror in a bathroom after taking a hot shower.

All of that changed after I moved to New York. I was working in New Rochelle and living in the attic apartment of a house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bloom. He was a quiet, scholarly piano teacher, she was a talkative, kind-hearted housewife, and they supplemented their income by renting rooms to young women like me. Mrs. Bloom baked delicious melt-in-your-mouth shortbread, and she always offered me samples when I passed through her kitchen on my way upstairs. She also gave me unrestricted access to all of the books on the glass-covered shelves behind the grand piano in their living room.
O.Henry House
O.Henry House

I don’t know which other volumes lived there, because once my eyes fell upon the "Complete Works of O. Henry" (Books 1 through 11), I was lost. Or, rather, found. The way that others find religion, I found my spiritual homeland in that master storyteller’s words.

Among the many things that O. Henry wrote were "The Gift of the Magi", "The Ransom of Red Chief", "The Last Leaf", "The Cop and the Anthem", and "After Twenty Years". His stories were turned into movies and produced as television plays. The concept of a “surprise ending” comes from O. Henry, as does the expression “an O. Henry ending,” which describes any unpredictable turn of events.

Because I love his writing so much, not long ago, I found myself in Austin, Texas, standing outside a little house with the high-fallutin’ name: The O. Henry Museum.

A big brass plaque planted on the lawn outside tells us that in the mid-1890s, O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter, lived there with his wife and daughter, and that he assumed his pen name when he was in prison. After I walked though the front door and entered into the gentle domesticity of his long-ago abode, and I picked up a Xeroxed pamphlet which told me more about his life. Before he was brought to trial, I learned, O. Henry’s wife died of tuberculosis; he was convicted for embezzlement; and during the three years that he was in prison, he sold his first story to a national publication and perfected his writing style.

“Perfected” is the operative word, because it implies so many miracles of his imagination, skill, and compassion, as well as his gift for assembling words with a wit and delicacy as melodious as music.

"The Gift of the Magi": “Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”

"The Last Leaf": “Whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines.”

"The Complete Life of John Hopkins": “When a poor man finds a long-hidden quarter-dollar that has slipped through a rip into his vest lining, he sounds the pleasure of life with a deeper plummet than any millionaire can hope to cast.”

"The Octopus Marooned": "It was beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are.”

Next to Reading Matter: “History is bright and fiction dull with homely men who have charmed women.

The O. Henry Museum is amazingly un-museumified (if there is such a word). Small, high-ceilinged rooms with the original pinewood floors. Period area rugs. A piano. Framed photographs of O. Henry, his wife, and daughter. Wallpapered walls. Lithographs. Tables covered with the magazines in which the writer’s stories appeared (Look but don’t touch!). Toys. Tables. Chairs. His desk. A bed. And all of the accoutrements of a home, so evocatively and intimately displayed, that as soon as I entered, I could imagine O. Henry living there as a young man, a young husband, a young father…a young writer.

I wish (Oh! How I wish) that I had been permitted to take photographs inside that wonderful little house. I wish that the museum posted its photographs on the Internet, or sold picture books, or printed, produced or promoted itself in anyway so that I could share with you the sweet experience of entering into O. Henry’s world.

It doesn’t. So I can’t.

I can, however, suggest, that you make the pilgrimage there yourself.

First, though, beg, borrow, or steal "The Complete Works of O. Henry". Make yourself a gallon of hot tea, get Mrs. Bloom to give you some melt-in-your-mouth shortbread, and find a nice, comfy chair. Then throw an Afghan over your legs and reacquaint yourself with one of the best storytellers of all time.

The one who taught me everything I will ever needed to know about what I love to do most. Or…if you will permit me one last quotation from my hero:

“I'll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is.

Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”

Copyright © 2012, Shelly Reuben. Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com

Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
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