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One on One: Comic strips, O. Henry and this column

By D.G. Martin

It has happened again.

As reported in this column recently, the Library of America honored the late Elizabeth Spencer on June 1 by adding to its series an 864-page volume of her work. This month it adds another North Carolina connected author to its series, the popular short story writer O. Henry.

The new volume, “O. Henry: 101 Stories,” is being published this week. O. Henry was the pen name for William Sidney Porter, who was born in Greensboro in 1862 and grew up there. Shortly after he earned a license as a pharmacist and worked in his uncle’s business, he moved west to work on a ranch in Texas. After a stint in prison for a crime that had to do with missing money, he made his way to New York City.

He found a home on the city’s streets and bars, where he met the ordinary people who inspired his extraordinary stories. He was, according to Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker’s June 28 edition, “a prodigious drinker, with a reputation for being able to handle his liquor.”

His drinking and rowdy life may have unleashed his writing, but it was not good for his health. He died in 1910, at 47, due in part to liver cirrhosis along with diabetes and an enlarged heart.

He is buried in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery not far from the grave of another North Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe. Some visitors leave a few pennies on O. Henry’s grave.

Some leave exactly $1.87.

Why?

For many O. Henry fans, their favorite story is “The Gift of the Magi,” set in New York City at Christmastime. A poverty-stricken couple struggle to find money to buy each other a nice present.

The story begins: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

Finally, Della sells her lovely hair for $20 to buy a gold chain for her husband’s treasured pocket watch. You remember what happened. If not, you can guess.

Such human dilemmas and remarkable endings made and still make O. Henry one of the country’s favorite writers.

Like Charles Dickens, he is more admired by us ordinary readers than by the literary elite.

Working for the Sunday World newspaper, he wrote a new story every week.

Menand suggests that such regularly written stories should be considered “on the model of the comic strip – which is, effectively, what they were when they appeared once a week in the Sunday World. In some weeks, your favorite comic strip is more entertaining than it is in others, but you always read it, because you know what you’re going to get. The same is true of O. Henry stories. Porter had a formula; he had a set of character types; and he had a distinctive verbal palette.”

One aside: I try, not always successfully, to persuade my editors that my weekly columns are similarly like comic strips.

Menand continues, “The story writer begins with an idea about what readers will feel when they finish reading, just as a lyric poet starts with a nonverbal state of mind and then constructs a verbal artifact that evokes it.”

Not everyone will agree that O. Henry’s stories are the same as good poetry. But this reader admits that reading “The Gift of the Magi” and many of his stories can bring tears to my eyes every time I read them.

On my next trip to Asheville, I will be leaving $1.87, including 60 pennies, on O. Henry’s grave.

Note: Ben Yagoda, editor of the O. Henry volume, is scheduled for an O.Henry event in Greensboro on September 2 with Scuppernong Books at the Greensboro History Museum and co-hosted by the Greensboro Library. He’ll be in conversation with Jim Dodson, founding editor of O. Henry magazine.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

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