William Sidney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry, was one of the world’s great storytellers, a master of cunning plots and locomotive-like narrative force and a gifted humorist who deserves to be ranked alongside the best in our literature. Most famous today for the iconic “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry’s palette of moods and methods was as expansive as his exuberant imagination and this Library of America volume offers a fresh look at his singular literary genius.
Selected and expertly annotated by best-selling author Ben Yagoda, here are 101 of O. Henry’s short stories, including such enduringly popular tales as “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which a couple of bungling kidnappers are overwhelmed by the terror of a boy they abducted, and “The Cop and the Anthem,” about a down-on-his-luck hobo desperately trying—and utterly failing—to get arrested so that he can spend a warm night in jail. Among the other highlights are several of the Honduras stories, drawn from Porter’s experiences in Central America while on the run from the law; adventures of the sardonic embezzler Jeff Peters and his scam-artist colleagues, who originally appeared in The Gentle Grafter; and tales of the Texas range like “The Caballero’s Way,” which introduced the Cisco Kid, a murderous desperado hotly pursued by a Texas Ranger—with tragic results.
The heart of the collection comprises vivid New York stories. O. Henry was the original wanderer in the city (“It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it”), writing about shop girls, tycoons, immigrants, cops, criminals, con-men, and tourists. “When I first came to New York,” he recalled, “I spent a great deal of time knocking about around the streets. I did things I wouldn’t think of doing now,” and he turned those experiences and observations into such gems as “Twenty Years Later,” about two friends who agree to meet again after two decades have passed, and “A Retrieved Reformation,” portraying a convicted bank robber who falls in love with the daughter of a banker. Many of the stories feature O. Henry’s signature twist endings, and they all reveal the vagaries of urban life with warmth and wit.
Rounding out the volume are O. Henry’s final posthumous stories, “Let Me Feel Your Pulse,” “The Snow Man,” and “The Dream,” and, as a special feature, three early stories—“The Return of the Songster,” “The Ghost That Came to Old Angles,” and “Pursuing Ideals”—published here for the first time. Here is an O. Henry for the twenty-first century, a fully annotated edition that showcases the full range of a great American writer.
Ben Yagoda, editor, is professor emeritus of journalism and English at the University of Delaware, and the author or editor of twelve books, most recently The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song (2015). His work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, The American Scholar, and Rolling Stone, among other publications.