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Exist Yesterday.

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1904: O. Henry


This week I'm thinking about O. Henry's 1904 Cabbages and Kings, a landmark pseudo-novel composed of linked short stories.

Cover to the first edition, digitized at  archive.org .

Cover to the first edition, digitized at archive.org.

The copy I read includes Guy Davenport's introduction to the 1993 Penguin edition, as elegant a valuation of the literary quality of what I am calling "light fiction" as I've ever come across. He finds subterranean echoes of O. Henry's devices in unimpeachable modernists like James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, and Viktor Shklovsky, connects his art to Athenian New Comedy and to more recent innovations like vaudeville and the movies, and places him second only to P. G. Wodehouse as the prime mover of twentieth-century literary comic fiction. All of which is true: O. Henry's crude reputation of sentimentalism-cum-ironic-twist, the result of generations of high-school English students only encountering him in "The Gift of the Magi" and maybe "The Last Leaf," obscures a much richer and more overtly comedic oeuvre.

Cabbages and Kings was written following its author's six-month sojourn in a Honduran embassy, to whence he had absconded while changing trains on the way to trial in Ohio for a possibly-false embezzlement charge; he would return to the United States, and serve out a three-year prison sentence, because his wife was dying of tuberculosis. The limited facts that we have about William Sydney Porter's life are very much the stuff of his fiction: theft and flight, unlikely coincidence, exiles dreaming about the girls they left back home, and men of all walks making sacrifices for the sake of honor or love or both litter the pages of this book.

I'm not sure whether any of the individual chapters actually saw print as stand-alone stories in the metropolitan magazines of the late 1890s and early 1900s (he had been publishing since the 1880s under various names, but his mature career really dates from 1902, when he moved to New York after having served his time), but they are deftly woven together in a manner that reads neither like a collection of short stories set in a single place nor an episodic novel, but something else, and possibly something new in the world. Davenport uses the word "architectonic" to describe the structure of Cabbages and Kings, and while I'm not certain I know what he means, I can't say he's wrong.

The overarching plot is the stuff of genteel farce, or fluffy Ruritanian operetta: mistaken identity, lovers in disguise, who stole the valise full of money?, political coups as purely domestic affairs. But the narrative voice, half-poetic and half-kidding, is a strong one, and deeply influential: a thousand Hollywood movies of the studio era are descended from O. Henry's precise combination of glib sincerity, rapid-fire dialogue, and naive typecasting. Interspersed are some dozen other stories set in the sleepy town of Cordalia in the banana republic (a term invented in this novel, with shrewd awareness of the dependence of Central American republics on North American export oligopolies) of Anchuria, mostly revolving around expatriates from the States but occasionally touching on Anchurians themselves with a patronizing smile and devoted adherence to stereotype.

(Reading this novel shortly after reading a Guatemalan satire about North American control of Central America was a slightly vertiginous experience. O. Henry is undoubtedly stereotypical in his approach to people of indigenous, mestizo, and African descent, but hardly more so than criollo Latin American writers of the same generation; and in fact Cabbages and Kings can in part be considered a prototypical dictator novel in the formal Latin American tradition, even though his dictatorship concludes with a musical-comedy reversal rather than with bombs and revolution.)

But O. Henry's crude reputation of sentimentalism-cum-ironic-twist is not entirely unearned here: although it would be difficult to claim that this isn't a light work (there's not a shred of Naturalism or Symbolism, the two markers of intellectual weight in the era, in these pages), some of the stories are meant to be more heartstring-tugging than others, and the heterogeneity of genre encouraged by the piecemeal structure is in some ways a more old-fashioned approach to the novel, reminiscent of Victorian three-volume works even while the language is snappy, American, and up-to-date. That was magazine fiction writing at the turn of the century, though: sentiment, wisecracks, and derring-do were all jumbled together in the same pages, and bled into one another so much that it took the pulps to formalize genres by siloing particular kinds of material off from all the rest.

O. Henry was such an influential figure in popular fiction of the early 1900s that a whole school of glib, half-kidding New York-centric magazine fiction followed in his wake, including some of the most important names in light fiction. I hope to get to some of them before long, but I'm still measuring out the various landmarks in the field. Next: heading back over across the Atlantic to catch up on what Imperial Britain thought was so funny around the turn of the century.