Dreaming on Elm Street

by John J. Miller on June 8, 2010 · 5 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

My article on short-story writer O. Henry is in today’s Wall Street Journal. He died exactly a century ago last Saturday.

William Sydney Porter–O. Henry’s real name–got his start at a drug store owned by his uncle in Greensboro, N.C. He worked there as a young man before moving to Texas in 1882. His fame as a writer came later, in the first decade of the 20th century.

The drug store was located at 121 S. Elm Street. In 1891, Clark Porter sold it to Lunsford Richardson II, who invented Vicks VapoRub on the premises. So one business can take credit for two success stories: It helped launch the career of an American literary giant as well as a pharmaceutical empire. As a biography of Lunsford’s son, H. Smith Richardson, says: “It seemed perhaps an unlikely place for the incubation of a famous writer, or of a business leader who was himself a genius at writing advertising copy.” The Greensboro paper described the property three years ago, when it was up for sale.

Here’s a photo of a Richardson descendant standing in front of the building at 121 S. Elm, which carries separate plaques commemorating both accomplishments.

  • Dan

    I have to quibble with your assessment of the political nature of O. Henry’s less than stellar literary reputation. When you compare him to London or Sinclair, you act as if London and Sinclair have glowing reputations within the academy. They don’t. All three of these authors are largely ignored because they are not historically or stylistically important. They wrote just before the Modernist period, and as such look pretty paltry compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Jean Toomer. In fact, the three writers you mention were middling even for their own period. I am teaching an undergraduate short story course this summer, and Henry, Sinclair, and London are not on my syllabus because there were other authors writing in the same period who did it better: Wharton, James, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, and the list goes on. I get that you think there is a leftist conspiracy against O. Henry, but mediocre writing is mediocre writing, and there are a lot of mediocre writers with appropriately left-leaning politics who don’t get taught precisely because of their relative mediocrity.

  • I would not (and do not) describe O. Henry as a mediocre writer. The quality of his writing was uneven, often within the same short story. One of his problems, from an academic perspective, is that his stories don’t have intellectual heft. The best of them are merely well-told diversions.

    As for London and Sinclair, I think it’s indisputable that they’re held in higher regard than O. Henry, which is not to say that they’re required reading on a lot of syllabi. I do believe that politics has something to do with this. Having said that, I’d rather read Jack London than O. Henry, and I’d rather read O. Henry than Upton Sinclair. Yet it’s Sinclair who gets centennial editions of “The Jungle,” which is a piece of socialist propaganda, and popular movies (“There Will Be Blood”) made from other works.

    I once wrote on Sinclair:

  • Warren

    Bear with me as I stretch this out a little to cover the theme.

    Orson Scott Card’s novel “Ender’s Game” has several scenes that take place in Greensboro. Specifically, Ender spends time on an estate built with the fortune made from “Medley’s Mist-E-Rub.” The story ends with a couple of O. Henry-type twists.

  • Dan

    As your piece on Sinclair (which I enjoyed) makes clear, “The Jungle” is reprinted again and again because it was historically significant. Frankly, Sinclair’s brand of leftism appears pretty antiquated and simplistic to most academics today, and you’d be hard pressed to find many younger scholars writing on Sinclair because they find his political worldview so enthralling. I don’t disagree that O. Henry would rank lower on most critics’ lists than London and Sinclair, but I have a hard time chalking this up to politics. London is more exciting to read, and Sinclair is simply more significant as a kind of strange figure of American letters. But I do want to thank you for informing us of some of the strangeness that permeated O. Henry’s life as well.

    I also think that there is a place for well-told diversions, and I agree that O. Henry’s fiction work on that level. Many of Fitzgerald’s short stories are pretty vapid, but because he wrote “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night,” he is considered an important writer. O. Henry’s career lacks this sort of undergirding, so all we are left with is some well-crafted fiction, some uneven fiction, and a lot of fiction that is forgettable. And that’s fine. Not every writer needs to be great or important, but when it comes down to filling out the syllabus for a 10 week course, writers like O.Henry simply don’t often make the grade.

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