fiction files redux discussion

O. Henry
This topic is about O. Henry
Short Story Group Reads > O. Henry - Proof of the Pudding

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Here is where we will talk about O. Henry's Proof of the Pudding, since "Fox-in-the-Morning" is not quite what we were hoping.

Discussion starts Thursday Mar 26. I'll post some thoughts later today.

message 2: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (last edited Mar 25, 2009 09:31AM) (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
Thank you very much for that link...I read the whole thing and really love how O Henry used the fallacy of imitative form to show two entirely different and opposite versions of what the writer and the editor believed in.
It is very very funny at the end and it would have made a great comedy sketch. I can't wait to see what others think of that great short story so I can understand it at a deeper level.

message 3: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Wow. How do you fit a surprise ending, humor, a discussion of Art, and pathos all in one story.

I'm just - wow. What a great story. I will have to think on it for a bit.

Radically different from the other one...

message 4: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
So this post contains spoilers.

The whole time you're thinking, Dawes the struggling writer is totally right and this Editor Westbrook guy is just full of it. When people encounter true drama in their lives, they are more apt to use the same language (or worse) that they would use every day when they react -- not be inspired by literature to speak with a loftier vocabulary about the pathos of human suffering and get all Job and stuff.

After all - not everyone is Hamlet or Macbeth, and really, Shakespeare builds their characters in such a way that the soliloquies make total sense given who they are. And O. Henry writes about the 'common man.'

The story spends quite a bit of time discussing the rightness or wrongness of tricking Mrs. Dawes in such a cruel way. And then - she's gone at the end! And because of money! How perfect is that. I mean, I'm not sure there is more to say than How Perfect... but that may be because this is O. Henry, the master of the surprise ending...

On the other hand, I was kind of dissatisfied. (gasp!) While we are certainly given motivation for her wanting to make money, or for her husband to make money, I'm not sure I'm given sufficient motivation for her to leave like that. Unless I'm meant to understand that all of Dawes' talk about how loyal and wonderful she is, and how she will do anything in the service of his Art, to be simply Dawes mistaking her love and loyalty... when all along she is just as tired as he is of the Maupassant hash and wants more. I thought that was one of the best lines of the story, by the way:

"It's Maupassant hash," said Mrs. Dawe. "It may not be art, but I do wish you would do a five-course Marion Crawford serial with an Ella Wheeler Wilcox sonnet for dessert. I'm hungry."

message 5: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Also, the color in the story. The way the grass is is described as being tainted by the breath of people... I am wondering how this ties into the theme:

First, Spring has a "vitreous optic" which immediately made me think of Bataille, but anyway.

The lenient air and the settings of the little park almost formed a pastoral; the color motif was green--the presiding shade at the creation of man and vegetation.

The callow grass between the walks was the color of verdigris, a poisonous green, reminiscent of the horde of derelict humans that had breathed upon the soil during the summer and autumn. The bursting tree buds looked strangely familiar to those who had botanized among the garnishings of the fish course of a forty-cent dinner. The sky above was of that pale aquamarine tint that ballroom poets rhyme with "true" and "Sue' and "coo." The one natural and frank color visible was the ostensible green of the newly painted benches--a shade between the color of a pickled cucumber and that of a last year's fast-black cravenette raincoat. But, to the city-bred eye of Editor Westbrook, the landscape appeared a masterpiece.

And now, whether you are of those who rush in, or of the gentle concourse that fears to tread, you must follow in a brief invasion of the editor's mind.

Editor Westbrook's spirit was contented and serene. The April number of the Minerva had sold its entire edition before the tenth day of the month--a newsdealer in Keokuk had written that he could have sold fifty copies more if he had 'em. The owners of the magazine had raised his (the editor's) salary; he had just installed in his home a jewel of a recently imported cook who was afraid of policemen; and the morning papers had published in full a speech he had made at a publishers' banquet. Also there were echoing in his mind the jubilant notes of a splendid song that his charming young wife had sung to him before he left his up-town apartment that morning. She was taking enthusiastic interest in her music of late, practising early and diligently. When he had complimented her on the improvement in her voice she had fairly hugged him for joy at his praise. He felt, too, the benign, tonic medicament of the trained nurse, Spring, tripping softly adown the wards of the convalescent city.

message 6: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Mar 26, 2009 06:14AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Also, referring to the post above, I thought the direct address of the reader was well-done. And the "invasion" of the editor's mind, which is also used here -- and I wondered how much this POV device had been used before O. Henry was writing... maybe Dickens? It's almost like stage direction:

While the editor is pulling himself out of his surprise, a flashlight biography of Dawe is offered.

He was a fiction writer, and one of Westbrook's old acquaintances. At one time they might have called each other old friends. Dawe had some money in those days, and lived in a decent apartment house near Westbrook's. The two families often went to theatres and dinners together. Mrs. Dawe and Mrs. Westbrook became "dearest" friends. Then one day a little tentacle of the octopus, just to amuse itself, ingurgitated Dawe's capital, and he moved to the Gramercy Park neighborhood where one, for a few groats per week, may sit upon one's trunk under eight-branched chandeliers and opposite Carrara marble mantels and watch the mice play upon the floor. Dawe thought to live by writing fiction. Now and then he sold a story. He submitted many to Westbrook. The Minerva printed one or two of them; the rest were returned. Westbrook sent a careful and conscientious personal letter with each rejected manuscript, pointing out in detail his reasons for considering it unavailable. Editor Westbrook had his own clear conception of what constituted good fiction. So had Dawe.

message 7: by Kerry, flame-haired janeite (new)

Kerry Dunn (kerryanndunn) | 887 comments Mod
As soon as the writer and editor got back to the apartment and they started to read the letter I knew EXACTLY what was going to happen. It still made me laugh out loud though!

I thought this was a fun and funny read and I enjoyed the language employed by Henry. Lines like "his feet became entangled in the lure of the vernal coquette" and "On a bench nearby a frowzy loafer opened his red eyes and perceived that his moral support was due a downtrodden brother" - it all trips along in an enjoyable way.

I've never read any O. Henry and this definitely makes me curious to read more.

When I get a chance to reread I'll try to add more to the conversation.

message 8: by Esther (new)

Esther | 83 comments Mod
Well, now! Move O. Henry to my list of favorites! I love his use of language!

When I read this line:
"That's the way she'd talk," continued Dawe. "People in real life don't fly into heroics and blank verse at emotional crises. They simply can't do it. If they talk at all on such occasions they draw from the same vocabulary that they use every day, and muddle up their words and ideas a little more, that's all."

and this one:
"My dear Shack," said he, "if I know anything of life I know that every sudden, deep and tragic emotion in the human heart calls forth an apposite, concordant, conformable and proportionate expression of feeling. How much of this inevitable accord between expression and feeling should be attributed to nature, and how much to the influence of art, it would be difficult to say. The sublimely terrible roar of the lioness that has been deprived of her cubs is dramatically as far above her customary whine and purr as the kingly and transcendent utterances of Lear are above the level of his senile vaporings. But it is also true that all men and women have what may be called a sub-conscious dramatic sense that is awakened by a sufficiently deep and powerful emotion--a sense unconsciously acquired from literature and the stage that prompts them to express those emotions in language befitting their importance and histrionic value."

...I was reminded of my fiction writing class.

I could definitely see this as a short skit and wonder why I haven't seen it already. It seems like such a great gem, especially for other writers, to have been so neglected.

message 9: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Every year I buy the O. Henry collection of the best short stories from the previous year (well - almost every year. Since 98, anyway). He's pretty well-ensconced in the American canon.

But it takes a certain level of reader to really appreciate him. We all read Gift of the Magi, probably in middle school, but I'm not sure we really appreciate it beyond the plot.

He has his popular place - because his plots are so nice and twisty and fun - but I also think he's a writer's writer.

I so thoroughly enjoy his turn of phrase that I find myself just sort of rolling the descriptions around in my head and forgetting there's a story here that I need to keep up with. It's so enjoyable to envision precisely what he describes. The picture comes up in almost a vignette... look here, you see the faces of the Mexican women... look there, the telegram being held in the air... over here, we have this park bench...

It's at once dead-on accurate, but it's also got almost a sing-songy cadence, almost Seussian...

And it's almost as though to talk about it, to dissect it in discussion, is to violate the work as a whole.

I thought that the paragraph above was hilarious. The very idea that in the moment of a "sufficiently deep and powerful emotion" that we would all become actors in the play of our lives, that we would somehow be transported into something we are not, is absurd.

message 10: by Maureen, mo-nemclature (last edited Mar 27, 2009 09:40AM) (new)

Maureen (modusa) | 683 comments Mod
ah. o. henry. my old friend. what a great story: i like how shel has highlighted his breaking of the fourth wall. you see this a lot in his stories: they feel very much as if you'd sat down to dinner with him, and he is regaling you with a wonderful story over dessert.

i also like his women characters, and the fact that they don't always lose. in this story, i think i always took the wives' departure as entirely logical and right -- these two husbands seemed very much caught up in themselves, and their own concerns and the pictures we get of their wives are as appendages to themselves. they never seem to really accurately reflect what the wives really want. the only clue to that is in the maupassant line. certainly women don't alway make sense in o. henry but they do live and breathe, and have their own needs and wants. if the men in their lives don't appreciate that, they will suffer the consequences. and o. henry's women are practical. he tells us their budgets, and how they make ends meet in the dawn of an era where women are working to take care of themselves for the first time. he doesn't paint them as strictly business (incidentally the title of the collection that this story is from) but he makes clear that they must face their need for money, as much as their need for love.
check out an unfinished story, the enchanted profile, and a lickpenny lover, to begin to fall in love with his shop girls, and stenographers. ;)

the debate between writing styles that dawe and westbrook have also makes me laugh, for the simple reason that o. henry seems to have merged the two styles in all his stories: we have the lofty language and the homespun prose married within his writing.

message 11: by Maureen, mo-nemclature (new)

Maureen (modusa) | 683 comments Mod
I transcribed this whole story of o. henry's sometime ago, and just stumbled upon it in my old emails because i was trying to confirm the correct spelling of "passel". apparently online dictionaries don't like fun words.

Squaring the Circle

At the hazard of wearying you this tale of vehement emotions must be prefaced by a discourse on geometry.
Nature moves in circles; Art in straight lines. The natural is rounded; the artificial is made up of angles. A man lost in the snow wanders, in spite of himself, in perfect circles; the city man's feet, denaturalized by rectangular streets and floors, carry him ever away from himself.
The round eyes of childhood typify innocence; the narrowed line of the flirt's optic proves the invasion of art. The horizontal mouth is the mark of determined cunning; who has not read Nature's most spontaneous lyric in lips rounded for the candid kiss?
Beauty is Nature in perfection; circularity is its chief attribute. Behold the full moon, the enchanting golf ball, the domes of splendid temples, the huckleberry pie, the wedding ring, the circus ring, the ring for the waiter, and the "round" of drinks.
On the other hand, straight lines show that Nature has been deflected. Imagine Venus's girdle transformed into a "straight front"!
When we begin to move in straight lines and turn sharp corners our natures begin to change. The consequence is that Nature, being more adaptive than Art, tries to conform to its sterner regulations. The result is often a rather curious product -- for instance: A prize chrysanthemum, wood alcohol whiskey, a Republican Missouri, cauliflower au gratin, and a New Yorker.
Nature is lost quickest in a big city. The cause is geometrical, not moral. The straight lines of its streets and architecture, the rectangularity of its laws and social customs, the undeviating pavements, the hard, severe, depressing, uncompromising rules of all its ways -- even of its recreation and sports --coldly exhibit a sneering defiance of the curved line of Nature.
Wherefore, it may be said that the big city has demonstrated the problem of squaring the circle. And it may be added that this mathematical introduction precedes an account of the fate of a Kentucky feud that was imported to the city that has a habit of making its importations conform to its angles.
The feud began in the Cumberland Mountains between the Folwell and the Harkness families. The first victim of the homespun vendetta was a 'possum dog belonging to Bill Harkness. The Harkness family evened up this dire loss by laying out the chief of the Folwell clan. The Folwells were prompt at repartee. They oiled up their squirrel rifles and made it feasible for Bill Harkness to follow his dog to a land where the 'possums come down when treed without the stroke of an ax.
The feud flourished for forty years. Harknesses were shot at the plough, through their lamp-lit cabin windows, coming from camp-meeting, asleep, in duello, sober and otherwise, singly and in family groups, prepared and unprepared. Folwells had the branches of their family tree lopped off in similar ways, as the traditions of their country prescribed and authorized.
By and by the pruning left but a single member of each family. And then Cal Harkness, probably reasoning that further pursuance of the controversy would give a too decided personal flavor to the feud, suddenly disappeared from the relieved Cumberlands, baulking the avenging hand of Sam, the ultimate opposing Folwell.
A year afterward Sam Folwell learned that his hereditary, unsuppressed enemy was living in New York City. Sam turned over the big iron wash-pot in the yard, scraped off some of the soot, which he mixed with lard and shined his boots with the compound. He put on his store clothes of butternut dyed black, a white shirt and collar, and packed a carpet-sack with Spartan lingerie. He took his squirrel rifle from its hooks, but put it back again with a sigh. However ethical and plausible the habit might be in the Cumberlands, perhaps New York would not swallow his pose of hunting squirrels among the skyscrapers along Broadway. An ancient but reliable Colt's revolver that he resurrected from a bureau drawer seemed to proclaim itself the pink of weapons for metropolitan adventure and vengeance. This and a hunting-knife in a leather sheath, Sam packed in the carpet-sack. As he started, Muleback, for the lowland railroad station the last Folwell turned in his saddle and looked grimly at the little cluster of white-pine slabs in the clump of cedars that marked the Folwell burying-ground.
Sam Folwell arrived in New York in the night. Still moving and living in the free circles of nature, he did not perceive the formidable, pitiless, restless, fierce angles of the great city waiting in the dark to close about the rotundity of his heart and brain and mould him to the form of its millions of re-shaped victims. A cabby picked him out of the whirl, as Sam himself had often picked a nut from a bed of wind-tossed autumn leaves, and whisked him away to a hotel commensurate to his boots and carpet-sack.
On the next morning the last of the Folwells made his sortie into the city that sheltered the last Harkness. The Colt was thrust beneath his coat and secured by a narrow leather belt; the hunting-knife hung between his shoulder-blades, with the haft an inch below his coat collar. He knew this much -- that Cal Harkness drove an express wagon somewhere in that town, and that he, Sam Folwell, had come to kill him. And as he stepped upon the sidewalk the red came into his eye and the feud-hate into his heart.
The clamor of the central avenues drew him thitherward. He had half expected to see Cal coming down the street in his shirt-sleeves, with a jug and a whip in his hand, just as he would have seen him in Frankfort or Laurel City. But an hour went by and Cal did not appear. Perhaps he was waiting in ambush, to shoot him from a door or a window. Sam kept a sharp eye on doors and windows for a while.
About noon the city tired of playing with its mouse and suddenly squeezed him with its straight lines.
Sam Folwell stood where two great, rectangular arteries of the city cross. He looked four ways, and saw the world burled from its orbit and reduced by spirit level and tape to an edged and cornered plane. All life moved on tracks, in grooves, according to system, within boundaries, by rote. The root of life was the cube root; the measure of existence was square measure. People streamed by in straight rows; the horrible din and crash stupefied him.
Sam leaned against the sharp corner of a stone building. Those faces passed him by thousands, and none of them were turned toward him. A sudden foolish fear that he had died and was a spirit, and that they could not see him, seized him. And then the city smote him with loneliness.
A fat man dropped out of the stream and stood a few feet distant, waiting for his car. Sam crept to his side and shouted above the tumult into his ear:
"The Rankinses' hogs weighed more'n ourn a whole passel, but the mast in thar neighborhood was a fine chance better than what it was down -- "
The fat man moved away unostentatiously, and bought roasted chestnuts to cover his alarm.
Sam felt the need of a drop of mountain dew. Across the street men passed in and out through swinging doors. Brief glimpses could be had of a glistening bar and its bedeckings. The feudist crossed and essayed to enter. Again had Art eliminated the familiar circle. Sam's hand found no door-knob it slid, in vain, over a rectangular brass plate and polished oak with nothing even so large as a pin's head upon which his fingers might close. Abashed, reddened, heartbroken, he walked away from the bootless door and sat upon a step. A locust club tickled him in the ribs.
"Take a walk for yourself," said the policeman. You've been loafing around here long enough."
At the next corner a shrill whistle sounded in Sam's ear. He wheeled around and saw a black-browed villain scowling at him over peanuts heaped on a steaming machine. He started across the street. An immense engine, running without mules, with the voice of a bull and the smell of a smoky lamp, whizzed past, grazing his knee. A cab-driver bumped him with a hub and explained to him that kind words were invented to be used on other occasions. A motorman clanged his bell wildly and, for once in his life, corroborated a cab-driver. A large lady in a changeable silk waist dug an elbow into his back, and a newsy pensively pelted him with banana rinds, murmuring, "I hates to do it -- but if anybody seen me let it pass!"
Cal Harkness, his day's work over and his express wagon stabled, turned the sharp edge of the building that, by the cheek of architects, is modelled upon a safety razor. Out of the mass of hurrying people his eye picked up, three yards away, the surviving bloody and implacable foe of his kith and kin.
He stopped short and wavered for a moment, being unarmed and sharply surprised. But the keen mountaineer's eye of Sam Folwell had picked him out.
There was a sudden spring, a ripple in the stream of passersby and the sound of Sam's voice crying:
"Howdy, Cal! I'm durned glad to see ye."
And in the angles of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street the Cumberland feudists shook hands.

back to top