22 JUNE 1974, Page 20

Talking of books

Oh, Henry!

Benny Green

0. Henry is no longer a very fashionable writer. No critic or reviewer ever so much as mentions him; the implication being that no intellectual or weekend browser ever reads him. I can remember attending evening classes on Writing back in the late 1940s where our teacher instructed us that the one thing we must always avoid was the 0. Henry trick-ending, which was funny when you come to think of it, because there wasn't a person in that classroom, teacher included, capable of dreaming up an authentic 0. Henry ending for a thousand pounds. Henry's name never pops up in the small talk of those lovers of true literature whose shelves, being shelves of some taste, groan under their burden of Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming; as for adaptations, the last time anyone strung together a group of 0. Henry stories to take up a movie seems so long ago to me now that

I dare not count the years.

And yet. Two years ago, when I was looking for some cross-references involving Oscar Hammerstein the First, the original, impresario Hammerstein, and needed the collected 0. Henry, Hodder and Stoughton's The Best of 0. Henry, containing one hundred "of the Master's stories," was sold out at Foyles, and when eventually I acquired a copy I took note that the edition had been launched in 1929 and by 1966 had reached its twentieth printing. An American biography published in 1957 tells us that 0. Henry's Asian rights were granted in 1954, British in 1948, Burmese in 1955, French in 1955. German in 1954, Hebrew 1953, Italian 1945, and so on, to complete a catalogue involving Norway, Persia, Spain, Mexico, Peru, and ending with the splendid flourish of Serbo-Croat editions in 1944. Hodder and Stoughton is not a publishing house given to the self-indulgence of very many quixotic gestures in the cause of cultural prestige, and yet under that shrewdly commercial imprint there now appear four bulky volumes of 0. Henry, each one named after one of the stories, Roads of Destiny, The Furnished Room, The Unknown Quantity and Strictly Business (£2.95 each).

So somebody must be reading 0. Henry. The usual complaints are that his plots are mechanistic, his prose style meretricious, his sensibilities crude, his vocabulary pretentious, his cadences precious and his sentimentality asphyxiating. All of which is true but begs the question, which is that, almost certainly by accident, an element has crept into many of the stories which has preserved them much longer than anyone, 0. Henry included, had any right to expect. The trouble is that it reqUires a steely resolve to stick at the task for long enough for this element to make itself apparent, a point which is perfectly illustrated by the tale 'The Skylight Room'. This is a mawkish device about a starving, pretty little typist who lies on her bed in her attic room gazing through the skylight at her favourite star which she calls Billy Jackson. She is discovered dying of malnutrition; a doctor arrives in the nick of time; his name turns out to be Dr William Jackson.

As if all that is not enough, we get sawdust orotundities like "I pray you let the drama halt while Chorus stalks to the footlights and drops an epicedian tear on the fatness of Mr Hoover", all of which illustrates what Edmund Wilson was thinking of when he referred to "the moist-eyed meltings with which 0. Henry tries to mitigate the stoniness of the urban scene." My point is that he did indeed mitigate it, although not with the bludgeon of his sentimentality or the blackjack of his bogus classicism. In 'The Skylight Room' are a few incidental descriptions of the life at the boarding house, of immigrant tenants passing the time of day squatting on the stoops of brownstone houses idly watching the twentieth century come round the corner. For reasons I am not, it seems, equipped to analyse, those incidentals stick in the mind long after the silly typist and her soap-opera medico have been washed away into the swirling seas of our perfectly justified critical derision.

I have discovered to my surprise that the same thing keeps happening in 0. Henry, that

long after the commercial devices of the literary huckster have faded, some wisp remains of the reality of New York life back in the days when Anna Held was getting laid by Flo Zeigfeld, when Christy Matthewson was flinging baseballs at posterity, and when, to quote a tale called 'The Pendulum':

the vaudeville team (unbooked) in the flat across the hall would yield to the gentle influence of delirium tremens and begin to overturn chairs under the delusion that Hammerstein was pursuing them with a five hundred dollar-a-week contract.

The best example of all is perhaps 'The Coming-Out of Maggie', where not even the

STpeheetator June 22, 19' alarming intensity of the xenophobia c' 0 1 obscure the clarity of Henry's sketch of I shanty Irish of the Clover Leaf Social cd enjoying themselves at a Saturday It dance. I forget now who Maggie was, on; she came out, but I can still hear the musl'. the two-step. It is as though one were hal sold a fake Utrillo which turned out to valuable for the frame.