Old, But Quite New Again
By A.D. Freudenheim  

10 March 2005

As much as I enjoy contemporary fiction, there are great pleasures in periodically looking backwards, to the works that reflect a different world and a different time. What constitutes a literary backwards glance? Anything that helps me think – and rethink – the world in which I live, the language used by contemporary writers, and the stories that they tell. It is easy enough to forget how compelling, daring, or challenging a work even from five or 40 years ago might have been at the time; to reach back even further increasingly sounds like the hopeless efforts of an antiquarian. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Recently, I have been enjoying in particular the works of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, whose short stories typically feature surprise twists at their end. Yet while O. Henry is famous for his curvaceous plots, he also deserves attention for his use of language, which bristles with a modernity that must have been shocking and invigorating at the turn of the 20th century – since, early in the 21st, it continues to stand out. For example:

It is a common custom to refer to the usual complications between one man and two ladies, or one lady and two men, or a lady and a man and a nobleman, or – well, any of these problems – as the triangle. But they are never unqualified triangles. The are always isosceles – never equilateral. So, upon the coming of Nevada Warren, she and Gilbert and Barbara Ross lined up into such a figurative triangle, and of that triangle Barbara formed the hypotenuse.[1]

This sample, from the story “Schools and Schools,” is brilliant both as metaphor and euphemism: the perfect description of a love triangle, generally, and at the same time a specific set of (obliquely coded) references to the particular relationship of the three characters. Only a reader unfamiliar with geometry is left in any doubt about the dynamic between Gilbert, Nevada, and Barbara. O. Henry’s euphemistic language can (and should) be understood as part of the society in which he lived and wrote; it likely would have been impossible to publish a more explicit reference to this (conceptual) menage-a-trois. However, what sustains the readability of O. Henry all these years later is that his euphemisms feel natural, part of the necessarily-clever construction of his stories, and one that is truly in service to his plot and his characters. Talk of “triangles” is not a mere charade to evade the censorious publishers of the day. It is a creative and apt description of the relationships at the core of the story.

O. Henry’s modern sensibility extended further than love triangles; in another story, he supplies more than chance to change the life of a character:

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningfully ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder.[2]

The sudden and absurd interjection of a geometrically-inclined, fur-clad button-stealer seems to me more in keeping with the world of surrealism than the kind of fiction published for turn-of-the-century American masses. A story that is all about chance and luck, this description goes beyond setting up the reader to expect the unexpected for the main character, as he strolls down Broadway after dinner – it sparkles with humor, wit, and a sense of the absurdity of life in the Big City.

Personal tastes matter. Thomas Wolfe wrote more than 20 years after O. Henry, and his novels should reflect a more modern sensibility and style – but I still find Look Homeward, Angel unreadable, although I know several people who admire Wolfe and his novels tremendously. Theodore Dreiser writes with language that often appears fusty and old-fashioned (when compared to O. Henry), but An American Tragedy (1925) is nonetheless a great tale of a very modern American murder, and well worth the read.

Not every older work deserves another look, but reading O. Henry has refreshed my sense of contemporary fiction. Works from recent decades often appear dated and nostalgic, the details of the characters’ lives in the 1960s or ‘70s too easily overshadowing the weight of the words or actions. Stepping further back does not avoid the problem of “retro” literature altogether. But it places us, as readers, in a different relationship with the characters and their environments. I may not have lived through the 1960s, but the actions, attitudes, and language of that era feel more familiar than do many of the details of lives lead in the Big City of New York in a world that had not known two World Wars, not to mention the creation and destruction of two Trade Center towers. There are plenty of dangers in O. Henry’s fictional worlds, but they enchant as much as frighten, and that is a worthwhile feeling to gain from literature in our dangerous age.

[1] Excerpted from "Schools and Schools," from the collection 41 Stories by O. Henry, Signet Classic, 1984. P. 39
[2] Ibid, from the story "The Green Door," P. 71.
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