"I wonder what's doing in Buffalo?"
This is the final sentence of one of O. Henry's finest stories, "A Municipal Report." The sentence is a return to the beginning of the tale. The piece opens as a simple essay, an academic lesson-- a discussion of the suitability of various American cities as settings for stories.
From this starting point O. Henry begins a story about Nashville. He's artless. He's experimenting. He plays with the idea of writing a story, introducing a few characters while testing, through simple narrative, what he can do with the characters.
An expansive mind is playing with the reader, which isn't made clear until the final sentence. In the few pages between beginning and end O. Henry takes us through a morality play. As the story lopes along in its brief space, its meaning dawns, at first hidden to us, then expanding outward within the space of a paragraph until we realize he wasn't talking about cities at all. The theme, as with all his best work, is how to be a human being. It's about character and honor, about how to live.
"It seemed that the old miller, who had known so much sorrow himself, was a magician in driving it away from others."
-"The Church with an Over-shot Wheel"
O. Henry is the most underrated American writer. He's dismissed as a mere jokester, or a local colorist, or a crafter of trick endings. Sure, at times he was a low-rent con artist-- he'd known con artists in his life. Many of the many hundreds of short stories he wrote were tossed off to be quick entertainment, and look to be made out of cardboard. When we examine them, nothing is there.
But O. Henry also wrote a few dozen fabulous stories which show a knowledge of character, of place, of humanity, possessed by no other American writer. No writer has written better and more famously about the city of New York-- yet at the same time, more realistically about the American West, or more sarcastically about the post-Civil War South.
The Llano Kid in "A Double-Dyed Deceiver" jumps from the page. You feel the Texas sun on his face, see his clothes and revolver.
You see, just as clearly, the walking caricature of the Antebellum South that is Major Pendleton Talbot, with frock coat and black string tie fifty years out of date, in "The Duplicity of Hargraves."
You see, though, also into the soul of characters like hero soldier Willie Robbins of "The Moment of Victory"-- a character O. Henry gently mocks yet simultaneously understands.
O. Henry was the greatest of all short story writers, because he had the largest soul. Like the play "King Lear," O. Henry's masterpieces begin simply, even crudely, but keep expanding and expanding in significance until the meaning has become universal, even cosmic. This is surely the case with two amazing reads, "The Renaissance at Charleroi" and "The Church with an Over-shot Wheel." At their key moments they have a sudden largeness about them which goes beyond time and space, as if the works have been transported beyond their own boundaries. Their conclusions aren't surprise endings, but something more. If there are coincidences, they're not really coincidences. They have a point. The coincidences ARE the point. O. Henry is telling us that something else is happening. The something is left unsaid, but we feel the currents, like the movements of nature, or the pattern of stars.
O. Henry could speak to people, reaching their hidden emotional depths, as few writers have spoken to them-- a handful of writers over the course of storytelling, including a literary history stretching thousands of years-- because of the life he'd lived. He spoke about his life only through his stories. But the facts, the realities, and the meanings of that life are spoken about, indirectly, again and again.
The bare facts are few. William Sydney Porter was born in the South during the Civil War. A time of chaos and destruction. To make his way in the world, as a young man he went to Texas, where he worked various jobs. While employed as a bank teller in Austin he was charged with embezzlement. Porter abandoned his wife and young daughter and became a fugitive from the law, ending up in Honduras. He returned to America as his wife was dying. Porter spent three years in a penitentiary in Ohio.
These are bare facts. We can surmise that Porter-- "O. Henry"-- faced hard choices. Questions of character, courage, and honor had to have been on his mind a great deal. They were, perhaps, an obsession. At times he'd flinched. At least once, he'd not flinched. At some point-- surely at some point-- he was psychologically, morally, in every way broken. Like a few other writers-- Malory and Cervantes come to mind-- Porter had gone thoroughly through the fire of life and the world.
"There was one word that controlled his theme-- resurrection. Not a new creation, but a new life arising out of the old. The congregation had heard it often before."
-"The Day Resurgent"
O.Henry had a continual theme in his work, a theme which seems to have never been picked-up by academics and critics. Only once, in a mid-level story, "The Day Resurgent," did O. Henry slip up and advertise it. But it's a theme-- resurrection, as O. Henry describes it-- with tremendous implication and impact. A theme that reverberates far. It's the idea that man can change, or be changed, can be redeemed, can start over. Can, like safecracker Jimmy Valentine in "A Retrieved Reformation"-- or like "Deceiver" the Llano Kid-- be rescued from himself. Can, like the bohemian artist in "The Last Leaf," or Uncle Caesar in "A Municipal Report," prove himself by coming to the rescue of others.
O. Henry in his deceptive, trickster, often masterful way, comic and cosmic, got to the core questions of what being human is about. This marks him as among the greatest of American writers. He shouldn't be underrated at all.