Saturday, October 05, 2013

`Food and Clothes and Pilsener'

I’m reading in my father-in-law’s two-volume Complete Works of O. Henry (1953) and, as usual, finding much to enjoy. Sometimes O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910) reminds me of H.L. Mencken, another newspaper man at once sentimental and cynical who knew many things about his time and place, the details of what we call popular culture, or atmosphere, or Americana, the grit of daily life. In 1894, Porter started a newspaper in Austin, Texas, fittingly christened The Rolling Stone by its chronically wayward editor. In the June 23 issue appeared “Queries and Answers,” a parody of newspaper trivia and advice columns posthumously collected in Rolling Stones (1919). Here’s a sample: 

“HUNTER: `When do the Texas game laws go into effect?’ ‘When you sit down at the table.’”
That would still get a laugh in certain corners of the state. Corny, folksy humor, occasionally bawdy (“Spicy!” “Naughty but Nice!”), the sort of thing that soon would be appearing in Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. Another of Porter’s entries caught my attention because the allusion seemed genuine but I was unable to identify it: 

Q: “Who was the author of the line, `Breathes there a man with soul so dead?’ G. F.

A: “This was written by a visitor to the State Saengerfest of 1892 while conversing with a member who had just eaten a large slice of limburger cheese.”

Go here to learn about the Saengerfest (the proudly Teutonic and musical Mencken would have loved it) and note that the first in Texas was held in 1853 at New Braunfels. The line quoted in the question is from Canto 6 of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805): 

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!”

If the words and sentiment sound familiar, perhaps, like me, you were once assigned to read Edward Everett Hale’s story “The Man Without a Country,” first published in The Atlantic in 1863. Porter certainly knew it and may have identified with its theme of a man on the outside of things. In 1896, Porter skipped bail on a federal charge of bank embezzlement and fled to Honduras. The following year, when his wife was dying of tuberculosis in Austin, Porter returned to Texas, was arrested and served three years in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. While incarcerated, he published fourteen stories under various pseudonyms, including “O. Henry.” As a working writer, Porter claimed he was strictly a Johnsonian: “It is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and Pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.”

No comments: