Thursday, December 27, 2012

`Future Ancient Tradition'

Readerly bliss: roaming relatives’ half-remembered shelves, almost without purpose, trusting in serendipity, knowing you’ll find the volume you want though you don’t know in advance what it is. The exercise never fails. The Brownings? No. Kipling? Not now, though Stalkey and Co. might be fun later in the week. Volume 2 of The Complete Works of O. Henry (Doubleday, 1953)?  There’s no Volume 1 in sight, though the bounty is more than generous -- 173 stories filling 1,692 pages. Guy Davenport reminds us of what Cesare Pavese said of O. Henry, whom he translated and deeply admired: “He ended sentences the way no one had ever before ended them, except Rabelais.” Consider this passage from near the beginning of “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”: 

“Stuffy Pete took his seat on the third bench to the right as you enter Union Square from the east, at the walk opposite the fountain. Every Thanksgiving Day for nine years he had taken his seat there promptly at 1 o'clock. For every time he had done so things had happened to him--Charles Dickensy things that swelled his waistcoat above his heart, and equally on the other side.” 

A sly confident voice, almost trustworthy, Twain-ish, one that knows the rhythms of stories and paces them with cunning and precision, with a gentlemanly nod to another master storyteller. Earlier in the day, Stuffy Pete had been waylaid by the servant of an old lady on Washington Square, who dragged him indoors in an act of aggressive philanthropy, and fed him a grand meal: 

“…Stuffy Pete was overcharged with the caloric produced by a super-bountiful dinner, beginning with oysters and ending with plum pudding, and including (it seemed to him) all the roast turkey and baked potatoes and chicken salad and squash pie and ice cream in the world. Wherefore he sat, gorged, and gazed upon the world with after-dinner contempt.” 

I was pre-lunch hungry when I read this, and Stuffy Pete’s repast induced salivation. In Union Square, Stuffy Pete, already stuffed, waits to meet the Old Gentleman who for nine years has treated him to another act of involuntary philanthropy – another sumptuous meal. The narrator tells us his benefactor wishes to create an “Institution,” as he has no son of his own to carry on the “future ancient Tradition.” 

Stuffy Pete is full to bursting but doesn’t want to disappoint the old man. Both men are locked into ritual. In another note, Davenport reports William James was a devoted fan of O. Henry’s stories (both died in 1910, as did Twain and Tolstoy – annus horribilis), and may have been influenced by the fiction writer in his chapter on habit in Principles of Psychology. To cut to the obligatory and very pleasing O.Henry-ending: Stuffy rounds the corner from the restaurant, “Then he seemed to puff out his rags as an owl puffs out his feathers, and fell to the sidewalk like a sunstricken horse.” He’s taken to the hospital where doctors are baffled by his condition. Soon, the Old Gentleman, Stuffy Pete’s benefactor, arrives and is placed in another bed. One of the doctors tells a nurse (“whose eyes he liked”):

“That nice old gentleman over there, now,’ he said, `you wouldn't think that was a case of almost starvation. Proud old family, I guess. He told me he hadn't eaten a thing for three days.’” 

Irony applied with a putty knife? Of course. But also a sly satire on charity and the unintended consequences of good intentions. And in language more tartly demotic than much of Twain and anything by Damon Runyon. Davenport writes: 

“It is not, however, the plot that the reader who has come to like O. Henry reads him for; it is the charm of his comic eye, the accuracy of his ear, and, in this day and age, the rude honesty of his moral sense.”

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