“ Genre: Fiction / Author: O. Henry / Paperback / 132 Pages / Book is published 2002-05-19 by Indypublish.com „
Is it really 100 years since The Gentle Grafter was first published?
Not that I was around at the time, you understand, but it was a book I grew up with and it never occurred to me that it was already half a century or so old by then. Re-reading it today, I can readily see that it's jam-packed with coeval allusions and expressions that place it as precisely in its pre-First-World-War era as would carbon-dating of the original manuscript. But as a boy, without that historical perspective, I was just enthralled by the timeless entertainment value of the stories.
In fact, I grew up with a lot of O Henry, not just this one. In a bibliophilic family with no television and little musicality we would, believe it or not, often amuse ourselves, and perhaps occasionally each other, on winter evenings by reading aloud. Short stories were ideal for the purpose, and O Henry's were among the ones I chose most often when my turn came: just the right length, full of humorous turns of phrase and often with a satisfying twist in the tail. Among O Henry's prolific output, The Gentle Grafter was my particular favourite because of the added, amoral appeal of its subject matter.
* The Stories *
"Some of the best men I ever worked with on a swindle would resort to trickery at times."
The Gentle Grafter comprises a collection of fourteen stories, the plots of all of which hinge on confidence trickery, or "graft" in the American slang of the time. (How the word graft later acquired the alternative - almost contradictory - meaning of hard work I am unsure; my Oxford Dictionary, 1964 edition, recognises the former meaning but not the latter.)
The central character, appearing in most, though not all, of the stories is Jeff Peters, veteran snake-oil salesman, mine-salter and shell-game practitioner whose trail takes him through most of the states and leaves him wanted by the law in many of them, though probably not as many as he deserves. He tends to be saved from jail by prior study of railroad schedules and/or the timely intervention of his occasional business partner, Andy Tucker, another seasoned huckster and bunco artist. The few stories in which this pair does not appear have similar characters as their protagonists, with names like Parleyvoo Pickens, Caligula Polk and Buckingham Skinner. Perhaps these are simply aliases.
A wide variety of nefarious money-making schemes is deployed by these fraudsters: a 'matrimonial agency' in Illinois, the sale of rights of way for airship lines in New York, a local liquor monopoly in Texas. They even resort to a kind of kidnapping in Georgia, and philanthropy in Arizona. Philanthropy? Why not, if it turns a profit? "All the philanthropists I ever knew had plenty of money. I should have looked into that matter long ago and located which was the cause and which was the effect."
Some of the schemes succeed, though not always in the manner originally intended. Others are thwarted by twists of fate or by the convoluted consciences of the conmen. Peters, in particular, has a code of conduct all of his own; hence, I suspect, the "gentle" in the title. Suffice it to say that widows and orphans tend to emerge unscathed. Those who are fleeced are not so much sheep as other would-be wolves, and just occasionally the biters who are bit are our tricksters themselves.
* Style *
O Henry's style is sometimes described as 'the language of the man in the street', and, compared with the more self-consciously literary styles that were current at the time, the description may have been apt. It is certainly true of his subject-matter. "There are stories in everything," he once said; "I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands." But, in my opinion, it is less true of his style, which is rather cleverer than that, and shows it.
Although he had little formal education, O Henry acquired quite a lot of the informal kind in his chequered career (see below) and had an eclectic store of knowledge to draw on, including more than an acquaintance with the classics. He utilises this cunningly. Whilst ostensibly in the everyday vernacular, his writing is shot through with sly wordplays, often drawing on classical references. For example: " 'Andy,' says I, 'we're wealthy - not beyond the dreams of average; but in our humble way we are comparatively as rich as Greasers.' "
Puns, zeugma and intentional malapropisms abound. As a technique, this is particularly appropriate for guying the bull-shit of the bunco artist, and therefore at its best in The Gentle Grafter: " 'My remark was an epitogram - an axis - a kind of mulct'em in parvo.' 'Your arguments,' says Andy, 'are beyond criticism or comprehension.' "
And so on. If not exactly side-splitting, the underlying wit keeps a wry smile on the reader's face throughout. Or, at least, it does on mine. Moreover, despite the apparent circumlocution inherent in this style, it always has a point in driving the story forward. There is no padding. The narrative technique is succinct, the stories deftly plotted. O Henry was a master craftsman.
* The author *
O Henry was the pseudonym adopted by William Sydney Porter on his release from jail in 1901. Some say he adopted the name from a prison guard, Orrin Henry; others that he just liked the name Henry and added the initial O since it was noticeable and unmistakable. He was 39 years old at the time. Prior to his conviction for embezzlement in 1898 he had been a drifter, with jobs ranging from cowhand to draftsman to pharmacist to bank teller, and occasionally journalist. He was briefly a reporter for The Houston Post, and founded a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone, which failed.
His first stories were written in jail, and submitted via friends to magazines for publication. After they started appearing in the New York World, he moved on release to New York, producing a story a week for that title as well as contributing to others. Despite incipient alcoholism and ill health, his output was prodigious. Although he slowed down towards his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1910, he had by then written at least 381 stories. No one knows the exact number; it is likely that some of those that went to obscure publications may have been lost.
O Henry is now recognised as one of the greatest exponents of his genre, and America's most prestigious short story prize is named after him. His influence can be detected in the work of most subsequent American short story writers. With some - Damon Runyon is a prime example - it is impossible to imagine that they would have written as they did without O Henry as a forerunner.
* Other works *
Apart from The Gentle Grafter there are numerous volumes of O Henry's stories available in a variety of editions. Most notable among the original collections (published during his lifetime or shortly after his death, when he was at the peak of his popularity) are:
- The Four Million. Stories of everyday life in New York and the author's democratic rejoinder to a snobbish saying current at the time that there were only 400 people in the city whose doings were worthy of notice. Tales of the City pursues a similar theme, as does Strictly Business.
- Cabbages and Kings. An interlinked set of stories set in a sleepy Central American banana republic (O Henry had spent some time in Honduras, though any similarities may be entirely coincidental).
- The Heart of the West. Stories set against another backdrop again, in this case Texas, but still exemplifying the author's crafty command of characterisation and narrative in whatever setting.
More recent selections and anthologies tend to mix and match from all of these on a "Best of..." basis. Personally, I prefer the themed originals.
* Price and availability *
Editions of The Gentle Grafter have been published in recent years by several publishers, some of them obscure; it is not always clear which are still in print. A trawl of the net suggests that if you want to buy it new your best bet is the 2007 paperback edition from 1st World Library Ltd, priced at £6.64. The print must be small, though, since this weighs in at just 156 pages; my 1940 edition runs to 286. Maybe the words have shrunk in the meantime.
There are currently 10 used offerings in various editions currently available at Amazon UK, or you might be lucky and find it in a second-hand bookshop.
* Recommendation *
O Henry's literary reputation is assured, but I have an uneasy feeling that he is one of those authors of whom many have heard, but whose work few actually read nowadays. If so, this would be a great pity, for reading him is still a treat.
His stories are worldly-wise but never truly cynical, just wryly and wittily conversant with the foibles of human nature. Like his "gentle" grafter, one suspects him of great compassion at heart, or at least great humanity. The frame of reference is dated, but well-told tales founded in the workings of human nature never truly lose their relevance.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008