Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Adventure classics -- What they did for love

“The Gift of the Magi”

by O. Henry


“O. Henry’s stories are marked with the manners of the decade in which they appeared, but this has not diminished their appear to popularity,” editor Harry Hansen wrote in the foreword to his 1960 collection, The Complete Works of O. Henry. “The clothes people wear have altered; the emotions that move them remain the same.”

In the century since O. Henry’s most enduring story, “The Gift of the Magi,” appeared, young women like the story’s heroine seldom boast hair long enough to fall below their knees. Men like her husband seldom pull their grandfathers’ gold watches out of their pockets to tell the time. But do they still love?

Unabashedly sentimental, the story occupies little more than four pages in the collected works of William Sidney Porter, who adopted the pen name O. Henry while in prison, possible to conceal his incarceration from potential editors. It’s the story of Della, a young wife who longs to buy a wonderful Christmas present for her husband, Jim. But living in an apartment which if “it did not exactly beggar description, certainly had that work on the lookout for the mendicancy squad,” didn’t leave either of the young people much money for frivolities. Especially not anything Della considered “just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.”

But if Jim has one treasured possession -- his inherited pocket watch -- so does Della. It’s her hair, “rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.” The sale of the hair brings Della enough money to buy a fob for Jim’s watch. But although she prays he’ll
think she’s still pretty even with short hair, his reaction is beyond her understanding.

“There are stories in everything,” Porter said in an anecdote Hansen quotes in his collection. And there was a story from real life in the romantic tale of a young couple’s apparently fruitless sacrifice for love.

In the 1890’s, Porter was arrested for embezzlement following arrears in his bookkeeping while employed at an Austin, Texas, bank. He fled to Central America, making plans for his young wife, Athol, to meet him in Honduras. Athol, however, had tuberculosis. When he learned she was dying, Porter returned to Texas in 1897. The next year, following his wife’s death, he was found guilty and sentenced to prison. In an irony he would have appreciated, the building in Austin’s Sixth Street Historic District where he was convicted has since been renamed “O. Henry Hall.”

“I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house,” O. Henry’s story concludes. “But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. . . They are the magi.”

Even if you know the story, read again. It only takes a few minutes. In the public domain at numerous sites, including

(Next Wednesday, during December’s month of spirited adventure classics, I’m indulging in short reads, continuing with Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”)

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