Today, September 11th, 2012, marks the 150th birthday of William Sydney Porter, the American writer better known as O. Henry. Porter died in 1910 but his legacy lives on in the O. Henry Award, an annual prize given to short stories of outstanding merit. To celebrate O. Henry’s birthday we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite stories from the past 93 years of the Award’s history. Enjoy!
“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (1927). A reader’s mileage may depend on how much they like Hemingway, since “The Killers” is classic Hemingway: Spare, stoic, fiercely moral and, well, uh, manly. The good news is that it’s also a deeply moving story about the moral awakening of Nick Adams, witness to the bumbling of a pair of hitmen who are after a missing prize-fighter. As always, Hemingway eschews descriptive or narrative ornateness of any kind and the story is presented almost entirely in dialogue. But the dialogue is so perfect and reveals so much about each character that the story doesn’t want for anything. So go ahead and read it, bright boy!
“The Wide Net” by Eudora Welty (1942). On spec Eudora Welty’s story sounds like a tearjerker: After a night of carousing, William Wallace Jamieson comes home to find a note from his young wife claiming that she’s gone to drown herself and their unborn child in the river. But things quickly devolve into fabular comedy as William Wallace and a group of farmers drag the river for her body, coming up instead with a strange assortment of muddy creatures that the men parade through town. Incongruous in tone and often operating at the level of remote allegory, “The Wide Net” nevertheless finds moments of shivering sorrow and wonder, as when our grieving husband dives “down and down into the dark water, where it was so still that nothing stirred, not even a fish, and so dark that it was no longer the muddy world of the upper but the dark clear world of deepness…”
“The Country Husband” by John Cheever (1956). If the O. Henry prize weren’t enough of an endorsement, famously finicky Nabokov listed this story among his a-plus favorites, noting that “the story is really a miniature novel beautifully traced, so that the impression of there being a little too many things happening in it is completely redeemed by the satisfying coherence of its thematic interlacings.” True enough: This a big, sprawling, novel-sized story set in the middle-class suburbs of Shady Hill, home of Mr. Weed, the unhappily mundane husband whose near-death experience prompts an aborted affair with the babysitter. If this sounds a bit rote, don’t worry: Cheever’s an expert at representing the emotional lives of his trapped suburbanites and Mr. Weed is both a comic figure and a complicatedly tragic one.
“Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor (1957). In the words of one trusted reader “Greenleaf” is a “goddamn masterpiece.” What else do you need to know about this beautiful, bitter, gut-punching feat by one the 20th century’s greatest short story writers? Two things: There’s a bull that’s God’s Will and the last sentence is irrevocable genius that only O’Connor could write.
“The Kugelmass Episode” by Woody Allen (1978). Yes, Woody Allen—the Woody Allen—won an O. Henry Award in ‘78. An obvious precursor to Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, “The Kuglemass Episode” finds lonely Professor Kuglemass discovering a magic box that transports him to the fictional world of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary and Kuglemass are soon engaged in an affair that eventually makes its way to contemporary Manhattan. In the end—well, let’s just say that Allen’s silly little narrative ends with Kuglemass trapped in a Spanish grammar manual, all thanks to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. If this sounds weird, it is. But it’s also delightful and funny.
“Errand” by Raymond Carver (1988). In “Errand,” Carver pays homage to his minimalist forebear, the short story master Chekhov, by fictionalizing the last hours of the great artist’s life. But what first seems like literary biography (complete with first-hand accounts from the journals and letters of Tolstoy, Chekhov’s wife Olga and Chekhov himself) slowly reveals itself to be a more complex fiction (or meta-fiction) about storytelling and history. To boot, the story’s climax all depends on a blond bellboy and a dropped champagne cork—and you can’t get much more wonderfully Chekhovian than that.
“The Falls” by George Saunders (1996). George Saunders is one of America’s oddest, most idiosyncratic talents: He combines the precision and compression of Chekhov with the off-kilter zaniness of Pynchon and Vonnegut to create stories full of satire and sadness, written in a peculiarly (and often riotously funny) American idiolect. In “The Falls” Saunders moves between the interior monologues of two very different men—a self-serious writer type and a self-deprecating worrywart—who are presented with a sudden moral dilemma (no spoilers here) as they walk separately along the bank of their hometown’s river. As in the best fiction, the story hangs on its final sentence, which moves tortuously before arriving at a moment of sacrifice and transcendence.
“Old Boys, Old Girls” by Edward P. Jones (2006). The Known World—Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 2003 novel—is one of our favorites. It’s an immaculate book about slavery in antebellum Virginia in which Jones’ inimitable use of a tricky omniscient point of view moves beautifully back-and-forth across time and character. In “Old Boys, Old Girls” Jones employs the same mercurial p.o.v. to tell the story of Caesar Matthews, a convicted murderer whose release from prison means a desultory return to life in inner city Washington, D.C. and a painful reunion with his long-estranged siblings. Jones doesn’t romanticize his protagonist—Caesar brutalizes his cellmates and, once released, plans to murder a fellow lodger at a halfway house—but Jones is also compassionate enough to sympathize with Caesar’s desperation to live in a world where “nobody [fucks] with your humanity.” Readers should be prepared for shock and awe.
“Corrie” by Alice Munro (2012). Alice Munro—whom we affectionately refer to simply as “Alice” ‘round at TSHS headquarters—has lately become a fixture in the annual PEN/O. Henry Stories anthology, and for good reason: She’s among the greatest short story writers working today. (Seriously—authors Ron Rash and Craig Nova say so.) “Corrie” finds Alice weaving a deceptively simple story of a decades-long affair between a crippled heiress and a married church architect. As always, Alice writes impeccably and subtly about the inner lives of her characters—who struggle with their obligations to themselves, their families and each other—and the story’s final twist adds ambiguity and complication to an already fragile and difficult relationship. Simply put, this is a beautiful, beautiful story. Read it.