- Books, Literature, and Writing
O. Henry Short Story of the Month
Like to read? Have five minutes?
O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) wrote over 600 stories in his short writing career. He is said to have popularized the "twist ending" and is sometimes called the American DeMaupassant.
You may have read or heard about some of his most popular stories, such as The Gift of the Magi, The Last Leaf, or The Ransom of Red Chief. This lens will help you discover more of his stories, written in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
To find out more about this great American author, please visit my lens, William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).
If it's your first time visiting this lens, read on. Otherwise, skip right to the Story of the Month for December. Make sure you bookmark the lens and come back each month!
What Makes O. Henry's Stories Special
Five reasons you should read O. Henry's short stories:
#1: Surprise ending
O. Henry is the master of twist endings. He will surprise you with either a twist of fate, an unexpected ending, or a character trait revealed in the end that changes everything.
#2: Witty comments, puns, word play
O. Henry loved playing with words, using dialects, and coining new words. In fact, he's the one who coined the term "banana republic," which refers to a small country that is economically dependent on a single export commodity, such as bananas.
If you want to build your vocabulary power, these stories will help you. O. Henry's vocabulary compared to Shakespeare's. His words are simple, but varied.
Many of his stories are set in New York City, where he lived during most of his writing career. Many stories are also set in the Mid-West.
Although he went through a lot, with losing his wife to tuberculosis and being wrongly imprisoned, his stories are not dark or depressing. They talk about universal values, such as self sacrifice, true love, and loyalty.
The three most popular O. Henry stories
If you never read any of O. Henry's short stories, I recommend you start with the following:
#1: The Gift of the Magi (2070 words)
By far the most popular, this Christmas story is a must-read. You may have read one of the many variations other authors wrote using the same plot. I recognized one of my children's story books. Here is the beginning:
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating. (...) keep reading
#2: The Last Leaf (2375 words)
This story takes place in Greenwich Village in New York City. Some say it was set in Grove Court.
Here is how it starts:
In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called "places." These "places" make strange angles and curves. One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!
So, to quaint old Greenwich Village the art people soon came prowling, hunting for north windows and eighteenth-century gables and Dutch attics and low rents. Then they imported some pewter mugs and a chafing dish or two from Sixth Avenue, and became a "colony."
At the top of a squatty, three-story brick Sue and Johnsy had their studio. "Johnsy" was familiar for Joanna. One was from Maine; the other from California. They had met at the table d'hôte of an Eighth Street "Delmonico's," and found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.
That was in May. In November a cold, unseen stranger, whom the doctors called Pneumonia, stalked about the colony, touching one here and there with his icy fingers. Over on the east side this ravager strode boldly, smiting his victims by scores, but his feet trod slowly through the maze of the narrow and moss-grown "places."
Mr. Pneumonia was not what you would call a chivalric old gentleman. A mite of a little woman with blood thinned by California zephyrs was hardly fair game for the red-fisted, short-breathed old duffer. But Johnsy he smote; and she lay, scarcely moving, on her painted iron bedstead, looking through the small Dutch window-panes at the blank side of the next brick house. (...) keep reading
#3: The Ransom of Red Chief (4172 words)
A story about a kidnapping gone wrong... I won't tell you more; read it for yourself. The first few paragraphs give you an idea about the tone of the story:
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama -- Bill Driscoll and myself -- when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, "during a moment of temporary mental apparition"; but we didn't find that out till later.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants Of as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables and maybe some lackadaisical bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget. So, it looked good.
We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser. The kid was a boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the colour of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train. Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait till I tell you. (...) keep reading
All three stories (and a few others) were made into mini-movies, which are combined on one DVD called "O. Henry's Full House."
Story of the Month: May - The Green Door (2745 words)
The Green Door is a good example of a typical O. Henry story: set in New York City, and with a twist ending.
Are you ready for an adventure?
Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten
minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are
choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way
of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to
look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in
diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand
an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors,
snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates
the one word, "parallelogram!" and swiftly flies down a cross street,
looking back fearfully over her shoulder.
That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You
would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll
and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button.
This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the
pure spirit of adventure is not dead. (...) keep reading
Story of the Month: June - The Pimienta Pancakes (3792 words)
The Pimienta Pancakes is my personal favorite. I read it about ten times, delighting in the choice of words and puns O. Henry used in this short story. The surprise ending is, of course, an added bonus.
By the way, "Pimienta" is the name of a South Western town, and not a pancake ingredient.
Word of the month, from this story: obmutescence - keeping silent or mute.
I hope this story will bring flavor to your month. Enjoy!
While we were rounding up a bunch of the Triangle-O cattle in the Frio bottoms a projecting branch of a dead mesquite caught my wooden stirrup and gave my ankle a wrench that laid me up in camp for a week.
On the third day of my compulsory idleness I crawled out near the grub wagon, and reclined helpless under the conversational fire of Judson Odom, the camp cook. Jud was a monologist by nature, whom Destiny, with customary blundering, had set in a profession wherein he was bereaved, for the greater portion of his time, of an audience.
Therefore, I was manna in the desert of Jud's obmutescence.
Betimes I was stirred by invalid longings for something to eat that did not come under the caption of "grub." I had visions of the maternal pantry "deep as first love, and wild with all regret," and then I asked:
"Jud, can you make pancakes?"
Jud laid down his six-shooter, with which he was preparing to pound an antelope steak, and stood over me in what I felt to be a menacing attitude. He further endorsed my impression that his pose was resentful by fixing upon me with his light blue eyes a look of cold suspicion.
"Say, you," he said, with candid, though not excessive, choler, "did you mean that straight, or was you trying to throw the gaff into me? Some of the boys been telling you about me and that pancake racket?" (...) keep reading
Story of the Month: July - Witches' Loaves (1265 words)
When I first read Witches' Loaves, I was so stunned by the ending I had to read the entire story again. This is such a sweet story, and the characters portrayed are so vivid they appear clearly in the reader's mind. O. Henry was very good at writing dialogues from people with an accent. This story is a good example of his character development skills and definitely a great example of his twist endings.
Word of the month, from this story: garret - A room on the top floor of a house, typically under a pitched roof; an attic.
Miss Martha Meacham kept the little bakery on the corner (the one where you go up three steps, and the bell tinkles when you open the door).
Miss Martha was forty, her bank-book showed a credit of two thousand dollars, and she possessed two false teeth and a sympathetic heart. Many people have married whose chances to do so were much inferior to Miss Martha's.
Two or three times a week a customer came in in whom she began to take an interest. He was a middle-aged man, wearing spectacles and a brown beard trimmed to a careful point.
He spoke English with a strong German accent. His clothes were worn and darned in places, and wrinkled and baggy in others. But he looked neat, and had very good manners.
He always bought two loaves of stale bread. Fresh bread was five cents a loaf. Stale ones were two for five. Never did he call for anything but stale bread.
Once Miss Martha saw a red and brown stain on his fingers. She was sure then that he was an artist and very poor. No doubt he lived in a garret, where he painted pictures and ate stale bread and thought of the good things to eat in Miss Martha's bakery. (...) read the whole story
Story of the Month: August - The Ransom of Mack (2206 words)
In The Ransom of Mack, the characters are so well portrayed I can see and hear them in my mind. This story is also a perfect example of O. Henry's signature twist ending.
Please keep in mind that O. Henry's stories were written in late 1890's and early 1900s. In this story, the characters talk about hiring a "Chinaman." Times have changed since then, but stories already written remain the same. It makes me appreciate the world we now live in, where most offensive terms have been eliminated from our culture. Please don't take offense; I'm sure if he was still alive, he would gladly revise his stories and replace any offensive terms with better ones.
Word of the month, from this story: ostentation - Pretentious display meant to impress others; boastful showiness.
Me and old Mack Lonsbury, we got out of that Little Hide-and-Seek gold mine affair with about $40,000 apiece. I say "old" Mack; but he wasn't old. Forty-one, I should say; but he always seemed old.
"Andy," he says to me, "I'm tired of hustling. You and me have been working hard together for three years. Say we knock off for a while, and spend some of this idle money we've coaxed our way."
"The proposition hits me just right," says I. "Let's be nabobs for a while and see how it feels. What'll we do--take in the Niagara Falls, or buck at faro?"
"For a good many years," says Mack, "I've thought that if I ever had extravagant money I'd rent a two-room cabin somewhere, hire a Chinaman to cook, and sit in my stocking feet and read Buckle's History of Civilisation."
"That sounds self-indulgent and gratifying without vulgar ostentation," says I; "and I don't see how money could be better invested. Give me a cuckoo clock and a Sep Winner's Self-Instructor for the Banjo, and I'll join you."
(...) keep reading
Story of the Month: September - The Cop and the Anthem (2274 words)
The Cop and the Anthem is the story of Soapy, a hobo, who is getting cold on his park bench as winter approaches. He tries to find a way to get put in jail for the winter months in order to have a warm place to sleep and free food. He grows more desperate at each attempt to attract a policeman's attention with his wrongdoings.
I won't tell you how it ends, of course. You have to read it and find out!
Word of the month, from this story: soporific - Inducing or tending to induce sleep.
On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.
A dead leaf fell in Soapy's lap. That was Jack Frost's card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready.
Soapy's mind became cognisant of the fact that the time had come for him to resolve himself into a singular Committee of Ways and Means to provide against the coming rigour. And therefore he moved uneasily on his bench.
The hibernatorial ambitions of Soapy were not of the highest. In them there were no considerations of Mediterranean cruises, of soporific Southern skies drifting in the Vesuvian Bay. Three months on the Island was what his soul craved. Three months of assured board and bed and congenial company, safe from Boreas and bluecoats, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable.
(...) keep reading
Story of the Month: October - A Retrieved Reformation (2814 words)
A Retrieved Reformation is the story of Jimmy Valentine, a safe cracker who turns his life around. This story is based on a real person O. Henry met while serving three years at the Ohio Penitentiary.
Word of the month, from this story: compulsory - required by regulations or laws.
A guard came to the prison shoe-shop, where Jimmy Valentine was assiduously stitching uppers, and escorted him to the front office. There the warden handed Jimmy his pardon, which had been signed that morning by the governor. Jimmy took it in a tired kind of way. He had served nearly ten months of a four year sentence. He had expected to stay only about three months, at the longest. When a man with as many friends on the outside as Jimmy Valentine had is received in the "stir" it is hardly worth while to cut his hair.
"Now, Valentine," said the warden, "you'll go out in the morning. Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You're not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight."
"Me?" said Jimmy, in surprise. "Why, I never cracked a safe in my life."
"Oh, no," laughed the warden. "Of course not. Let's see, now. How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn't prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society? Or was it simply a case of a mean old jury that had it in for you? It's always one or the other with you innocent victims."
"Me?" said Jimmy, still blankly virtuous. "Why, warden, I never was in Springfield in my life!"
"Take him back, Cronin!" said the warden, "and fix him up with outgoing clothes. Unlock him at seven in the morning, and let him come to the bull-pen. Better think over my advice, Valentine." (...) Read the whole story
Story of the month: November - Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen (1993 words)
November is a time to reflect on this year's achievements and appreciate what we already have before making new goals for the year to come. It's also a time to gather with friends and family and enjoy a wonderful turkey meal together.
This month's story is about a Thanksgiving tradition two men have had for the last nine years. Every Thanksgiving Day, a wealthy gentleman leads a homeless man called Stuffy Pete to a restaurant to watch him eat a big dinner. What's different this year? I'll let you read the story and find out.
Word of the month, from this story: Saleratus - Sodium or potassium bicarbonate used as a leavening agent; baking soda.
There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Bless the day. President Roosevelt gives it to us. We hear some talk of the Puritans, but don't just remember who they were. Bet we can lick 'em, anyhow, if they try to land again. Plymouth Rocks? Well, that sounds more familiar. Lots of us have had to come down to hens since the Turkey Trust got its work in. But somebody in Washington is leaking out advance information to 'em about these Thanksgiving proclamations.
The big city east of the cranberry bogs has made Thanksgiving Day an institution. The last Thursday in November is the only day in the year on which it recognizes the part of America lying across the ferries. It is the one day that is purely American. Yes, a day of celebration, exclusively American.
And now for the story which is to prove to you that we have traditions on this side of the ocean that are becoming older at a much rapider rate than those of England are--thanks to our git-up and enterprise.
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.
But to-day Stuffy Pete's appearance at the annual trysting place seemed to have been rather the result of habit than of the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals.
(...) read the whole story
Story of the month: December - Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking (6485 words)
This story appeared in the December 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine and is said to be the first piece William Sydney Porter published under the pseudonym O. Henry. Some say it was the very first short story he ever published, but others mention "The Miracle of Lava Canyon" as being accepted for publication in December 1897.
The author wrote this charming Christmas tale while serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement at the Ohio Penitentiary. Far from being dark and depressing, the story reflects values I always look for in holiday stories: kindness that transcends social levels, self-sacrifice, and the spirit of giving.
The story is about a hobo nicknamed Whistling Dick and his encounter with a rich girl. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Word of the month, from this story: alms-giving - making voluntary contributions to aid the poor.
It was with much caution that Whistling Dick slid back the door of the box-car, for Article 5716, City Ordinances, authorized (perhaps unconstitutionally) arrest on suspicion, and he was familiar of old with this ordinance. So, before climbing out, he surveyed the field with all the care of a good general.
He saw no change since his last visit to this big, alms-giving, long-suffering city of the South, the cold weather paradise of the tramps. The levee where his freight-car stood was pimpled with dark bulks of merchandise. The breeze reeked with the well-remembered, sickening smell of the old tarpaulins that covered bales and barrels. The dun river slipped along among the shipping with an oily gurgle. Far down toward Chalmette he could see the great bend in the stream outlined by the row of electric lights. Across the river Algiers lay, a long, irregular blot, made darker by the dawn which lightened the sky beyond. An industrious tug or two, coming for some early sailing ship, gave a few appalling toots, that seemed to be the signal for breaking day. The Italian luggers were creeping nearer their landing, laden with early vegetables and shellfish. A vague roar, subterranean in quality, from dray wheels and street cars, began to make itself heard and felt; and the ferryboats, the Mary Anns of water craft, stirred sullenly to their menial morning tasks.
Whistling Dick's red head popped suddenly back into the car. A sight too imposing and magnificent for his gaze had been added to the scene. A vast, incomparable policeman rounded a pile of rice sacks and stood within twenty yards of the car. The daily miracle of the dawn, now being performed above Algiers, received the flattering attention of this specimen of municipal official splendour. He gazed with unbiased dignity at the faintly glowing colours until, at last, he turned to them his broad back, as if convinced that legal interference was not needed, and the sunrise might proceed unchecked. So he turned his face to the rice bags, and, drawing a flat flask from an inside pocket, he placed it to his lips and regarded the firmament.
Whistling Dick, professional tramp, possessed a half-friendly acquaintance with this officer. They had met several times before on the levee at night, for the officer, himself a lover of music, had been attracted by the exquisite whistling of the shiftless vagabond. Still, he did not care, under the present circumstances, to renew the acquaintance. There is a difference between meeting a policeman on a lonely wharf and whistling a few operatic airs with him, and being caught by him crawling out of a freight-car. So Dick waited, as even a New Orleans policeman must move on some time--perhaps it is a retributive law of nature--and before long "Big Fritz" majestically disappeared between the trains of cars.
(...) read the whole story