- Cheap Rooms and Restless Hearts: A Study of Formula in the Urban Tales of William Sydney Porter, and: Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy
As Karen Blansfield notes in her informative study of the fiction of William Sydney Porter, his pen name became an American institution. Known as simply O. Henry, this "Homer of the Tenderloin" or "the Apostle of the Picaresque" loved the city and set almost one-third of his stories in New York City.
The first chapter of this study provides useful information about Porter' s early years that in no way foreshadowed his later literary successes. Although it will probably never be determined if he in fact did abscond with bank funds as charged, there is no doubt that his considerable literary career got its start behind prison walls. According to Blansfield, Porter's stories seemed perfectly attuned to the new century and the heavy human demands placed on people by changing social and cultural trends, especially technological trends. The late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century readers embraced the short story as a vehicle for entertainment and information because it could be experienced in a single sitting after a wearying day of work. [End Page 231]
In the second chapter the author places O. Henry's work within the popular literary tradition and the theoretical construct of formula stories. The third chapter focuses on his six basic character types. O. Henry's success as the master of the urban short story comes from his fusing of appropriate character types with the correct plot patterns to establish the desired unified effect.
As Blansfield notes, the real key to O. Henry's success rested with his emphasis on the human condition and the precedence love takes above all other values, especially monetary ones. O. Henry favors the aristocratic hero who takes the difficult, principled road in the face of uncertainty and deprivation, thereby upholding the values of common humanity. That ability, combined with what Blansfield refers to as his ability to "elevate the commonplace to the realm of importance," better explains his success than does any careful matching of character and plot.
O. Henry made the short story speak to the everyday needs of his audience in a unique way. Known for his "effect," O. Henry should be more appreciated for his expression of love for humanity that binds his fiction to his audience. He personally knew failure, embarrassment, and deprivation and seemed dedicated to making sure others would not feel isolated from humanity if they found themselves inside the "walls" of an urban area that seemed hostile to basic human values. Therein lies his proper claims for a place in literary history. Gifted craftsman that he was, he was also true to the needs of the human spirit.
Few books in American literary history have been as popular or as influential as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Daphne Patai's excellent collection of critical perspectives on the fiction and social thought of an important American Utopian thinker is a welcome publication upon the hundredth anniversary of the appearance of his most famous work.
In an introduction to an edition of Looking Backward, Bellamy's son, Paul, wrote of his father that, "He spoke of social gospel like a seer and a saint." Edward Bellamy was able to synthesize and focus the social thoughts and feelings of his period and translate them into a fictional story that reached out in powerful ways to large audiences over time. His work, in turn, encouraged a host of utopian imitators as well as discussion clubs and political parties.
In this backward look at looking backward, Daphne Patai has assembled a group of critical analysts who take apart and piece together the story of his social gospel and popular success. As the editor rightly points out...