The Gift of the Short Story – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the December 27, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

On December 19, six days before Christmas, Nancy Ling (Outreach Librarian) hosted a Reader’s Theater in the Cushing Reading Room.  Surrounded by the glow of Christmas tree lights and fresh poinsettia flowers, Beth Goldman (Norwood High School librarian) was accompanied by one of her students, Luke Andrews. They sat in front of our magnificent fireplace and treated an audience of several dozen to holiday stories, all read in dramatic voice. The well-known “The Gift of the Magi” was one of them.

Before she began reading, Ms. Goldman shared a bit about the most famous story of the evening, “The Gift of the Magi” written by O. Henry.

While some of us might think of O. Henry as a delicious chocolate candy bar (the Oh Henry! chocolate bar invented in Kansas in 1920 was reported to be in tribute to the author), others certainly know that O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter.  Porter was born in 1862 and had a rather interesting life that included careers as a bank teller, pharmacist, journalist and, of course, writer.

What many don’t know is that Porter’s writing career (including over 380 short stories written while living in New York City) really began only 8 years before his death at age 47 in 1910.  During his banking career, he was pronounced guilty of embezzlement, was sentenced in 1898, and spent five years in a penitentiary.  Prison was where he first began writing his stories.

After his release, he relocated to New York, remarried, and began his most productive writing period.  He composed one story each week for New York World Sunday Magazine including “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905 under his pen name, O. Henry.

Most of O. Henry’s stories take unexpected twists and turns, and the “Gift of the Magi” is perhaps the most famous.  In the story, Jim and Della Dillingham surprise each other with gifts of generous – and sacrificial – love. It’s the kind of story that brings both tears to your eyes and a smile to your lips, and it has been a holiday favorite since its publication.

One of the best gifts of O. Henry’s popular Christmas story is that it is a story for both children and adults.  One lovely children’s version illustrated by P. J. Lynch was published by Candlewick Press in 2008.  My eldest daughter loved O. Henry’s beautiful and haunting tale as a middle-schooler.  I gave her a version illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger first published in hardcover in 1982. O. Henry’s short story also appears in multiple anthologies found in every library and bookstore.

Despite Porter’s slightly sketchy career history before 1902 (he fled bail and hid from authorities to Honduras and New Orleans in 1996), he was posthumously acknowledged by the establishment of the O. Henry Award for short stories, an award first given in 1919.  A collection of O. Henry Prize stories are published each year (approximately 20 written in the US and Canada), and only story one is given the O. Henry Award.

The Society of Arts and Sciences created the award to encourage short story writing.  In high school, many of us read some of the very best of short stories written before the O. Henry Award.  Those were short stories by Edgar Allen Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado” published in 1846), James Joyce, Willa Cather and Mark Twain.

Since the award was established in 1919, some of the authors honored with O. Henry Award include William  Faulkner, Woody Allen, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor.

Those who love the genre have plenty of short stories collections to choose from. Each year (since 1915), a contemporary edition of “The Best American Short Stories” is published. Every year since 1978, a guest editor has been selected to collect and preface the edition. Those honored with that distinction have been Amy Tan, Annie Proulx, Garrison Keillor and Richard Ford. Many libraries across the country have copies of various years of the collections spanning the 20th and 21st centuries.

Editions of short stories by the same author are published each year.  In 2013, short story collections included those written by George Saunders, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender.  In “Tenth of December: Stories”, George Saunders explores “secret voices” and “little fantasies” in his many characters. Like O. Henry, his twists or turns can surprise the reader.  Karen Russell (acclaimed author of the novel “Swamplandia!) writes some creepy and unsettling stories in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories” and Aimee Bender, author of the novel “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” writes dreamlike and unusual short stories in “The Color Master”.

Other short story collections this year were written by Peter Orner, Tom Barbash and Rebecca Lee.  Orner’s more realistic collection, “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge” includes settings in Chicago and Chappaquiddick.  Rebecca Lee’s seven stories in “Bobcat and Other Stories”, are slightly humorous and often tragic tales of contemporary human emotion.  Tom Barbash’s collection “Stay Up With Me” explores relationships, sad, quirky and real.

There were more short story collections in 2013: “Don’t Kiss Me: Stories” by Lindsey Hunter, “the Isle of Youth: Stories” by Laura van den Berg, “Middle Men: Stories” by Jim Gavin and “Brief Encounters with the Enemy” by Said Sayrafiezadeh.

I must confess that while I enjoyed many short stories while studying them in high school and college, short stories have never been my favorite genre.  Yes, I was shocked by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (written in 1948), charmed by Willa Cather’s “Neighbor Rosicky”, amused by Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, and enchanted by Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.  Beyond those, however, the short story nearly has nearly always left me a bit unsatisfied.  I’ve often wondered if short stories simply take a deeper insight than my poor mind can manage. Yet, the best thing about a short story collection might be that you can read it story by story, leaving some unread.

If you’ve the mind or taste for a short story or two, please call or visit the library to request or check out any short story collections in the library or the Minuteman Library Network.

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