Friday, 14 May 1999

O. Henry: Heart of the West (1901)

Edition: Doubleday
Review number: 250

In O. Henry's second collection of short stories, the location shifts from New York to Texas, at the end of the era which inspired the Hollywood "Wild West". As in most of Henry's work, the stories are brief with a romantic ending (though this collection includes some that do not even have a happy ending). His West is not as remote from reality as Hollywood's, but his reliance on the good side of human nature does make his stories appear to inhabit the realms of fantasy.

The life in these stories is not as violent, not as ruled by the gun, as it is in the Hollywood version, nor is it quite so simplistic. There are no real bad guys, just unfortunates who have allowed circumstances to get on top of them, or drink to rule their lives. They are generally redeemed through exposure to the honest, open-air life of the country, which Henry seems to have regarded as one to admire and which he certainly seemed to use to take people out of the way they lived before into a morally clean world.

Henry's general theme, the mysterious ways of men and women in love, is apparent in may of the stories in this collection. (A plot shared by several, for example, is the rich man not permitting his daughter to marry the poor but honest man she loves but whom he believes is a fortune hunter.) This emphasis, which seems to be on the sentimental and arch side to a modern reader, makes Henry's writing seem old-fashioned; but it cannot be denied that he was a master of the short story genre.

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