OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recently picked up a copy of Professor Walter Allen’s The Short Story in English (Oxford, 1981), and spent a pleasant evening taking his Cook’s tour around a hundred or so short stories he describes and analyses.

He’s writing about the ‘modern’ short story, seeking to disconnect, rather than re-connect it with ‘the earlier form’, and he dates that disconnection, as do others I have read, from the generation of 1809…Hawthorne, Poe et al. His analyses are thoughtful and thought provoking, and there are a good many stories he touches on that will go on my ‘must read’ list, some of which I have seen referenced before, and others that I was surprised not to have heard of.

As with all these compilation books, what’s put in and what’s left out might tell us more about the putter and the leaver than it does about the genre as a whole, and recognising that led me to wonder what it is we make of such studies, and what we could, or even ought to make of them. What provoked me in this volume (and something always does, quite properly I expect) was Professor Allen’s dismissive reference to O Henry.

In barely a page, and referencing one story only of Henry’s massive output, Allen calls him a ‘bad influence’ on American writing, and a master of the ‘trick-ending’. This tag has been used by others in dealing with O, whether following Allen or preceding him, I’m don’t know. I blogged recently about several adaptations of O Henry stories (https://bhdandme.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/o-henrys-full-house/ ), and have written elsewhere about what is probably his most famous tale, The Gift of the Magi. In popularity this must rival Dickens’ Christmas Carol, though it is without doubt on a much smaller scale of ambition, and reach. But popularity cuts no ice with Allen, and neither should it, yet, I find something irksome in the professor’s closing remark on this remarkable American storyteller:

“He reduced the short story precisely to a trick, his reward being the naïve reader’s gasp of surprise at the end.”

Well, I’m not sure he did, and I’m not sure it was, always. What I am sure about is that getting a response from the ‘naïve’ reader is no bad thing. Perhaps Professor Allen had a different background to me, and all children are different, but I do wonder didn’t all readers, however knowing, or even cynical – which might be thought of as just a darker shade of naivety – begin as naïve readers? The remark reminded me of an outraged party-political friend, who after a table-turning election back in the 1970s, complained to me that people ‘who had never voted before’ were responsible for the losses his party had incurred. I’ve quoted elsewhere C.S.Lewis, from his book of essays ‘Of Other Worlds’, in which he berates the ‘non-literary’ reader for ‘flooding wretched material’ with his own imagination. There’s something unwholesome in this approach, whether it is to politics, or to literature, I feel. We have to see things through our own eyes, however weak or unfoccussed they might be.

Perhaps some O Henry stories might evoke a wry chuckle, rather than a gasp and not only from the naïve, and perhaps, to assess his achievement more fully, we have to consider more than one of the hundred stories of his that are still in print.

A deeper concern that emerged as I read this scholarly book, and make no mistake, it is scholarly, and reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of its subject; a deeper concern was that those of us who have less knowledge, and who have retained, perhaps more of our naivety, may feel that we are in the position of having to trust the Professor Allens of this world; whereas, in fact, what we can do is to read the stories for ourselves…..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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