Literary Daybook, June 5

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 5, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 5, the mounted troop and the womenfolk leave for Ashcolt.
-- "The Moon in the Water" (1984)
by Pamela Belle

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1910, O. Henry died in New York City, at the age of 47. His death from alcoholism-related illnesses was the farthest thing from a surprise ending, but his last months and hours were in other ways characteristic of the fiction: the down-on-his-luck hero, the small-detail-revealing-all style, and -- you guessed it -- the polished-perfect irony.

The previous year Henry had made a desperate attempt to get sober, healthy and out of debt. Although already separated from his new wife, Henry knew that his only chance at reforming his New York ways was to accept her invitation to Asheville, N.C. -- her hometown, and not far from Henry's birthplace of Greensboro. (It was also hometown to Thomas Wolfe; only 9 years old then, he too would famously try to go home again.) Henry's plan involved not only drying out and patching up, but writing the novel he'd promised both himself and Doubleday, whose $1,500 advance was already gone. The drying and patching progressed; the novel, following all too closely to the proposed story-of-my-life theme, met delay after delay. Then, when a Broadway producer offered Henry a chance to turn one of his stories into a play, he took it, and the $500 advance, setting in motion the chain of events that would do him under.

Unable to complete the dramatization, Henry agreed to sell the stage rights to the Broadway producer. In no time, the producer had someone else turn "A Retrieved Reformation," based on a crook who does manage to change his ways, into the play "Alias Jimmy Valentine." It became a hit of the season, then a hit around the world, and then a hit as a silent movie, one of the first in the gangster-as-hero genre. The producer, believing Henry only needed encouragement to try again, mailed him copies of the box-office returns and of the royalty payments made to the hack who had replaced him as dramatist. Henry saw that he had made $250, and the hack was on his way to making $100,000. He saw that he had other stories that could be dramatized. He saw the wagon, the wife and the mother-in-law in Asheville. He saw the producer advance him $1,250, and headed back to New York, full of promises.

"The train for happiness is late," Henry had told a friend not long before. He never wrote a line of the new play, as far as can be determined. The producer never heard a word from or about him, until he heard that he was dead. Nor did many of Henry's old friends, Henry apparently preferring to renounce his reformation quietly, by drinking himself to death alone. This took a little over four months. When he checked out of his hotel, heading for the hospital, he shook hands with everyone. When he checked into the hospital, he emptied his pockets, saying, "Here I am going to die and only worth 23 cents." When, the last night, the nurse turned out the light, he had her turn it back on, saying, "I don't want to go home in the dark."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

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