Updated: Jan 4
“The east was blushing and brightening. The wind, himself a vagrant rover, saluted his brother upon the cheek. Some wild geese, high above, gave cry. A rabbit skipped along the path before him, free to turn to the right or to the left as his mood should send him.” And so Whistling Dick, a musical tramp, sets out upon the road again at the end of Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking. He has snuck out of a guest bedroom at a wealthy plantation and left its hospitality behind because he cannot bear the thought of leading an ordinary rooted life, no matter how comfortable it might be.
The story opens as Whistling Dick arrives by boxcar in New Orleans for his winter vacation. And yes, he really is a fine whistler, favoring challenging pieces of classical music. But he does not care to settle down.
The twists and turns of O. Henry’s 1909 story about him are amusing and the accents amusing too (if a little much for the modern reader). And as with many O. Henry protagonists, Dick is a colorful and appealing character. O. Henry saw the good and the bad in people, and his plot twists are the direct result of good and bad acting in humorous opposition.
Whistling Dick is touched when a young woman, riding past him in a horse-drawn cart with her wealthy parents, waves and wishes him Merry Christmas. When something drops out of one of her packages and falls to the road—one of a pair of silk stockings she has just bought—he tucked it carefully in his pocket, thinking, we imagine, that he might reconnect her with it should opportunity allow.
To make a long short-story short, opportunity does allow.
Whistling Dick comes upon more vagabonds around a campfire near her family’s plantation house and learns that they plan to rob the family. When he objects, their leader pulls a revolver and threatens him, but he secretly pens a warning note which he pushes to the bottom of the stocking with a small rock—and throws through the dining room window.
The criminals are caught before they can do any harm and our hero is invited in and offered a new and prosperous life. Merry Christmas!
This might seem a plot twist enough for most authors, and indeed it took a few twists to get Whistling Dick into the manse and a much-needed hot bath, not to mention his seat at the dinner table. But as in all the hundreds of stories to come, Mr. William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, was not done twisting the plot quite yet.
It seems that the good life, Whistling Dick’s reward for his brave intervention, was not such a fine Christmas gift after all. The open road and its freedom were all he really wanted. And so, skipping what would no doubt have been a very fine breakfast, he slips away at dawn the next day and, whistling, hits the road again.
Whistling Dick is a romantic character and the story is sentimental. Not great literature according to the professors who decide such things, but so popular with readers after it appeared in the December 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine that the author’s writing career took off from there. Porter wrote it while in prison and had a friend submit it under the pseudonym O. Henry to conceal that fact.
Why O. Henry? He most likely arrived at the name by dropping some of the letters of his abode, the Ohio Penitentiary, where he was serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement stemming from his stint as a bank teller. Oops.
I’m a writer, not a literary critic, and I love a story with fun characters and plot twists! To me, there are few writers more worth studying for the pure craft of story-telling than Mr. Porter.
His most famous story, The Gift of the Magi, (New York Sunday World, December 10, 1905), is also about unexpected Christmas plot twists, and it ends with a similar realization that the protagonists value something intangible more than any fine gift. In it, we meet a young married couple who are far too poor to buy gifts for each other.
So he sells his platinum pocket watch to get her a pair of combs for her long hair, but she has cut it off and sold it to a wig-maker in order to buy him a platinum chain for his watch. The story ends with their falling into each others’ arms and everyone (including the dewey-eyed reader) realizing that true love is the best gift of all.
How similar to Whistling Dick’s renunciation of wealth and comfort in favor of his true love, the freedom of the open road!
One small difference between The Gift of the Magi and Whistling Dick is that Mr. Porter was able to write the latter in the comfort of Pete’s Tavern (then called Healy’s) in New York City, having gotten out of prison and made a career for himself as a writer by then. And it all begins with Whistling Dick, the very first story Porter published in the name of O. Henry. One cannot but wonder, in the spirit of plot twists, whether the world would ever have been blessed with three hundred-plus brilliant O. Henry stories had Porter not spent four long Christmases at Ohio Penitentiary.
Porter is perhaps the only federally convicted felon to have his face on a U.S. Postal Service stamp (issued on Sept. 11, 2012, the 150th anniversary of his birth). The stamp does not include his real name, and of course, his pen name has no criminal record. But might it not be time to give O. Henry his own surprise happy ending by pardoning Mr. Porter? I think I’ll compose a letter to the incoming president with that suggestion. If you’re still reading this blog, maybe you can add your ink to that cause too.
And I know just what stamp to use on my letter! They sell them on eBay, by the way.
Oh, just in case you’re wondering, I don’t mean the 1962 O’Henry stamp from the USSR, but isn’t it yet another odd twist to discover that Russia beat the USA to a stamp by 50 years?
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure.