O. Henry.

Letters to Lithopolis online

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"The human Will, that force unseen,
The offspring of a deathless Soul,
Can hew a way to any goal,
Though walls of granite intervene."

IT is always a privilege to meet a
great man. The revelation of
him when off-guard and not
busied with fashioning either forms
or fancies for the public eye is sure
to radiate some flash of personality
that is inspiring. There are just two
methods of encountering genius away
from the limelight — by a handshake
or a letter. The handshake and ex-
change of words may be eternally
impressive — to one person; but to
meet^ in the pages of a letter, with one
of these soaring spirits — one whose
altitude is measured by the depth of



his insight — this is an exhilaration
that may be shared with others. My
first meeting with O. Henry was of
this sort, and the thrill of astonish-
ment I received I am enabled to pass
on to every reader of this little book.
The experience, surprising as it was
delightful, had a prelude I must ex-

Some months before, I had read a
story that greatly impressed me; it
was "Roads of Destiny.** Not only
was I impressed by the originality
of the idea and style, but also by
the originality of the author's name.
Just '*Henry'* with an exclamation
before it. I wondered how a writer
could hope to be remembered with
such a casual tag-mark. What su-
perb indifference to fame! Then, on
second thought, I considered it a
clever bid for fame — a name so coy as
to be conspicuous. Then, on third


thought, that Henry name began to
stir up activities in other crevices
of my brain. I had a great grand-
mother named Henry. Our family
tree I had long since discovered to
be sadly lacking in decorations. No
stars or coronets hung on its boughs,
nor even a horse-thief to vary the
respectable monotony. Perhaps here
was an offshoot I had missed — a
Henry branch that might prove illus-
trious. I searched in ** Who's Who*'
and asked literary friends, but *'0.
Henry'' was on no list of celebrities
I could find. So I scribbled a few
lines to his publisher, told who I was
— or rather who my father was — and,
as one publisher to another, so to
speak, I begged to know whether
O. Henry was man, woman, or

I mailed the missive — and forgot it.

Time — but why be prosaic? **The


days/* to quote from my favourite
author, "with Sundays at their head,
formed into hebdomadal squads, and
the weeks, captained by the full
moon, closed ranks into menstrual
companies carrying Tempus Fugit on
their banners/*

By the time Thirty-fourth Street
was displaying sport suits and para-
sols and the trunk stores were an-
nouncing instant removals, my
mother and I made our annual visit
to my grandmother^s home in Lith-
opolis. You have possibly never
heard of this town. Don't look for
it on the map: it isn't there. And
don't look for it from any railroad
train window: it isn't there, either.
Lithopolis stands alone — faithfully
guarding an ancient stone quarry so
long disused that no one knows when
it last was drilled or blasted. Again
let me say that Lithopolis stands


alone, maintaining an aloofness, an
exclusiveness, that is unmatched, I
believe, by any other cluster of frame
houses radiating around a one-block
trading area of single-story shops.
Not even the famous walled-in town
of Rothenburg is so difficult to enter
and so difficult to get out of after
you're in. The daily mail-wagon
was, at the time of our visits there,
the sole public means of transit
thither and thence; and likewise the
one excitement of the day.

There are three hundred and fifty
inhabitants in Lithopolis — never
more, never less. The two hundred
and eight houses it contains are kept
in repair, and even rebuilt, but a
new house is never added. Rather
than do this people leave the town —
or die. It is cheaper. People never
move to Lithopolis, but they can't
help being born there. This is what



happened to both my father and
mother. Lithopolis is elite as the
St. Nicholas Club of Manhattan:
to belong to it you must be born to
it. And^ by way of further resem-
blance, its people are eternally clan-
nish; they have a way of clinging to
the home-town with a fondness that
is irrefutable. Though the place is
small and primitive, the surrounding
hills are delightful, and the near-by
ravine, with its winding stream, would
thrill the heart of a Corot. The in-
habitants are neighbourly and on
good terms with one another in spite
of the paling fences that divide off
their front yards. Flowers grow
near every doorway, and at the end
of Main Street, up on the hill, is a
picturesque graveyard shaded by
stately elms and spruce that give it
an impressive dignity.

There is a tinge of old-world aris-


tocracy in the town's disdain for all
phases of modern industry. Repose-
ful as a medieval princess in a rock-
bound castle, Lithopolis takes no
heed of the whirring w^heels and high-
pressure mechanism of the outer
world. The little community is al-
most self-sustaining. In its strag-
gling business block you will find,
besides the general store, a drug
store — that indulges in literature on
the side, a barber's shop — very active
on Saturday evenings, and a butcher's
shop that never saw a filet or a tender-
loin. There is a millinery shop that
cuddles close to the post office, and
just beyond the second lane sounds a
blacksmith's shop. The hardware
store plies a good trade in plows —
and also deals in coffins. There are
four churches to say prayers over the
coffins when they are filled, and on
the other street (there are only two)


is the shop of a tombstone-maker
(her name is Alta Jungkurth — more
of her later). And opposite to this
shop stands the house and surround-
ing trees, the Httle garden and chicken
corral of my eighty-year-old grand-
mother whose mother had been born
a Henry.

Though the outlook from my
grandmother's window was a bit
doleful, the Lutheran church right
adjoining imparted an atmosphere of
peace and strength that enabled us
to contemplate the tombstones across
the way with equanimity. One grew
quite accustomed to them, in fact.
As new monuments were frequently
erected in the graveyard to replace
less pretentious ones, the discarded
old stones became an accumulation.
Whenever a good flat-surfaced slab
was needed for any sort of purpose
the neighbours knew where to ask


for it. Mrs. Needles decapitated her
chickens on a stout piece of slate
that bore a worn inscription to
Ezekiel Smith, born 1803 — died 18 10.
Another neighbour's front doorstep,
had you peered underneath, told of
one Hermann Baumgarten, who left
this world in 1842.

All things were conducive to mak-
ing my grandmother's home a peace-
ful place in which to dream dreams
and put them into words. For this
purpose I used to resort to the attic
— a huge space with slanting roof,
and to my mind the best furnished
region in the house. There was a
spinning wheel, and several old chests
(one had a secret drawer), and, most
eerie of all, was a huge-faced, highly
decorated clock, decrepit and out of
use, that stood on the floor. This
clock had an uncanny way of striking
One at rare intervals, apparently for



no reason at all, though we finally
concluded that some unnoticed jar-
ring of. the floor must have occa-
sioned it. An apple tree bough, close
to the house, swept across one of the
attic windows. In the spring, when
this bough was abloom and the win-
dow was open — ah! — it was a place
for any sort of wild fancy to unfold.

Secreted one day in my precious
attic, I had seated myself on the floor
by a chest, where I was scribbling
energetically and picturing myself as
a starving poet forced to dwell near
the eaves, when I heard the voice of
my mother:

"Come down, Mabel; here's a
letter from Henry T'

I had a distant cousin by this name
from whom letters were frequent and
I was puzzled at the special summons
to read a letter from him. Again
she called:



**From Henry, the author."
Whereupon I said *'0!" I came
down and was soon reading aloud the
jolliest, breeziest, most unusual letter
that had ever come my way.

After several re-readings to the
entire household, there loomed before
me the prospect of replying to this
post-impressionist epistle. How to
answer this answer to my query
about **0. Henry*' was a problem.
But I didn't go up to the attic to
do it. I drew the old Boston rocker
up to my grandmother's big centre
table, shoved back the Bible, the
family album, and the lamp, and soon
pushed my pen easily enough into the
opening sentence with the natural
statement that his letter had been
forwarded to Lithopolis. Then, as
day follows night, as ferment follows
yeast, that name *' Lithopolis" had
to be explained. It is a name never


mentioned to the uninitiated without
eliciting a circle of questions, so I put
down, then and there, all that seemed
to me needful about the cosmopolis
Lithopolis. After dinner I handed
the letter over the fence to Nellie
Laney (the postmistress) on her way
up street to sort the noon mail.

Not long after this there was an-
other red-letter day in the little house
next to the Lutheran church; eight
pages of uproarious manuscript from
my mysterious, ink-slinging, Texas-
cowboy correspondent sojourning in
New York were read aloud to my
mother and grandmother, the hired
girl and the cat, to say nothing of a
neighbour or two (O. Henry's repu-
tation was growing!). xA.nd right
then, as I read those rollicking pages,
I realized that Lithopolis had occa-
sioned them. I realized this fact
more and more as his letters con-


tinned to come. His publishers real-
ize it to-day: hence the title on the
cover of this book. A little old,
obscure town it is, unfitted for any
highway place along the roads of
steel. In a quiet nook on "Roads
of Destiny" is where you will find
Lithopolis. A great mind and spirit,
speeding on to fame, found time once
to note and give heed in his letters
to the side-tracked tiny town.

O. Henry, unheralded as yet, a
lone stranger in New York, evidently
found enough diversion in my Litho-
politan news-letters to impel him to
continue making use of the Pennsyl-
vania and Hocking Valley Railroads,
in conjunction with two horses and a
mail-wagon, as carriers for some high-
grade samples of the World^s Best
Literature. It required no excep-
tional genius on my part to realize
that his letters were worth saving. I


kept them at first in my desk; then
in a letter file; then (my precaution
keeping pace with his fame) in a tin
box; and finally they were handed
over to my father who had suggested
placing them in his safe at the office.
This he did — unmindful of the fact
that that particular safe had an un-
canny reputation for discriminating
judgment in the matter of priceless
mementos. It was the same safe
that had swallowed up and concealed
for years Dr. Funk's famous
"Widow's Mite" — an incident that
required a whole book to explain.
That safe now promptly made away
with our precious O. Henry letters^
and in spite of much frantic search
for them, the little shelf where they
had been, where they should have
been, and where they certainly were
placed — was a shelf blankly innocent
of any papers bearing the Henry



chirography. So great was our amaze
at the wraith-like Houdini, the lock-
conquering break-away of those let-
ters, that at first I felt, as their author
has said, ** there could be no more
calendar, neither days, weeks, nor

But time sped firmly on, not only
months but years. And during those
years, O. Henry's fame grew. Oh,
how it grew 1 The whole world knew
this, but none knew it better, none
knew it so deeply, as my mother and
I and Daddy — especially Daddy!
We read columns and pages in the
papers about O. Henry, and always
we finished with the wail, **What a
pity about those letters!'* It did
seem as though an unmerciful amount
of news about America's greatest
humourist came our way. Friends,
aware of my acquaintance with him,
took pains to send me clippings. It


finally became an unwritten law of
our home to avoid the mention of
his name, for the memory of those
lost letters was too exasperating.

Still more years flocked by. Then
one day came a voice over the tele-
phone: my father from his office
shouting good news: **I have found
the O. Henry letters!" It is not
clear to me yet how he found them,
or where; apparently in some nook
as obscure in that safe as Lithopolis
is on the map. Anyway, here they
are, and I truly believe every reader
will receive the same thrill they im-
parted to us when first read aloud,
long ago, in my grandmother's cosy
front room.

My acquaintance with O. Henry,
as an occasional caller in our New
York home, leaves the memory of a
quiet, serious, hard-working author;
one whom I felt was predestined to


fame though he had slight regard for
the author-craft. He was sincere in
his statement of belief that *' writing
pieces for the printer isn*t a man's
work/' His idea of a man's work
was to get out in the world and estab-
lish a great business — as John Wana-
maker did. Several times I heard
him speak with profound admiration
of this merchant prince, whom he
had never met. Equally sincere, I
have good reason to believe, was his
expressed indifference to music; he
never asked me to play. I served
tea and cakes when he called and we
talked casually on any subject under
the moon. I told him how his first
letter reached me when I was up in
the attic trying to imagine myself a
poor, starving poet. I can hear yet
his prompt and serious reply.

"That is something you cannot im-
agine. No one who has not known it


can imagine the misery of poverty."

0. Henry was so serious in saying
this his voice became almost tragic.
"Poverty is so terrible and so com-
mon, we should all do more than we
do — much more — to relieve it. We
intend to, perhaps, but we don't do
it. You ought to do more, so ought

1, right now. I ought to give fifty
dollars, but I don't." Though mak-
ing a social call, O. Henry was just
then deeply solemn and earnest.
Was he ever jocose in his talk as in
his writings? I never found him so.
About the only witticism I recall was
the last time I saw him; the very last
words I heard from him. As he stood
at the door after saying good-bye
he asked whether he might come
again, real soon. I laughingly asked
what he called *'real soon.*'

"What time do you have break-
fast?" was the merry retort.


Shortly after this my mother and
I went to Europe and it chanced that
we never again saw O. Henry. But
some time later he sent, through my
father's office, his most recent book
with an inscription highly typical
and dashed off in his best freehand
style :

'* To Miss Mabel Wagnalls—

with pleasant recollections oj a certain
little tea party where there were such
nice little cakes and kind hospitality
to a timid stranger,

0. henry:*

**A timid stranger'' — somehow
that describes him. To life itself and
the whole world he carried the air of
a timid stranger. Something in his
manner made me think of William
Watson's ** World Strangeness":



" Strange the world about me lies.
Never yet familiar grown —
Still disturbs me with surprise,
Haunts me like a face half-known.

I have never felt at home.
Never wholly been at ease."

So it seemed with O. Henry. Never
quite at home — just a little out of

place — and even in death But

I must tell this very gently, and with
somewhat of bated breath. We went
to O. Henry's funeral, my mother
and I. We had read in the papers
of his passing, and had noted the
hour and the place; a fitting place it
was — the Little Church Around the
Corner — the Church of the Strangers,
as it sometimes is called. We sup-
posed there would be a large crowd;
probably cards of admission would
be required. We had none, but we
went intending to stand on the curb,


if need be, to pay our last deference
to one of America's Immortals. But
no crowd edged the curb; we saw a
few carriages and a small group at
the door that somehow^ was far from
funereal in appearance. On entering
the vestibule we were accosted with a
question. So certain were we it must
be a request for a card that for a
moment we were uncomprehending
— and good reason there was for our
dismay. We had heard the strangest
question ever worded, I believe, at
chancel door since the cross of Christ
stood over it;

**Have you come for the wedding
or the funeral?*'

Somehow it was a phrase that
stabbed to the heart, though we soon
understood, of course, that a mistake
had been made in the time set for the
two ceremonies. The wedding party
was already there but it was decided


to hold the funeral first. So a few of
us — astonishingly few, unbelievably
few — sat forward in the dim nave
while a brief — a very brief — little
service was read over the still form
of one whose tireless hand had penned
pages of truth, humour, and philoso-
phy that will live as long as the foun-
dation stones of our Hall of Fame

One felt a hurried pulse through all
the service, and as the cortege passed
out a flower or two fell from the cas-
ket and we knew that soon the bridal
train would be brushing them aside.
Out of place, it would seem, to the
last, was O. Henry; with hardly time
in the church to bury him. But his
work, his books — there is place for
them in four million homes of those
who speak his tongue; more than four
million copies of his books have been



Yes, there is room in the world
for his work. And there is room in
the hearts of the people for his fame
to rest for ever.

Mabel Wagnalls.









New York, June 9 th, 1903.
My dear Madam:

THE "Cosmopolitan Maga-
zine" forwarded to mt yes-
terday the little note you
wrote on May 9th, in regard to some
of the short stories I have been per-
petrating upon the public. I do not
know why they held your letter so
long unless they thought it was a
MS. submitted for publication, and
finally decided to reject it — in which
case I think they showed very poor
taste and judgment.

Fm glad to be able to tell you that
I am a man, and neither a woman nor
a wraith. Still I couldn't exactly


tell you why I'm glad, for there isn't
anything nicer than a woman; and I
have often thought, on certain occa-
sions, that to be a wraith would be
exceedingly jolly and convenient.

When you were looking for **0.
Henry" between the red covers of
"Who's Who" I was probably be-
tween two gray saddle blankets on a
Texas prairie listening to the moon-
light sonata of the coyotes.

Since you have been so good as to
speak nicely of my poor wares I will
set down my autobiography. Here
goes !

Texas cowboy. Lazy. Thought
writing stories might be easier than
** busting" broncos. Came to New
York one year ago to earn bread,
butter, jam, and possibly asparagus
that way. Last week loaned an
editor J20.

Please pardon the intrusion of


finances, but I regard the transaction
as an imperishable bay. Very few
story writers have done that. Not
many of them have the money. By
the time they get it they know bet-

I think that is all that is of interest.
I don*t like to talk about /iterature.
Did you notice that teentsy-weentsy
little 'T ? That's the way I spell it.
I have much more respect for a man
who brands cattle than for one wha
writes pieces for the printer. Don't
you? It doesn't seem quite like a
man's work. But then, it's quite
often a man's work to collect a cheque
from some publications.

I was very glad to get your letter,
even though it comes as to a wraith
or an impersonality. Why? Well,
down in Texas v/e are sort of friendly,
you know, and when we see a man
five miles off we holler at him *' Hello,


Bill'M In New York the folks—
wellj — (I wish I could show you right
here how the Mexicans shrug one
shoulder). Your letter seemed to
read like a faint voice out of the
chaparral calling: *' Hello, Bill, you
old flop-eared wraith, how're they
comin'?'* In Texas the folks freeze
to you; in New York they freeze you.

But I do not consider this a fault
in New York. After one gets ac-
quainted with the people they prove
to be very agreeable and friendly. I
have made a number of friends among
the magazine men whom I like very

What a pity it is that a downtrod-
den scribbler can't manage to claim
kinship with a publisher's family!
'Way down in Louisiana is where
my **Henry" name came from. Can't
you dig up an ancestor among the


old Southern aristocracy so we can
be cousins?

Do you know, Miss Wagnalls,
what would be the proper procedure
on this occasion if this happened to
be Texas? Til tell you. Vd get on
mv bronco and ride over to 15 th
Street and holler "Hello, folkses!"
And your pa would come out and say:
** Light and hitch, stranger"; and you
would kill a chicken for supper, and
we would all talk about /iterature and
the price of cattle.

But as this is New York and not
Texas I will only say I hope you will
overlook the nonsense, and believe
that I much appreciate your cheer-
ing letter. There are one or two
stories that I think you have not seen
that I would like to have your opin-
ion of if you would let me submit
them to you some time. I think the
judgment of a normal, intelligent



woman is superior to that of an editor
in a great many instances.

Sincerely yours,

O. Henry.

47 West 24th Street.



New York, June 25, 1903.
My dear Miss Wagnalls:

Your pleasant little note from the
metropolis Lithopolis was received
and appreciated, although some envy
was stirred up at the sight of your
postmark. Just think! — you are out
in the wilds of Ohio where you can
pick daisies and winners at the
county racetrack, wear kimonos and
shoes large enough for you and run
either for exercise or office as often
as you please. Me — Fm in my


garret nibbling at my crust (softened
by a little dry Sauterne) and battling
with the wolf at the door — (he's try-
ing to get out — don't like it inside).

Lemme see! Fairfield County —
that's over across the "crick," isn't
it, just this side of the woods? And
Lithopolis — wait a minute — b'lieve

I've heard of No, it wasn't the

town — I guess it was a new $3 shoe
or a trotting horse I was thinking of.
(The whole paragraph was inspired
by env}\ I know it's peaceful &
lovely & rural and restful out there.
**Lost in Lithopolis; or Lolling among
the Lotuses — not to mention the
Lima Beans." 'Twould make a sum-
mer drama that would snow '*The
Old Homestead " under — paper snow,
of course.)

Wait a minute — ^let me consult

my notes Oh yes Thanks

again for saying such kind things


about my stories. But let's talk
about something else — writing little
pieces for the printer man isn't much.
There ought to be a law reserving
literature for one-legged veterans and
widows with nine children to write.
Men ought to have the hard work to
do — they ought to read the stuff.

Er — ^lemme see Oh yes: —

will I be wending my way back to
Texas? (Please don't say "wend-
ing"; it has such a footsore, stone-
bruisy sound to it. Makes you think
of railroad ties and things.) Well, I
dunno. Sometimes I get tired of

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Online LibraryO. HenryLetters to Lithopolis → online text (page 1 of 3)