The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Well, Kim went off track from our usual list last week in the spirit of the holidays to talk about the Christmas stories of Dickens. I enjoyed that, and decided I should do something similar myself. Given that, what better off track topic could there be (given that Kim already grabbed Dickens) than “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry.

Now, people give O. Henry a lot of crap for the kind of stories he wrote. Admittedly, he tended to write very simple stories and milked his signature twist ending absolutely to death. Still, he had an amazing amount of influence…”Gift of the Magi” in particular. Whether or not you care for O. Henry…the likelihood you know the story is very, very high.

Just in case: Jim and Della are two people who are very poor and very much in love. They want to buy each other Christmas presents, but have no money. Jim sells his beloved pocket watch to buy Della the jeweled hair combs she’s desired…and Della sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a spectacular watch chain. You can tell what happens, because I’ve said it already. That’s about it.

No matter, as I’ve said, you likely already know the whole story even if you haven’t read it.

After all, I first came across this story in Sunday school. They didn’t have us read it, they didn’t even mention O. Henry, but they summarized it for the lessons it taught just like it was from the bible. Similarly, there was a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live back when Donald Trump was still married to Ivana…only in that one Donald sells his yacht to buy Ivana a gold door for her mansion and Ivana sells her mansion to buy a jeweled anchor for his yacht (or something like that). It even influenced a story by Alissa Nutting in Barrelhouse titled “The Gift of the (Da)magi(ng).”

Good, bad, or otherwise, this story has had significant influence. It’s pervasive in our culture. Say what you want about O. Henry, but you have to give him that. Sure, the story is a little saccharine…but it’s Christmas through and through, at least for me:

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

“And so as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

If anyone doesn’t have a fairly good guess as to what I might be talking about today from the title of this blog post…well I don’t really have any idea what to tell you.

As everyone probably is aware, Christmas is in exactly one week. In honor of the holiday, I am going “off script” and talking about Charles Dickens Christmas books. This isn’t a really far leap from the script, as many of Dicken’s novels -did- make the Top Ten. Just none of them were his Christmas ones (I think. If I find out otherwise down the road, I will make sure to update this). A Christmas Carol was not Dickens’ only Christmas novel.

This book, which is what I am using for today’s entry, has this to say in its introduction.

“Charles Dickens is sometimes described as the man who invented Christmas. While this is something of an exaggeration, no writer did more to promote the virtues that we associate with the Christmas season-charity, generosity, benovolence, kindness–than Dickens did. In 1843, at the age of thirty-one, Dickens–then, the most popular living writer in England, and one of the most popular around the world–wrote his “Ghostly little book” (as he referred to it in his Preface), A Christmas Carol. It proved immensely popular, and was to become one of Dickens’s best-known stories and one of the best-loved works of nineteenth century fiction. Nearly every year thereafter, until his death in 1870, Dickens published at least one story for the Christmas season, with the intent to (as he wrote later) “awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land””.

The book I linked above is an amazing one to get. It not only has A Christmas Carol, but the other full lenght Christmas novels that Dickens released (via serialization mostly) as well as short stories he wrote for his own publication, including at least one co-authored with Wilkie Collins. I haven’t read all the short stories in here, but that’s more because the book is so huge that I didn’t have the chance to yet, not that I don’t want to read all of them.

Why am I writing this without reading the entire book? I hear the voice in my head that pretends to be my audience asking. Well, I read the novels, and really, in preparation for Christmas I am really writing about A Christmas Carol, but also about the lesser known novels. It’s a spread the awareness that Dickens wrote more Christmas stuff that gives the same warm feelings as Christmas Carol does, but has the advantage that you haven’t seen it in some form or another every.single.year of your whole life (FYI: For those of you that weren’t aware, there’s even a Barbie movie that is A Christmas Carol. And while it’s Barbie, I have to say it’s actually a pretty entertaining adaptation. If you have to watch Barbie movies, it’s on the better side).

One that he wrote, The Chimes, was damned at the time of publication stating that it would incite class warfare. Oddly, it would probably be damned today if it was published, as it not only dares to satirize and cartoonize what people of means think of the poor, it then dares to show that the poor are not inferior, that they are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness too. It’s amazing how many of the attitudes that the nobility/wealthy of Dickens time had towards the poor/lower income/non nobility are alive and well in America in the 21st century. But, even with the political commentary, it’s still a story that leaves you with a feeling much like A Christmas Carol.

All of Dickens Christmas stories have a supernatural element, except one, The Battle of Life, which is set a hundred years or so prior to the other stories.

I think, honestly, that Dickens Christmas stories must have been very much like all of the Christmas movies and shows are for us today. We watch things like It’s A Wonderful Life, or if you’re my mom, the feel good Hallmark channel Christmas movies. And, really, without Dickens, I don’t know if any of these things would exist. They all pretty much employ the feel good, the encouraging good will towards men and charity mixed with supernatural or “magical” events that Dickens does. At some points while reading, I did feel like I was watching something on the Hallmark channel, but at the same time, I was more into it than I would have been with one of those movies. The original is always better than the pale imitation 😉

The introduction to the book ended in the same way I want to end this entry.

“Had Charles Dickens never written a Christmas story other than A Christmas Carol, his name and literary legacy would still be inextricably bound up with the holiday season. The stories collected in this volume are a testament to his virtuosity as awriter who could find new angles from which to approach the Christmas story, and inspire readers to think of Christmas, as he wrote in A Christmas Carol, ‘as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely'”

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

When I think of murder in a small farming town, I tend to think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell did remind me of Capote’s famed reportage novel, but it’s a different kind of work…beyond just being a first person novel instead of reportage.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Lee K. Abbott and 6th for Ann Patchett)

After all, we do start out So Long, See You Tomorrow with the murder of a tenant farmer:

In those days—I am talking about the early nineteen-twenties—people in Lincoln mostly didn’t lock their doors at night, and if they did it was against the idea of a burglar. One sometimes read in the evening paper that some man had been arrested for disorderly conduct, but that meant drunkenness. Without thinking I would have said that acts of violence could hardly be expected to flourish in a place where the houses were not widely separated and never enclosed by a high wall and where it would have been hard to do anything out of the way that somebody by one accident or another or from simple curiosity would not happen to see….What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from all the others was a fact so shocking that the Lincoln Courier-Herald hesitated for several days before printing it: The murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear with a razor and carried it away with him. In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered.

But then suddenly, we are in the troubled youth of the narrator. His mother dies of pneumonia. Eventually his father remarries and has a new house built, the old being too filled with memories of the narrator’s mother. The narrator is an intellectual, isolated child. This goes on for a while, and then we learn that unlike In Cold Blood, the identity of the murderer in So Long, See You Tomorrow was known almost immediately.

The narrator plays in the house his father is building and strikes up a friendship with a boy named Cletus who happens by. They play, but they don’t talk much.

The narrator doesn’t know that Cletus is only recently moved to town when Cletus’s mother got divorced. Cletus’s father has lost everything, both his family and his farm directly adjacent to that of Lloyd Wilson. That’s because Lloyd, who was a dear friend of Cletus’s entire family and both Cletus and his father especially, has been having an affair with Cletus’s mother. Cletus goes home from playing in the half-built house with the narrator one night and the narrator doesn’t know that he won’t see Cletus again for a while, and only once more ever at that…because Cletus’s father is about to murder Lloyd in cold blood.

It might sound like I’m telling you a lot here, but the story of the murder and the why behind it isn’t really the story in So Long, See You Tomorrow. The book about the friendship between Cletus and the narrator, what the narrator imagines must have happened to Cletus leading up to it all, and the moment later when he runs into Cletus again in a Chicago school and doesn’t even greet his former friend.

Regret, betrayal, passion, frustrated lives, the spread of violence into innocent connected lives, its all there. Some is fact, but much is speculation. It seems an attempt by the narrator to extend a compassion he was unable to in that Chicago school hallway and could never forgive himself for not extending.

People are often haunted by their pasts, but they can be equally haunted by the past of another…particularly where they’ve failed that other in some way. Boundaries of a tragedy are rarely neatly defined. So Long, See You Tomorrow is stark, but at the same time imaginative. I won’t be adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my all time favorites list anytime soon, but I do recognize that this is some good writing.

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence–part 2

So, last week I talked about the first part of The Rainbow. Now I will talk about the 2nd part. I have, in the interim, also finally unpacked all my boxes of books so I am able to tell you who listed The Rainbow in their top ten. Dave is probably thankful for this. Joyce Carol Oates listed it as #4.

My further observations:

1. Our Top Ten book that we use to choose has this to say about The Rainbow. “Declared obscene and banned by British authorities, Lawrence’s novel about three generations of an English family boldly challenged conventional mores by openly depicting emotional and sexual needs. His protagonist, Ursula Brangwen, breaks from family tradition by going off to college and becoming a teacher. (Then there’s a few sentences that give away major plot points, shame on you Top Ten! Shame on you!)…Her search for love is alternately disillusioning and liberating”. I can completely see this being controversial. If it was published today, in 2014, there are groups that would be crying out for it to be banned from impressionable minds and even non impressionable minds.

2. In the middle, the book dragged. But, true to it being open about sexual needs, nothing like a little girl on girl action to pick a plot right up. Seriously, I almost dozed off reading the middle part slightly before the girl on girl action. That is not an exaggeration. I put the book down and took a nap.

3. I think D.H. Lawrence had bad experiences with romance. Every single relationship he spoke of in the book was this weird mixture of love and hate, sexual passion versus basic dislike for the character of the other person.

4. His characters are oddly unlikable, and he makes them that way. All of them have points that he could build up and points he could diminish a bit to make them more likable. He doesn’t. Maybe that almost makes it more real though, more like the people you know and work with or live with.

5. I will not be reading Women in Love, the sequel to The Rainbow for the next blog. I need something a little less dense than Lawrence after this. But, never fear! If I could survive Rabbit Angstrom for 4 novels, I can tell you about Women in Love very soon!

That is all.