I have never quite been able to see O'Henry as 'the American Maupassant.' He seems to me essentially the Joker, the Card, the master of hyperbole, the teller of a tall tale. His art is the art of ingenuity. He can twist a story out of anything. It is not what he says--which is often banal and oftener sentimental--but the way he says it. And yet, journalist though he was, with his trick endings and his topical references, there is something more to him than that. I do not mean by this the kind of thing he does in "The Furnished Room,' which seems to me an over-praised and orotund piece of writing. I mean, rather, the way in which, taking his work as a whole, he managed to be slick without being brittle, and being slick still to be warm, and being not distastefully so. This is essentially the art of the Americans--the Americans and, to a lesser degree these days, the Russians. The French cannot do it; the French are witty. The English cannot do it; they are too often whimsical. Compare, for example, the typical American movie with the typical English movie. The Americans are uninhibited, outgoing, full of naïveté, bounce, a perfect sense of timing, an unparallelled zest for living and, most important of all, a love of people. It radiates from them. As typified in the G.I., the American is everybody's friend as undiscriminating as a puppy--with one qualification, and this is the qualification which confounds over-earnest visiting sociologists; beneath the brashness there is an ambivalence of sensitivity and toughness, which expresses itself in conversation in a sort of drollness or irony.
Considering the seriousness with which the art of the short story has been discussed ever since Brander Matthews and his fellow- professors re-discovered Poe and enshrined his now-famous 'single effect' theory, it might seem like lèse-majesté to speak of movies and short stories in the same breath. But movies, no less than short stories, come, when they are good, out of the hearts of people. Artistically speaking, the form of the true short story is nearer to that of a poem than anything else. It must have a similar concentration, a similar memorability; it must light up a significant aspect of human life. But it seems a little out of place to talk about O. Henry in heavily artistic terms. He is the clown with the pen. Like Charlie Chaplin, he makes believe.
I propose, therefore, the rehabilitation of O. Henry. There are some, of course--mainly, I suspect, those over the age of sixty-- who might not agree that he was in need of such a service. But . . .