31 January 2023 at 4:35:49 am
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English
College of William and Mary
Christopher MacGowan is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the College of William and Mary. He has edited and published on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, as well as books on American Poetry and American Fiction for Wiley-Blackwell. His published articles include work on Denise Levertov, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, and Vladimir Nabokov.
"O. Henry's Dark Thanksgiving"
Thanksgiving criticism humor disguise
O.Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”is a story often characterized as “affectionate” and “touching.” But despite the comic elements in this holiday tale of a well dressed Old Gentleman annually treating the same ragged, poverty stricken homeless man to a grand thanksgiving dinner--a gift that on this occasion sends them both to hospital—the story also offers some sharp criticism of American culture and perhaps of the holiday itself.
Part of O. Henry’s skill and continued appeal is his ability to blend, even disguise, such criticism within a humorous narrative tone often achieved through contrasts and exaggeration. In this story, for example, its humorous pairings superficially temper the story’s central targets. For humor here we have the pairings “The Magna Charta or jam for breakfast”; the Old Gentleman’s self-satisfied speech offering the Thanksgiving meal and the Declaration of Independence; a “Thanksgiving appetite” and the “Statute of Limitations”—while among the story’s central targets are the pairings money and medicine, history and instant rituals, and of course the two men one of whom is starving and the other well-fed, the humor of the story being the surprise of which is which.
The gentleman’s generous gift sends both men to hospital because the homeless man had been the recipient of a large unexpected charitable feast barely two hours before having to force into himself the second annually donated one; while the gentleman who annually provided this traditional meal had not himself eaten for three days.
Among the story’s other targets are the provincialism of New York, Dickensian charity, historical amnesia, a rationalization of hierarchy despite democratic promise, the scam of industrial insurance, the reverence for language without meaning, the mercenary nature of medicine., and perhaps even pointing to the deathly reversal to come for one of the parties at the first Thanksgiving.