Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An O. Henry Story Loaded With Morphine

“The drug clerk looks sharply at the white face half concealed by the high-turned overcoat collar.

"’I would rather not supply you,’ he said doubtfully. ‘I sold you a dozen morphine tablets less than an hour ago.’

“The customer smiles wanly. ‘The fault is in your crooked streets. I didn't intend to call upon you twice, but I guess I got tangled up. Excuse me."

Thus begins Fog in Santone by American short story master O. Henry (1862-1910). Those who know O. Henry only as the author of the classic tale of loving sacrifice, The Gift of the Magi, with its typically O.Henry ironic and surprise end, may be shocked to learn that the same author wrote a story soaked in morphine.

Fog in Santone, posthumously published in the October 1912 issue of The Cosmopolitan (Yes, that Cosmopolitan, which began in 1886 as a family periodical, morphed into a literary magazine, then, in the 1960s, transmogrified into Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmo) but likely written c. 1904, is one of a handful of stories that O. Henry set in San Antonio, Texas, where the author lived at some point during the early 1880s – 1896.

At the time of his residence, San Antonio, with its warm (some – me, for instance – would say unbearably hot), dry, and sunny climate and clean air, was a destination for tuberculosis sufferers. Within the story we are informed that San Antonio had 3,000 “tubercules” living within the city limits. Many were in the final stages of the disease and liberally dosed themselves with whiskey and/or morphine, at the time freely available over-the-counter without prescription, as palliative or final exit strategy.

Readers of O. Henry will be further stunned to learn that in this story a prostitute plays a major role. She, in fact, is the plot twist providing the ironic surprise ending. This is a very morbid story and O. Henry is having a lot of fun telling it in stereoscopic vision with one eye on the melancholy, the other one on the jolly with a wink and raised eyebrow.

I will not blow the ending (or beginning and middle) for you. The link above provides the full text to the story, and it will only take five minutes or so to read.

It offers a colorful view of drug use and cultural attitudes about opiates in the American Southwest during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the period of America’s first drug epidemic. It is to be taken seriously for that reason alone. That it was written by O. Henry makes it important.

This story has heretofore been unknown to scholars and collectors of drug literature. It is now a major catalogue contribution to the literature of drugs, and adds to our understanding of the continuum of drugs and drug use in American culture.

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