Wednesday, October 28, 2009

O. Henry's Morphine Overdose, Pay-Scale, and Advice to Writers

Recently, while on recon for Book Patrol, I discovered Fog in Santone, a short story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910) set in San Antonio Texas and loaded with morphine. In it, O. Henry limns the nexus of tuberculosis, desperate sufferers, and drug addiction amongst the sick and “sporting class" with lighthearted morbidity.

In contrast to Fog in Santone, At Arms With Morpheus takes place in turn-of the-century New York City boarding house. From clues in the narrative, it is the boarding house located off Madison Square where Porter lived.

In At Arms With Morpheus, which first appeared in the October, 1903 issue of Ainslee's Magazine under the pseudonym S.H. Peters and in book form in the posthumously published collection, Sixes and Sevens (1911), O. Henry, who was a registered druggist at age nineteen, tells a story about a morphine overdose. It appears to be the first literary treatment of a narcotic OD in American literature; it is certainly the first time that a drug overdose is played for laughs.

"’Oh, Billy, I'm going to take about four grains of quinine, if you don't mind -- I'm feeling all blue and shivery. Guess I'm taking cold.’

"’All right,’ I called back. ‘The bottle is on the second shelf. Take it in a spoonful of that elixir of eucalyptus. It knocks the bitter out.’

“After I came back we sat by the fire and got our briars going. In about eight minutes Tom sank back into a gentle collapse.

“I went straight to the medicine cabinet and looked.

"’You unmitigated hayseed!’ I growled. ‘See what money will do for a man's brains!’

“There stood the morphine bottle with the stopple out, just as Tom had left it.”

And from there, Billy narrates the amusing trials of keeping the dimwitted, wealthy Southern gent, Tom, alive with the help of citrate of caffeine, coffee, walking him around, and keeping him awake. The amateur therapy hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.

Now, another literary gem is added to the corpus of drug literature in English.

* * *

On April 4, 1909, an interview with O. Henry appeared in the New York Times that provides insight in the writing profession and the author’s working habits. Current writers may rush to the needle when they learn what O. Henry earned and how facile a writer he was.

"After drifting about the country I finally came to New York about eight years ago. I have Gilman Hall, now one of the editors of Everybody's Magazine, to thank for this fortunate step. Mr. Hall, then the editor of Ainslee's Magazine, wrote me saying that if I would come to New York he would agree to take $1,200 worth of stories annually at the rate of $100 a story. This was at a time when my name had no market value.Yes, since I came to New York my prices have gone up. I now get $750 for a story that I would have been glad to get $75 for in my Pittsburgh days.

[We pause here to contemplate in a swoon the fact that $750 in 1911 is worth approximately $16,000 in 2009, an opium pipe-dream for most writers of any era].

"Editors are just like other merchants--they want to buy at lowest prices. A few years ago I was selling stories to a certain magazine at the rate of 5 cents a word. I thought there was a chance that I might get more, so I boldly asked the editor for 10 cents a word. 'All right,' said he, 'I'll pay it.' He was just waiting to be asked.

[Who knew that's all it took to get a pay raise? Readers who write or edit may now ROTFL].

"I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can't write a story that pleases yourself you’ll never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.

"I get a story thoroughly in mind before I sit down at my writing table. Then I write it out quickly; and, without revising it mail it to the editor. In this way I am able to judge my stories as the public judges them. I've seen stories in print that I wouldn't recognize as my own.

[Submitting first drafts that are accepted as is. Holy mackerel!]

"Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can't turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk wtth people, and feel the rush and throb of real life--that's the stimulant for a story writer.”


O. Henry. Sixes and Sevens. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1911. BAL 16298. 

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