American Literature Week 22 O Henry, London, and Bierce

Prompt: “Which of the three authors would you prefer to read on your own time? Why?”

For context the three authors in this prompt are O Henry, London, and Bierce. Ironically enough listing them this way is almost like listing most optimistic to most pessimistic. O Henry was a short story writer born in the mid 1800s. He worked on the Houston Post, and was renowned for his ability to write quality stories quite quickly and consistently. His most famous story is The Gift of the Magi, in which two lovers sacrifice what they hold dear in order to get the other a gift they will love. They realize it was not the material gift that held the significance, but their dedication and love for one another.

Another of his stories which I quite liked was The Last Leaf. This tells of a woman who is mortally ill. She sits, and watches the leaves on her ivy plant fall one by one. Shes convinced that when the last leaf falls she too will die. Her artistic neighbor, seeing her dilemma, decides to paint a leaf on the wall. So she sits, watching this leaf. But it doesn’t fall. It never falls. Eventually she realizes the power is not in this leaf, but in her own resolve. She ends up recovering from her illness.

Jack London is the second on the list. His most famous book is The Call of the Wild. In this a dog named Buck is kidnapped from his home in California and taken to the Yukon. There he is abused until a prospector rescues him. The two bond, but Buck watches the wild dogs running free and yearns to join them. It is a story of survival, adapting to ones environment, and the subconscious craving to abandon civilized society and reclaim our ancient inner wilderness. London was a Darwinist, and his focus on the evolution of nature and how it interacts with the evolution of human society makes itself known in his writing.

The last author on this list is Ambrose Bierce. He is truly the black sheep of these three authors. If O Henry focuses on the inherit virtues of humanity, and London seeks the balance between morals and instinct, then Bierce brings down the hammer of cynicism on both. He is best known for his book The Devils Dictionary. This is a book of satirical, cynical poems and definitions. For example “Achievement: The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.” or “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Bierce’s work is made up of a third angst, a third bitterness, and a third repressed truth that is only allowed to be discussed while under the umbrella of cynicism.

The three put back to back all have their strengths, and my deciding factor on who I personally would read depends less on their differences and more on my mood. Most days I would read O Henry. His perspective on the truths of virtue, love, and human betterment are subtle and inspiring. If there comes a day when I when I wanna sit on my porch, watch the rain, and dream of the mysteries that live just beyond my view I may read Jack London. I may find my emotions mirrored by his characters. If I’ve just been through a begrudging breakup I’ll reach for Bierce. When I want dulled anger sharpened with wit to feed my fire of casual resentment Bierce is the choice. But he would only last as long as the anger, once that subsides and I feel balanced again I’d swap for O Henry. (That is if Ethel Eliot Cook, Bill Richardson, or F Scott Fitzgerald aren’t available).

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