So I’d been kicking myself for not thinking to start the new year with something about O’Henry’s story The Last Leaf. Then violence broke out, encouraged by a group of idiots including both senators from Tennessee, and somehow it seems even more fitting for the moment because it’s a story about kindness and sacrifice and it just happens to be set in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s also about the healing power of art.
O’Henry is best known for his Christmas story The Gift Of The Magi which many of us had to read in school, usually in late December, and then we had to watch one of the three million or so film adaptations of it because our teachers were trying to kill time and probably using the darkened classroom to hide the fact that they were starting their holiday drinking early. It’s not really his best story, though. Yes, it’s a nice Christmas tale and has the ironic twist at the end that O’Henry’s famous for, but Della’s hair will grow back while Jim’s pocket watch is pawned forever. And since it’s the first and in many cases only introduction kids will get to O’Henry they’ll miss out on how funny some of his other stories are. He’s almost as well known for The Ransom Of Red Chief, about a boy who’s so terrible his kidnappers pay his parents to take him back—something his parents have turned into a lucrative business and, oh yeah, I think I just figured out why my teachers didn’t want me reading that one, but that’s another story.
And then there’s The Last Leaf which, although a sad tale, still gets in a little humor, right at the very beginning in his description of why artists flocked to Greenwich Village:
One Street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street. Suppose a collector with a bill for paints, paper and canvas should, in traversing this route, suddenly meet himself coming back, without a cent having been paid on account!
There have been a few film adaptations, but I think the best one is in O’Henry’s Full House, a 1952 anthology film with John Steinbeck introducing five O’Henry stories.
And maybe it’s just what we need right now.