Archive for December, 2011

‘The Gift of the Magi,’ by O. Henry

This is my favorite Christmas Eve story, and during my time as a newspaper editor, I always published it just before the holiday. Although I’m not an editor now, I want to post it on my blog. Della, the young woman in the story, is based on the wife of William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), who was born in 1862. The copyright has expired, and the story has long been in the public domain.



One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

Original illustration for The Gift of the Magi"

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Kentucky voters rejected tea party politics

Kentucky tea party activists got one thing right in handicapping the results of the Nov. 8 election: The GOP’s stinging defeat that night was not a rejection of conservatism.

David Williams was doing better in the race until he lurched to the right.

The tea party movement holds itself up as the last arbiter of who is and isn’t a true conservative and tries to purge from the Republican Party anyone it deems a heretic. The irony, though, is that its partisans don’t understand what true conservatism is, nor do they understand that America is a center-right country.

Despite the sour economy and sour mood that fueled the rise of the tea party in 2009, a majority of voters rejected its most strident candidates, such as Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller, in favor of establishment Republicans or Democrats.

One notable exception was Rand Paul of Kentucky, who benefited from his father Ron Paul’s organization and donor list and had a Democratic opponent who ran a poor campaign. Jack Conway allowed the tea party to depict him as a liberal, which he is not, and his TV ad that dredged up one of Paul’s college pranks and questioned his faith turned many voters off. So did his arrogant statement at Fancy Farm that he was “one tough son of a bitch.”

James Comer ran a bipartisan campaign

Since then, polls have shown an increasingly negative public perception of the tea party movement. A survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Nov. 9-14, shows that 27 percent disagree with the tea party and 20 percent agree, while more than half didn’t know enough to have an opinion. The same poll shows the view of the Republican Party has also become more unfavorable, especially in tea party districts, during the time the tea party’s influence has grown.

Still, the movement’s leaders in Kentucky are saying that all but one of the Republican candidates lost in the 2011 general election because they didn’t toe the tea party line.

In a front-page article in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Nov. 12, Lexington radio talk show host Leland Conway said Republican candidate David Williams was defeated by Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear in a landslide because he was “an establishment candidate” who got “rejected by the tea party.”

“The establishment part of the Republican Party needs to learn that its candidates have to be true conservatives for the tea party to line up behind them and to win,” he said.

And David Adams, who manages GOP campaigns, took the same tone, saying, “The tea  party just wants to make sure the Republican Party stays true to conservatism.”

I’ve known Adams and Conway for a long time, and consider them friends, but I have to wonder what’s in the tea they’ve been drinking.

Adams’ candidate for governor in the primaries, tea party favorite Phil Moffett, lost to the more moderate Williams. Normally, GOP candidates appeal to their ideological base in the primary and moderate their stance in the general election contest to gain cross-over voters from the majority of Democrats and independents. Williams did the opposite.

In the primary, for example, he advocated forming a commission to study Kentucky’s tax structure and suggest changes to make it more business-friendly. But in the fall race, he lurched far to the right, advocating the abolition of the state income tax. That would likely have meant a higher sales tax or insufficient revenue to run even a smaller state government.

In an election in which the Republicans should have had a huge advantage, they lost every state office but one, that of commissioner of agriculture. State Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, got more votes than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, in any other race. Leland Conway said it was because Comer “ran unequivocably as a tea party candidate.”

It’s true that Comer did have the support of tea party activists like Mica Sims of Lexington, and it was a smart decision to appeal to the tea party, because like any minority movement of true believers, its troops are disciplined, well-organized and highly motivated. But in the general election campaign, Comer was also smart to run as a bipartisan candidate and avoid taking extreme positions.

I covered the state Republican rally in Lexington on election night for The Associated Press and got an interview with Comer before the results were in, but when it was clear he was going to be the winner. What he told me doesn’t jibe with Conway’s explanation.

According to Comer, he won because he ran a positive campaign, reached across party lines to get the backing of Democratic as well as Republican county officials, and enjoyed the support of farmers and young professionals — who tend to be the most progressive voters.

The other Republican who came closest to winning, treasurer candidate K.C. Crosbie, also ran as a moderate conservative and rejected the politics of division. Like Comer, she had the endorsement of influential Democrats, including Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.

Except for Williams and his running mate, Richie Farmer, those Republicans who lost by the largest margins were the ones who identified most closely with the tea party: Todd P’ Pool for attorney general, John T. Kemper III for auditor and Bill Johnson for secretary of state.

Of course, money always is a major factor in politics, and except in the treasurer’s race, Democratic candidates had more of it than Republicans did. Could it be that business owners and the affluent, who provide most of the cash in campaigns, didn’t like the new direction of the Republican Party and gave to Democrats instead? That’s certainly plausible, considering that Beshear ran as a centrist, supported the coal industry and had the backing of prominent Republicans such as former Congressman Larry Hopkins.

In an Oct. 24 cover story in Time magazine, “The Return of the Silent Majority,” Joe Klein wrote that what he found in his recent travels through the American heartland was that most Americans he talked with long for a more civil and more moderate political climate. They want results, which requires bipartisan cooperation and compromise. What they reject is the radical notion on the far right that Republicans must burn the country down to save it.

And when you think about it, incendiary politics is a most “un-conservative” notion.

If you look up the definition of “conservative” in the dictionary, you’ll find that its synonyms include “moderate” and “cautious.” And conservatism is defined as “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.”

What the tea partisans espouse is the opposite of stability, respect for institutions and gradual reform; they want a revolution. But few Americans are following them to the barricades because that isn’t the conservative way.

Libertarianism is not conservatism. If you want a conservative country, think of Andy Griffith, not Ayn Rand. True conservatives put more emphasis on tradition, community and authority than on radical individualism and unbridled freedom.

As one of my favorite political writers, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, wrote in 2006: “Traditional conservatives know that, absent the restraining hand of religion, tradition or the state, there is nothing to prevent human beings from acting in ways contrary to their own best interests or those of the community.”

The tea that was piping hot only a short time ago has grown cold and bitter, and many who found its flavor inviting then have lost their taste for it.

And that’s good for American democracy.


December 2011
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