An Early Parable by O. Henry

Story type: Literature

My Dear Mr. Steger: My idea is to write the story of a man–an individual, not a type–but a man who, at the same time, I want to represent a “human nature type,” if such a person could exist. The story will teach no lesson, inculcate no moral, advance no theory. I want it to be something that it won’t or can’t be–but as near as I can make it–the true record of a man’s thoughts, his description of his mischances and adventures, his TRUE opinions of life as he has seen it and his ABSOLUTELY HONEST deductions, comments, and views upon the different phases of life that he passes through.

I do not remember ever to have read an autobiography, a biography, or a piece of fiction that told the TRUTH. Of course, I have read stuff such as Rousseau and Zola and George Moore and various memoirs that were supposed to be window panes in their respective breasts; but, mostly, all of them were either liars, actors, or posers. (Of course, I’m not trying to belittle the greatness of their literary expression.)

All of us have to be prevaricators, hypocrites and liars every day of our lives; otherwise the social structure would fall into pieces the first day. We must act in one another’s presence just as we must wear clothes. It is for the best.

The trouble about writing the truth has been that the writers have kept in their minds one or another or all of three thoughts that made a handicap–they were trying either to do a piece of immortal literature, or to shock the public or to please editors. Some of them succeeded in all three, but they did not write the TRUTH. Most autobiographies are insincere from beginning to end. About the only chance for the truth to be told is in fiction. It is well understood that “all the truth” cannot be told in print–but how about “nothing but the truth”? That’s what I want to do.

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I want the man who is telling the story to tell it–not as he would to a reading public or to a confessor–but something in this way: Suppose he were marooned on an island in mid-ocean with no hope of ever being rescued; and, in order to pass away some of the time he should tell a story to HIMSELF embodying his adventure and experiences and opinions. Having a certain respect for himself (let us hope) he would leave out the “realism” that he would have no chance of selling in the market; he would omit the lies and self-conscious poses, and would turn out to his one auditor something real and true.

So, as truth is not to be found in history, autobiography, press reports (nor at the bottom of an H. G. Wells), let us hope that fiction may be the means of bringing out a few grains of it.

The “hero” of the story will be a man born and “raised” in a somnolent little southern town. His education is about a common school one, but he learns afterward from reading and life. I’m going to try to give him a “style” in narrative and speech–the best I’ve got in the shop. I’m going to take him through all the main phases of life–wild adventure, city, society, something of the “under world,” and among many characteristic planes of the phases. I want him to acquire all the sophistication that experience can give him, and always preserve his individual honest HUMAN view, and have him tell the TRUTH about everything.

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It is time to say now, that by the “truth” I don’t mean the objectionable stuff that so often masquerades under the name. I mean true opinions a true estimate of all things as they seem to the “hero.” If you find a word or a suggestive line or sentence in any of my copy, you cut it out and deduct it from the royalties.

I want this man to be a man of natural intelligence, of individual character, absolutely open and broad minded; and show how the Creator of the earth has got him in a rat trap–put him here “willy nilly” (you know the Omar verse); and then I want to show what he does about it. There is always the eternal question from the Primal Source–“What are you going to do about it?” Please don’t think for the half of a moment that the story is going to be anything of an autobiography. I have a distinct character in my mind for the part, and he does not at all.

(Here the letter ends. He never finished it.)

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