Few American authors wrote as many stories set in the old South as William Sydney Porter, who used the pen name, “O.Henry.” There are differing versions of how and why Porter chose the nom de plume O. Henry, each with varying degrees of credibility. Suffice it to say that he is considered one of America’s great writers of fiction, and his literary works have stood the test of time.
Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and after his untimely death in his forties, he was buried a couple of hours away in Asheville, North Carolina. In his relatively short life, he produced more stories than many authors who survived to ripe old ages. When anyone mentions O.Henry, you usually think of irony with a capital “I” because his stories ordinarily have surprise ironical endings. But they also bristle with great wit. O. Henry only wrote fiction, but references to real persons and events are sometimes interwoven with his fictional creations. So, in addition to reading a good story, today’s readers of O. Henry often learn unfamiliar things about the past. And some may be motivated to explore these little-known persons and events more deeply.
The story I have chosen to write about is classic O. Henry; artful witticisms, references to real persons, mixed with fictional characters, and the characteristic surprising twist at the end. The tale is set in the early 1900s, in the fictional town of Toombs City, Georgia, where the protagonist, Colonel Telfair, serves as the editor of a monthly literary magazine, The Rose of Dixie, whose masthead bears the caption “Of, for, and by the South.” The Rose of Dixie is also the title of the story.
The plot revolves around a visit to Colonel Telfair from a New York promoter, a Mr. T.T. Thaker. In the amusing encounter that ensues, the author contrasts the caricature of a fairly typical Southerner, an unreconstructed one, with a distinctive Yankee possessed with predisposed Northern opinions of Southerners. O. Henry’s literary career was sandwiched in between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was a time when authors didn’t feel constrained in their expressions of ideas and portrayals of characters. So O. Henry could exhibit the blemishes as well as the fine points of both Southerners and Yankees. It wasn’t until a later decade that authors began stereotyping Southerners to accommodate political and social agendas.
The character Thaker cannot understand why the magazine limits itself to a Southern readership. He asserts that it could have a much larger circulation, and indeed make more money, if it also appealed to readers in other parts of the country. Colonel Telfair explains that although a larger circulation and more income would be desirable, the magazine’s mission is primarily Southern authors and Southern readers.
The New Yorker aggressively pursues his argument by claiming that he wants to make a sizable investment in the magazine, and he insists that the magazine’s readers need a change from “goobers, governors, and Gettysburg.” Thaker then produces a bulging manila envelope filled with suggested articles, four of which were written by New Yorkers, and one penned by a Chicago newspaper woman. He also recommends poems by the Indiana native, James Whitcomb Riley, and proceeds to quote from one of Riley’s especially dreadful poems. Tactlessly, Thaker recommends photographs taken by George B. McClellan, forgetting momentarily that McClellan is the son of the famous Union General.
Colonel Telfair listens politely even as Thaker erroneously refers to the Mason and Dixon Line as Mason and Hamlin; a Massachusetts company that manufactures pianos. Finally, the Colonel, in an attempt to courteously persuade Thaker to end his presentation, suggests that he always “considers” whatever is offered. Telfair even admits that there is a sizable unfilled space in the upcoming January issue, but that he is tentatively considering printing a special document that will fill the space. Before leaving, Thaker tries desperately to determine what this special document is, and who the author is. But Telfair remains mum.
Returning two weeks later, Mr. Thaker learns that the January issue of The Rose of Dixie has been assembled for publication. As he leafs through a copy of the magazine, Thaker finds the special document, which is described as follows:
SECOND MESSAGE TO CONGRESS
THE ROSE OF DIXIE
A Member of the Well-known
BULLOCH FAMILY, OF GEORGIA
Although this is a typical O. Henry ending, many of today’s readers may not be aware that Theodore Roosevelt’s mother was the renowned Martha “Mittie” Bulloch of Georgia, a member of Roswell’s famous Bulloch family. The stately family mansion, Bulloch Hall, still stands in historic Roswell, and it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mittie Bulloch was also a widely known American socialite, and regarded as a classic Southern Belle: beautiful, flirtatious, witty, and spirited. – It is claimed that she was one of the inspirations for Gone With the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara. Indeed, Margaret Mitchell was raised in the neighboring city of Atlanta, only a couple of decades after Mittie’s death. While a young reporter with the Atlanta Journal, Mitchell interviewed one of Mittie’s childhood friends who was still alive, and had been a bridesmaid at Mittie’s highly-publicized wedding to wealthy New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.
The illustrious wedding took place in Bulloch Hall and after her marriage Mittie moved to New York, where she remained an unreconstructed Southerner, and never wavered in her support of the Confederacy even though her husband supported the Union. As President, Mittie’s son Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., described General Robert E. Lee as “the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.” When O. Henry wrote The Rose of Dixie, many readers still recognized the Bulloch name, and General Lee was still held in high regard throughout the nation.
In O. Henry’s story we read that a copy of Colonel Telfair’s magazine contained several photographs of The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home on the outskirts of Nashville. Photographs of the Hermitage, or even references to it might not mean a lot to today’s audiences. But I suspect they meant a great deal to readers of this story in the early 1900s. A few decades later, Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel The Last Tycoon begins with a moving and somewhat romantic account of a visit to the Hermitage in the darkened early morning hours before sunrise.
When The Rose of Dixie was published, the establishment wasn’t yet railing against slave-owning presidents like Andrew Jackson. It was only years later that early American slave-owning presidents were vilified for engaging in a practice that was generally accepted during and even before their lifetimes. We can assume that many of O. Henry’s readers in the South didn’t recall Andrew Jackson’s refusal to allow the nullification of high tariffs that penalized antebellum Southern planters. These high tariffs and disagreements on matters such as states rights eventually caused Vice President John Calhoun to resign from the Jackson administration.
O. Henry mentions that one issue of The Rose of Dixie contained a lengthy biography of Belle Boyd, a name that might not be familiar with present-day readers or even with O. Henry’s contemporaries. But many readers of Colonel Telfair’s magazine would have recognized the identity of the courageous Confederate spy, Maria Isabella Boyd. Belle Boyd often risked her life to obtain information helpful to Confederate forces. Using the manipulative wiles that antebellum Southern ladies were noted for, Belle deviously flirted with Union officers while prying for confidential information. Often she would conceal herself in closets and other similar hiding places in order to eavesdrop on conversations. Belle Boyd was even fired upon by Union troops as she made her way across battlefields to advise Confederate officers what she had learned. After being arrested and imprisoned several times, she escaped to England during the last years of the war.
There are many interesting things to be gleaned from reading The Rose of Dixie. It captures a place in time; a nostalgic place that no longer exists. And, although it doesn’t contain anything offensive, it is doubtful that it would be published today. It is unfortunately out of step with many of today’s readers, but I think there is still a significant audience for this genre. The Rose of Dixie can be read in its entirety on the Internet.