Back O. Henry, “A Retrieved Reformation”

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From O. Henry: 101 Stories

“In a minute, Jimmy’s pet drill was biting smoothly into the steel door.” Illustration by American artist Arthur I. Keller (1867–1924) for “A Retrieved Reform,” the title of O. Henry’s story when it appeared in the April 1903 issue of The Cosmopolitan. The illustration appeared as the frontispiece to the issue.

Next month, Library of America publishes its long-awaited collection of O. Henry’s stories—containing 101 of them in all.

Most readers associate O. Henry (whose real name was William Sydney Porter) with the twist endings and reversals of fortune in such famous stories as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” but for the first half of the twentieth century perhaps his most enduring fictional legacy was the affable crook known as Jimmy Valentine.

Alexander Woollcott, a New Yorker critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table, wrote about O. Henry’s unexpected success in the theater—for which Porter received virtually nothing in remuneration. Struggling to recover from years of alcoholism and hard up for cash, Porter sold the rights to the story featuring Valentine to theatrical producer George Tyler for $500. “Within three weeks from Tyler’s first reading of ‘A Retrieved Reformation,’” wrote Woollcott in 1921, “its dramatization began a run which was to make reputations for some people and fortunes for others, which was to tweak and tantalize playgoers all over America, England, France, Spain, and South Africa, and which was to breed a very epidemic of plays in which no self-respecting protagonist would think of approaching the first act without a neat murder or at least a bank robbery to his credit.”

Porter was dead within a year of the premiere, but Jimmy Valentine lived on. Shortly after Woollcott published his essay, the play Alias Jimmy Valentine (which had already been made into two movies) was revived for Broadway. Woollcott saw the production of “this engaging melodrama” and, somewhat in spite of himself, gave it a rave review in The New York Times, extolling the cast and observing that everyone in the theater “had a good time.”

For our Story of the Week selection, we resurrect Jimmy Valentine once again in the comic tale that gave him life, and our introduction discusses the two leading candidates that have been suggested by biographers as the real-life burglars who inspired the tale.

Read “A Retrieved Reformation” by O. Henry

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