Last month my book club selected two books: Cabbages and Kings and The Gentle Grafter both by O. Henry for our September reading. At the time I knew very little about O. Henry and I knew nothing about his writing... except that he'd written a sweet Christmas tale about loving sacrifice between a married couple entitled, The Gift of the Magi.
Because of I knew so little I decided to do a little research before I began reading. Unfortunately both Cabbages and Kings and The Gentle Grafter are out of print and little to no information is available about either. Even the used copy I bought (pictured right) is without a jacket summary.
Thus when I opened The Gentle Grafter I had no idea what I was about to read... except that it must be about a con man (the title) and that O. Henry is famous for his surprise endings. Not much to go on, but I plunged in.
The Gentle Grafter is a book consisting of several tales of grafting around the turn of the last century. In each chapter the anonymous narrator either tells a tale of his own con work in various cities around the United States, or is told a tale by one of two other grafters, Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker. Each chapter is sprinkled with wit and wordplay and ends with a few surprising twist or turn that left me either groaning or chuckling and sometimes both. I was hooked before I started the second chapter.
Since finishing The Gentle Grafter I've done a little more research about O. Henry and learned some fascinating details including the fact that O. Henry is actually the literary "pen name" of William Sydney Porter and was chosen randomly. Contrary to some belief the "O" does not stand for anything, it was simply a letter chosen by Porter because he thought it was "easy to write." William Porter (or O. Henry) quickly became famous for his stories because of their "wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings." -- all clearly evident in The Gentle Grafter. And interestingly enough, Porter actually served some time in a Federal Prison after being arrested for embezzlement, though he was released for good behavior.
At 235 pages and published in 1911, my copy of The Gentle Grafter was a relatively quick read once I took the time. I found myself reading a chapter or two before bed and often had to read passages aloud to my husband, they were just too good to keep to myself. I should note that because of the era when this book was written there are some objectionable aspects. Aside from the fact that main characters make their living grafting there are certain perspectives of race and gender that while generally acceptable at the time are frowned upon today. However, keeping that in mind this still is a good read. The copy I read also included some fun pen and ink illustrations and captions that went along with each chapter's story.
In my opinion, The Gentle Grafter is a lost gem of literature and it's a shame it is out of print. While it is not to be compared with Dickens or Austen -- it's nothing like those classic works, it should still be the "To Be Read" list of those who've enjoyed O. Henry's short stories or even those who, like me, are new to his works. Having enjoyed it so much I plan to read more of O. Henry's works, including the aforementioned, Cabbages And Kings.
Although your library may not own a copy I have found that several copies are available through used book sellers online at reasonable prices. Also, electronic copies of many of O. Henry's works are available online for free, but personally I prefer holding a book in my hands to reading one on my computer, so I located a copy for my library through Amazon.com.