O. Henry’s Banana Republic: Cabbages and Kings

William Sydney Porter

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When I go on a quest for Road Works—literature for the place I’m traveling to—I am often choosing to read books that I might otherwise not even open. Such is the case with Cabbages and Kings, O. Henry’s novel-length collection of inter-related stories written when he was on the lam from Texas, charged with embezzlement while working as a bank teller. The last time I read O. Henry was in junior high–his popular end-twisting tales such as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

Cabbages and Kings (1896) offers a look at Honduras—under the guise of the title Anchuria—as a banana republic, a term coined by Henry (which is the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910). It is often laugh out loud funny, and the satire is cutting. The author apparently holed up in Trujillo, on the coast, while avoiding the authorities, and the town becomes the fictional Coralio. The stories truly do include “shoes and ships and sealing wax” as noted in “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” the allusion in the title. The story on “shoes” is very funny as, of course, the residents—with the exception of the expatriates—don’t wear shoes. How does the young consul convince the local people to purchase the large inventory of shoes that his intended father-in-law has brought with him to set up a store? Rather than “kings,” it’s presidents as the government of a banana republic turns over rather frequently. Graft is a recurrent theme. One of the laudable stories concerns the creation of a national navy, outfitted with a sloop taken by the Customs office and staffed by an “Admiral,” who is known as a half-wit on land but a keen sailor on the sea.

Henry calls the book a “patched comedy,” and that is an apt assessment. It opens with a President and his ladylove, an opera singer, trying to debunk the country with a goodly amount of the treasury in a valise. That story is not resolved fully until the “round up” at the end of the narrative when the author ties up lose ends. Henry uses high-toned language of the time that may seem archaic, but the narrative is still very accessible once one or two chapters have been read. The American consul—who is on the ground to protect, frankly, the business interests of such USA companies as Vesuvius Fruit—seems to rotate fairly frequently, and at least two of the appointments occur due to the young men being spurned romantically in the states. They wish to escape to the outer reaches, and they get their wish in appointments in Coralio. This is definitely a man’s world, where the guys sit around on the coolest porch available, drink, and share stories. There are women characters but definitely supporting cast only.

The stories sketched together actually give a decent depiction of Honduras in the late 19th century with a good deal of humor thrown in. The twist endings still occur in some of the tales as when two young men try to make their fortunes from the overwhelming vanity of the president du jour—one by painting his portrait, and the other by taking his picture with his Brownie camera. Consistently, Henry is a master of irony.

Henry’s experiences with government, people on the lam, and drink serve him well as these themes recur throughout the narratives. He quit Honduras to face the charges back home as his wife was dying of consumption (tuberculosis).  His daughter stayed with his wife’s parents during the three years that he was incarcerated in the Ohio penitentiary, yet again another fertile site for stories yet to come.  Cabbages and Kings is one of those unusual lost titles that I’m very glad I found for this trip to Honduras.

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