O. Henry's 'Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen'

Celebrating an American Tradition

Empty bowl with fork.
Image courtesy of Frédérique Voisin-Demery.

'Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen' by O. Henry appears in his 1907 collection, The Trimmed Lamp. The story, which features a classic O. Henry twist at the end, raises questions about the importance of tradition, particularly in a relatively new country like the United States.

Plot

An indigent character named Stuffy Pete waits on a bench in Union Square in New York City, just as he has on every Thanksgiving Day for the past nine years.

He has just come from an unexpected feast -- provided for him by "two old ladies" as an act of charity -- and he has eaten to the point of feeling sick.

But every year on Thanksgiving, a character named "the Old Gentleman" always treats Stuffy Pete to a bountiful restaurant meal, so even though Stuffy Pete has already eaten, he feels obligated to meet the Old Gentleman, as usual, and uphold the tradition.

After the meal, Stuffy Pete thanks the Old Gentleman and the two of them walk in opposite directions. Then Stuffy Pete turns the corner, collapses to the sidewalk, and has to be taken to the hospital. Shortly after, the Old Gentleman is also brought to the hospital, suffering from a case of "almost starvation" because he hasn't eaten in three days.

Tradition and National Identity

The Old Gentleman seems self-consciously obsessed with establishing and preserving a Thanksgiving tradition. The narrator points out that feeding Stuffy Pete once a year is "a thing that the Old Gentleman was trying to make a tradition of." The man considers himself "a pioneer in American tradition," and every year he offers the same overly formal speech to Stuffy Pete:

"I am glad to perceive that the vicissitudes of another year have spared you to move in health about the beautiful world. For that blessing along this day of thanksgiving is well proclaimed to each of us. If you will come with me, my man, I will provide you with a dinner that should make your physical being accord with the mental."

With this speech, the tradition becomes almost ceremonial. The purpose of the speech seems less to converse with Stuffy than to perform a ritual and, through elevated language, to give that ritual some kind of authority.

The narrator links this desire for tradition with national pride. He portrays the United States as a country self-conscious about its own youth and striving to keep pace with England. In his usual style, O. Henry presents all of this with a touch of humor. Of the Old Gentleman's speech, he writes hyperbolically:

"The words themselves formed almost an Institution. Nothing could be compared with them except the Declaration of Independence."

And in reference to the longevity of the Old Gentleman's gesture, he writes, "But this is a young country, and nine years is not so bad." The comedy arises from the mismatch between the characters' desire for tradition and their ability to establish it.

Selfish Charity?

In many ways, the story appears critical of its characters and their ambitions.

For example, the narrator refers to "the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals." That is, rather than commending the Old Gentleman and the two old ladies for their generosity in feeding Stuffy Pete, the narrator mocks them for making grand annual gestures but then, presumably, ignoring Stuffy Pete and others like him throughout the year.

Admittedly, the Old Gentleman seems much more concerned with creating a tradition (an "Institution") than with actually helping Stuffy. He deeply regrets not having a son who could maintain the tradition in future years with "some subsequent Stuffy." So, he is essentially fostering a tradition that requires someone to be impoverished and hungry. It could be argued that a more beneficial tradition would be aimed at wiping out hunger altogether.

And of course, the Old Gentleman seems much more concerned about inspiring thankfulness in others than about being thankful himself. The same might be said of the two old ladies who feed Stuffy his first meal of the day.

"Exclusively American"

Though the story doesn't shy away from pointing out the humor in the characters' aspirations and predicaments, its overall attitude toward the characters seems largely affectionate.

O. Henry takes a similar position in "The Gift of the Magi," in which he seems to laugh good-naturedly at the characters' mistakes, but not to judge them.

After all, it's hard to fault people for charitable impulses, even they come only once a year. And the way the characters all work so hard to establish a tradition is charming. Stuffy's gastronomic suffering, in particular, suggests (however comically) a dedication to the greater national good than to his own well-being. Establishing a tradition is important to him, too.

Throughout the story, the narrator makes several jokes about the self-centeredness of New York City. According to the story, Thanksgiving is the only time that New Yorkers make an effort to consider the rest of the country because it is "the one day that is purely American […] a day of celebration, exclusively American."

Perhaps what's so American about it is that the characters remain so optimistic and undaunted as they bumble their way toward traditions for their still-young country.