Before he was known as O. Henry and the author of “The Gift of the Magi,” William Sidney Porter wrote another yarn about a husband and wife who miscommunicate. Instead of trading Christmas presents in a touching tale of self-sacrifice, they exchange “some hard words” over breakfast. A little later, they regret their remarks and seek to make peace. When they meet again, however, they fire off a new round of accusations—painful to them in their fictional world but amusing to readers who recognize a comic mixture of spite and affection in a marriage.
Porter never published this piece of apprentice work from about 1895, titled “The Return of the Songster.” It has languished in an archive at the University of Virginia, and it might be there still (or never archived at all) except for the fact that, under the name of O. Henry, Porter went on to master a form of the short story that featured a surprising conclusion. “The Return of the Songster” is now collected, along with two other previously unprinted pieces, in “101 Stories,” the Library of America’s comprehensive edition of this popular writer’s work, edited by Ben Yagoda. The book’s appearance in this distinguished series provides fresh evidence that, despite occasional skepticism from critics and scholars, O. Henry has secured a place in the country’s literary pantheon.