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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 42
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Feb 17, 2014
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The death of William Sydney Porter certainly would have come as no surprise to those aware of the health issues that eventually claimed the short-story writer on June 6, 1910.  Porter was right about three important points; he knew the drinking, smoking and late nights would catch up with him. 

But Porter also knew if the characters in his work could accurately portray and act out true examples human nature, then his stories would appeal to readers everywhere.  Unfortunately he didn't live to see his wit and captivating endings catch on in South America, across Europe and even Russia.  Porter's phrase "Bolivar cannot carry double" from The Roads We Take eventually became a Russian proverb.

As Porter's literary executor, Harry Peyton Steger was actually busier than ever.  Sixes and Sevens, a collection of 25 short stories was published in 1911 and it contained what J. Frank Dobie, a true fan of the Wild West, would later call the finest short story in American literature, "The Last of the Troubadours."

Steger had once been frustrated because Porter's shadowy lifestyle meant very few people outside of the author's regular haunts even knew he existed.  The other side of that coin was that now almost no one seemed to know the writer known as O. Henry was gone.

Steger had to advise a college professor in 1912 that Porter had been dead almost two years.

The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger 1899-1912 portray a man of literature who was completely at ease among the East Coast publishing elite and one that obviously cherished his days at Oxford.  Yet this was a man who never forgot there were still a few folks quick with the quill south of the Mason-Dixon Line and to his last breath Harry championed his professors at the University of Texas and the education that experience afforded him.

For years, for whatever reason, something had been missing from Steger's letters.  First he lost his health in 1906 and spent months Carlsbad, Austria recuperating from a mysterious kidney ailment.  Then he gave up his Rhodes Scholarship and launched into a period of social consciousness, living in the Whitechapel Settlement of the London slums where he served as a parochial visitor for the London Relief Committee and chronicled the despair of the impoverished and unemployed that were all around him. 

There was one brief, precious respite when his old UT buddy Roy Bedichek came across the pond for their long-awaited tramp around Europe.  But afterwards, Steger and Bedichek barely had money for steerage on a tramp steamer bound for North America.

That was followed by an extremely bleak and mostly unemployed year in New York City.  Then his predicament forced him into a job editing manuscripts for a scant $1.50 per day.  But after hiring on at Doubleday, Page & Company and spending a year working up to the position of literary advisor, Stegerisms started showing up in his letters again. 

Don't forget this man has already been a high school principal at Mineola after graduating from UT, taught Greek and Latin at Bonham High School, accepted a fellowship at UT for a year, did post-graduate work at Johns Hopkins University for a long, cold year, and spent a summer living in Germany to learn the language before moving to England to study at Oxford. 

And at this point, Harry is still in his late 20s. 

A lot can happen in a young man's life when he graduates from high school at the tender age of 15.

Now, as a wise old man of 29, Steger was, as playwright Montague Glass noted, the foster-father of the spoiled literary children of New York Bohemia.

And that uniquely colorful personality begins showing up in letters that were part business and part entertainment.  Glass once said that he was certain many details had to have been negotiated, but with Harry taking care of the contracts, all he seemed to remember was the laughter.

Here is a sampling of Steger's letters from 1912.

Mr. G.C. Field,

Dear Field:
I am afraid I don't know myself what I'm doing but it will stand a subscription to keep the Bodleian from becoming a Music Hall.  I enclose a check for one guinea.  If that is too small, send it back and I'll buy rum with it.  If it's acceptable, I shall try to do likewise each year for a term of ninety-nine years -- but this is no legal document and binds neither myself nor maidservant nor my manservant nor the ass within my gates.  But may my right hand cleave to the roof of my mouth if I let the Bodleian pass.

Yours sincerely,
H.P. Steger

Mrs. Corra Harris,
Pine
Log, Georgia

Dear Mrs. Harris:
That fellow you quoted as saying that "The Recording Angel" had sold forty thousand copies was not a liar, let us hope, but a prophet.  We are making a special campaign in
Georgia just now, and I hope there will be returns.  You know, of course, that the whole South is a mighty bad book market.  "The Recording Angel" is doing very well indeed here in New York City.

Dorothy has upset things for herself, and incidentally for me, by suddenly being called upon to undergo an operation, by escaping Lethe through ether with a horrible narrow margin, and by now getting well rapidly.  Margaret Porter (Miss O. Henry) is living with us and if Dorothy continues to mend I shall jump on a train at the Pennsylvania Station and crawl off somewhere in Georgia by slow car or mule and find my way to Pine Log.

Yours sincerely,
H.P. Steger

Mr. Wainwright Evans,

Dear Evans:
It was good to hear from you after so long a silence.  I myself have one foot on the train step on my way South for a week's business, so I shan't be able to make the English language do many ticks.  However, I have this day written Dr. Galloway.  I don't think the old gentleman has much faith in anything about me except my violation of college rules.  He used to meet me occasionally in my capacity as a violator. 

Yours sincerely,
Steger

Miss Roberta Lavender,
University of Texas

Dear Miss Lavendar:
Thrice I roamed about the corridors of your office and thrice I was doomed to disappointment.  I forget how many times Hector dragged Cleopatra around the walls of
Corinth, but I do know how hard I tried to find you.  I wanted to see you surely.  Don't forget my whereabouts if you come East.

Yours sincerely,
Harry Peyton Steger

Mr. Irvin S. Cobb,
Yonkers, New York.

Dear Cobb:
There ought not be anything the matter with the choice little volume of short stories -- by Irvin S. Cobb.  Publishers and booksellers and all that class of highwaymen say that there is nothing to a book of short stories.  I think this is correct ninety-nine and forty-four hundredths cases.  O. Henry's short stories sell better today than they did two or three years ago.  Kipling's keep up their sale, too.  Won't you send me a choice selection of your own wares, made by your own fair hand, and let me take a look at them?  Make 'em as funny as you can without getting the reader pinched for disturbing the peace.

Yours sincerely,
Harry Peyton Steger

Mr. Montague Glass,
Villa Aristide,
St. Malo, France,

Dear Mont:
Will it have to be a book of stories this spring from you or is there a chance for something more close to the ancient novel so popular among the Greeks?

It was careless of me to omit in my letter yesterday the news that the black cat presented us with six kittens during my absence in Canada.  Five of them are a composite gray and are precisely alike.  The sixth is black with a white collar button.  They are all doing well, except that the mother spends a large part of her day carrying members of her family from one room to another.  When I left home this morning, she was running three different establishments -- the cellar where she had put three of her offspring, the closet in my room where one lay on my best trousers, and the closet in Dorothy's room where the other two flourished and made a great noise.  We have to keep all the doors open so that she can circulate.  Perhaps the kindly verdict of this month's Current Literature will interest you.  They have reprinted your story, Mr. Lo Pinto. 

Yours sincerely,
Harry Peyton Steger

PS: Does Mary Caroline know that Dorothy won a 3/4 mile swimming race several weeks ago, and a near-gold bracelet thereby?

Mr. H.B. Huebsch
225 Fifth Ave.,
New York City.

Dear Benny:
This confirms my oral opinion to you of "The Mission of Victoria Wilhelmina."  This is the real article and make no mistake.  Every line in it is true, and it will shock only the inexperienced and smug.  I do think that the harshness of the first two or three pages is gratuitously great, and ought to be lightened.  I am firmly convinced this change is necessary.

Yours sincerely,
Harry Peyton Steger

Mr. Irvin S. Cobb,
Yonkers, New York.

Dear Cobb:
L.W. Payne, Jr., of the
University of Texas, is getting together for Rand, McNally & Company a Southern Reader.  He seemed pleased and delighted when I told him there were people actually writing today who were Southerners.  On my personal assurance that you, Harris Dickens, and Mrs. Cora Harris would die in time and leave something behind you, he wants to include you in his selection.

Yours sincerely,
Steger

Mr. Thomas Metcalf,
175 Fifth Ave.,
New York City.

Dear Tommie:
I have always suspected that beneath your gentlemanly and cultured veneer you were really a pretty decent sort...

Yours sincerely,
Harry

Mr. Montague Glass,
504 W. 143rd Street,
New York City.

Dear Mont:
Sign this contract and return one copy at once without a quibble, scribble or cavil and no questions will be answered.  Initial the inked out paragraph on the third page.  The exemption on the first thousand copies won't amount to anything.  I'll agree right here to pay you the royalty on these first copies if you are not satisfied a year from now.  You may reserve dramatic, fishing and Halley's Comet rights.

Yours sincerely,
Harry Peyton Steger

Previous Steger articles:

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_86954.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_86956.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_86957.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_86955.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_86965.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87117.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87118.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87121.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87207.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87123.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87213.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87214.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_69808.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87235.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87310.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87311.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87313.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87316.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87617.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87618.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87620.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87759.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87765.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87766.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87767.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87768.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87769.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_88065.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87929.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87930.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_87970.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_88033.shtml

http://www.ntxe-news.com/artman/publish/article_88034.shtml