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MunicipalReort1909

1909 illustration for "A Municipal Report" by John Edwin Jackson.

"A Municipal Report" is a short story by the American author William Sydney Porter who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. The story was first published in Hampton's Magazine in November 1909. It was later collected in the anthology Strictly Business (1910).

O. Henry wrote "A Municipal Report" in response to a statement made by Frank Norris, an American journalist and author, that only three cities in the United States are worthy of a novel.[1] An advocate for the Common Man and the Ordinary, O. Henry set out to prove that a small, conventional town (which Nashville, the setting of the story, was at the time) has just as much to offer in terms of human drama as the biggest cities. In addition to Norris, O. Henry quotes Rudyard Kipling who speaks of the pride of cities[2]. He also makes artistic use of dry, factual excerpts from Rand McNally, strategically interspersed throughout the story, as a great contrast to the vivid, personal account of Nashville and its residents he presents.

In the story, the unnamed narrator is sent to Nashville by a literary magazine to negotiate a contract with a promising contributor named Azalea Adair. He finds the city quiet and prosaic, the sort of place where nothing extraordinary ever happens. During his brief stay, however, he meets three exceptional characters; a despicable drunken loafer, a noble coach driver, and Azalea Adair who turns out to be an exquisite old-fashioned Southern lady. Quite unexpectedly, the narrator finds himself becoming a player in a drama that unfolds in the seemingly uneventful city. In the end, he leaves the city an accessory, after the fact, to murder.

Although not among the best remembered of O. Henry's stories today, "A Municipal Report" was once considered his masterpiece. The story received much critical acclaim, and it was voted the greatest American short story by readers of The New York Times in 1914.

Plot

The unnamed narrator arrives in Nashville one evening. After dinner at the hotel, he goes out in the drizzle to explore the area. Finding the city quiet, he soon returns to the hotel. In the lobby, he meets "Major" Wentworth Caswell, a tobacco-chewing, gabby, red-faced drunk. Caswell drags the narrator to the bar and annoys him thoroughly by talking incessantly about everything from the Civil War and his family history to his wife's income. After a couple of rounds, the narrator finally manages to get away. At the front desk on his way up to his room, he learns from the clerk that Caswell is a loafer and regarded as a nuisance, tolerated only because he is somehow able to pay for his drinks.

The following morning, the narrator goes out in search of a carriage. He is in town on a commission from a literary magazine to negotiate a contract with a contributor named Azalea Adair. The magazine hopes to sign the promising writer for two cents a word before someone else offers her much more. At the first corner from the hotel, the narrator sees a carriage and its driver, an old black man with a noble face wearing a remarkable long coat. The coat, originally a military officer's coat and Confederate gray in color, is now faded and variegated into mottled hues. It has been stitched up with twine in an attempt to recreate the splendid tassels and decorative patterns. There is only a single button left, the size of a half dollar and made of yellow horn, and the coat is fastened with more twine. The fantastic man opens the carriage door for the narrator. When the narrator gives Azalea Adair's address, however, the coachman suddenly becomes suspicious and asks why the visitor wants to go there. Then, quickly regaining his composure, the man explains that it is just a lonesome part of town which receives few visitors.

A mile-and-a-half ride later, the carriage arrives at a decayed mansion which at one time must have been magnificent. The narrator pays the standard fair of fifty cents and adds a generous tip, but the driver demands two dollars instead. They argue, and the narrator points out that he is a Southerner and not some visitor from the North ignorant of rates. The driver softens his tone in response but still insists, explaining that business is slow and he needs the two dollars badly. The narrator, having declared himself a Southern gentleman, is now obligated to give him the extra money. He begrudgingly takes out two one-dollar bills, one of which is in bad shape with a corner missing and a tear repaired with a strip of blue tissue paper pasted over it, and hands them over to the smiling coachman.

The narrator goes through the gate and is welcomed into the sparsely furnished house. It is obvious that Azalea Adair is very poor. She is thin and frail, already white-haired at fifty, but at the same time she has the air of a queen. The narrator finds her exquisite — an old-fashioned, sheltered but well-educated Southern lady. He is so enchanted that he is unable to discuss something as pedantic as a contract. Instead he makes an appointment for three o'clock the following afternoon to discuss business. As he rises to leave, the narrator comments on the quiet town, saying it seems the sort of place where few things out of the ordinary ever happen. Azalea gently but sincerely disagrees and suggests that it is in the quiet places that things do happen.

Just then, there is a knock at the back door and Azalea excuses herself. She returns a few minutes later, with brightened eyes and appearing very much relieved, and invites the narrator to stay for tea. She rings the bell and a young black girl appears. Azalea opens her purse and takes out a dollar bill. The narrator sees that the bill is missing a corner and is held together with a strip of blue tissue paper. It is undoubtedly the same bill he gave the carriage driver earlier. Azalea asks the girl to go to the store for tea and cake, explaining to the narrator that they happen to be out of tea.

Shortly after the girl goes out the back way, they hear her shriek out. An angry man's voice follows. Azalea calmly rises and leaves the room. The narrator hears the man's voice and also some slight scuffling noise. Azalea returns a couple of minutes later and explains that she has a tenant. Then she apologizes that she must rescind her invitation because the store was out of the kind of tea she always gets. Although he knows it is not true, the narrator accepts her excuse and takes his leave.

Returning to the center of town by streetcar, the narrator sees the same coachman at the corner near the hotel. He tells the man to be there for the three o'clock appointment the next day. He then asks about Miss Adair and learns that the driver used to belong to her father, Judge Adair. The narrator goes back to the hotel and decides to wire the magazine. He lies that Azalea Adair is holding out for eight cents a word and manages to obtain authorization for the increase.

Before dinner, the narrator is once again accosted by Caswell. He detests the man but is unable to get rid of him. At the bar, he sees Caswell take out two one-dollar bills and put one of them on the counter. The bill is missing a corner and is mended with blue tissue paper. That night, the narrator falls asleep in his room thinking about the dollar bill.

The next day, the narrator takes the same carriage out to Azalea Adair's home. This time, he tells the driver to wait. Azalea looks even paler and frailer than she did the day before. After signing the contract, she faints. The narrator dashes out and tells the driver to get a doctor. The man runs off on foot and returns in ten minutes with the doctor. The doctor listens to the narrator then calmly asks the driver, whom he calls Uncle Caesar, to get a pitcher of milk and some port wine from his house. When the man is gone, the doctor tells the narrator that it is just lack of food due to poverty and pride. He says Mrs. Caswell has devoted friends who would help, but she will not accept anything except from Uncle Caesar who was once owned by her family. Startled by the name, the narrator looks at the contract. It is signed Azalea Adair Caswell. The doctor goes on to say that she is married to a drunken, worthless loafer who takes even small amounts the old servant gives her.

Milk and wine revive Azalea who blames heart palpitations for the fainting spell. The narrator follows the doctor out. The doctor remarks on Uncle Caesar's regal bearing and tells the narrator that Caesar's grandfather was a king in Congo. As the doctor leaves, the narrator overhears Uncle Caesar talking to Azalea. Caesar asks about the two dollar bills, and Azalea admits that they were both taken. The narrator goes back in to conclude the business, taking it upon himself to offer Azalea Adair an advance of fifty dollars to seal the deal. Afterwards, Uncle Caesar drives him back to the hotel.

At 6:00pm, the narrator goes out for a stroll and sees Uncle Caesar at his usual corner. His coat looks more frayed and the last button is now gone. Two hours later, he notices a crowd gathered outside a drug store. Inside, Wentworth Caswell's lifeless body is laid out on an improvised couch. The narrator learns that Caswell was found dead on a dark street and bought over to the store by passersby. He had apparently been in a fight, and his fists are still clenched. The narrator listens as people struggle to find something nice to say about the loafer. As he stands next to the body, the narrator sees Caswell's right hand relax and something drop on the floor. He covers it with his foot and later picks it up unseen. That night at the hotel, the narrator hears that Caswell had been showing off fifty dollars earlier in the day, and the money was gone when his body was found.

The narrator leaves the city the following morning. As the train crosses over the Cumberland River, he takes out from his pocket the yellow-horn overcoat button and throws it out of the window into the river.

Footnotes

  1. The following quote, used in the introduction to "A Municipal Report," is taken from "The House with the Blinds" by Frank Norris. The short story was first published in the August 21, 1897 issue of the weekly San Francisco magazine The Wave: "Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say, or Nashville, Tennessee! There are just three big cities in the United States that are "story cities"—New York, of course, New Orleans, and, best of the lot, San Francisco."
  2. The quote used by O. Henry is from the dedication to The Seven Seas, a book of poetry by Kipling.

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