Have you ever woken up in the morning and thought, "Man, I really hope I go to jail today"? Yeah, neither have we. For most of us, jail is a place we'd like to avoid—but what if it was the nicest and most comfortable place you could imagine? For Soapy, a homeless man and the main character of "The Cop and the Anthem," this is unfortunately the case.
In this story, we follow Soapy around New York City as he tries very hard to get himself thrown into jail, which is where place he wants to spend the coming winter. We won't spoil anything for you, but Soapy's goal changes drastically and maybe a little surprisingly as we near the end.
"The Cop and the Anthem" is one of O. Henry's most famous stories. It was first published in the Sunday edition of New York World in 1904 and was later included in The Four Million, O. Henry's collection of short stories set in New York City.
This classic is still (over a hundred years after it first saw print) finding its way into many anthologies and classrooms, and has been translated into French, Spanish, Japanese, and other languages. O. Henry even got to see this story made into a short film, called "Trying to Get Arrested."
Oh yeah, and O. Henry? That wasn't even the author's real name. He was born William Sidney Porter, but he later changed his middle name to Sydney (with a y because it's so much cuter that way). Over his career he would be published as S.H. Peters, James L Bliss, T. B. Dowd, Howard Clark, and Olivier Henry. This guy must have had some serious identity issues—how many names does a person need?
Well, if you've got something to hide, multiple names can really come in handy. See, O. Henry spent some hard time in a federal penitentiary after being convicted of embezzling from an Austin, Texas, bank. Even though he'd been writing, publishing, editing, and illustrating (among many other things) for years, his first real short story efforts happened during the three years and three months he was in jail.
His first eight stories were even written and submitted from jail under the pen name O. Henry (no relation to the candy bar)—a way to shield his prison record from the public. And shield his prison record O. Henry did. He only lived about nine years after his release from jail, but he managed to hide his record until six years after his death.
In case you are wondering, there is evidence to suggest that O. Henry didn't really embezzle anything, and most scholars agree he was probably innocent. The important thing here is this: O. Henry's experience in prison probably helped him develop the empathy he needed to write about someone like Soapy (main character of "The Cop and the Anthem"). O. Henry's sure lucky he lived in the early 1900s instead of the early 2000s or he never would have gotten away with hiding his criminal past. With that, we hope you enjoy his very short masterpiece.
As a student, you probably hear a lot about goals. Maybe your parents, teachers, and guidance counselors are always asking you, "What are your goals? What are your plans for the future? What do you want to be when you grow up?" You probably also have a lot of people making goals and plans for you. For example, it was probably your teacher's goal for you to read this story by O. Henry. Given the choice, you would be working out with your Wii or watching an Arrow marathon or making a movie or pimping your ride, or whatever it is kids are up to these days.
But maybe reading the O. Henry story helps you fulfill a larger goal, like doing well in English class so you can raise your GPA. Who knows, maybe that "A" will help you get into college, or at least get your parents off your case for not doing enough homework. Or, maybe you—dare we say it—decided not to read the O. Henry story at all, but use study guides and summaries instead. Some people might call this cheating; others might call it taking control of one's destiny, deciding what we want to read and how we want to learn.
Maybe you know exactly what you want out of life, or maybe you have absolutely no idea. Maybe you want to be president. Maybe you just want to be with that special someone and raise a family. Or maybe you just want the basic necessities: enough clothes to cover you, enough shelter to keep you from freezing to death, and enough food to keep body and soul together.
That last example is how Soapy, star of this story, is when we first meet him. His life mirrors his goals. Toward the end of the story, his goals change drastically—but we don't get to see whether his life changes drastically as a result of his new goals. Still, the story does seem to argue that the dreams, plans, and goals we have play a big part in how we live our lives. It seems to say, "If you don't like the way your life is going, maybe your goals and plans need tweaking.
It asks readers, "What really makes you feel good? What inspires you? What is truly important to you? What about your life don't you like? How can you arrange things to make your life more the way you want it to be? How can you gain more control over your own destiny?" Hopefully "The Cop and the Anthem" can inspire you—the way a piece of music inspires Soapy—to do something to make your life even better than it already is.
Give old O. Henry a try; we seriously doubt you will be disappointed.
The O. Henry Museum
O. Henry had some wild times when he was in Austin. Read all about 'em.
The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
O. Henry even has half a literary prize named after him.
"Trying to Get Arrested" (1909)
O. Henry got to see the "The Cop and the Anthem" adapted into a short film.
The Cop and the Anthem (1917)
Since there is very little dialogue in the story, it was probably perfect for the silent film era.
O. Henry's Filmography
We are amazed at how many film adaptations there are of O. Henry's stories. Check it out!
The O. Henry Papers
This compilation includes the article that contains the only interview O. Henry gave.
A nice little bio from Random House.
"Five Myths About Homelessness"
Read this article from The Washington Post. Does "The Cop and the Anthem" draw on or contribute to any of these myths?
"O. Henry's Talent Found in Prison"
This New York Times article breaks the news to the public about O. Henry's secret prison record. Scandalous! Luckily, O. Henry had already been dead for six years. That's a good way to avoid the drama.
On The Red Skelton Hour
Watch part one of this famous adaptation. If you like what you see, follow the links to the left for parts one through four.
Free Audio Book! Woo Hoo!
You listen to "The Cop and the Anthem" and all the other stories from O. Henry's collection The Four Million.
The Family O. Henry
Here's O. Henry with his wife and daughter.
An Older O. Henry
The last picture of him before his death.