On Friday night I went to see my niece Amanda perform in a drama. The Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre had adapted four short stories by O Henry for the stage–While The Auto Waits, One Thousand Dollars, The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi. Even though I had taught two of the short stories on which the plays were based to my high school English students, I didn’t really know anything about their author O Henry.
I read O Henry’s biography in the program with interest. His real name was William Porter and he was an alcoholic who landed up in prison for embezzlement. He wrote short stories under a pseudonym in order to support his family. His wife died of tuberculosis. He continued to drink heavily and ended up dying of health problems caused by his severe alcoholism, thus leaving his daughter an orphan. Interestingly O Henry’s stories are all about doing the ‘right’ thing, making choices that benefit those you love, not trying to be someone you’re not, and willingly making sacrifices for the good of others. O Henry’s own personal life seems pretty far from the ideals he touted in his stories. There was a real disconnect between the artist and his art.
I based the film unit in one of my high school English courses on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The students and I learned all about his life. A faithful husband he remained together with his wife Alma till his death, even though in Hollywood such long-lasting marriages are rare. He and his wife worked together and were excellent partners whose relationship was characterized by some as idyllic. When Hitchcock received his lifetime achievement award his wife was the only person he thanked and he thanked her for many different things. Yet one of the major themes of Hitchcock’s films is that a happy marriage in an unattainable ideal. Hitchcock’s own marriage seemed almost the opposite to the marriages he portrayed in his films. There was a real disconnect between the artist and his art.
In 2009 I published a review of Canadian author David Bergen’s book The Time Between in which I noted the disconnect between the grim, dark, troubling, often sordid lives of the characters in his books and Bergen’s own life. Morley Walker in a 2005 piece in Quill and Quire remarks on the same thing. How can this writer who is so disciplined and dedicated to his family, work and community populate his novels with such troubled and dysfunctional characters? There is a real disconnect between the artist and his art.
There are authors, film makers and visual artists whose work reflects their own life experiences. This doesn’t seem to be the case for Bergen, Hitchcock or O Henry. Does art imitate life? Apparently not always the life of its creator.