By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’ (1906) is a short story by the US short-story writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). His stories are characterised by their irony, their occasional sentimentality, and by their surprise twist endings. Although ‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’ is lacking in sentimentality, it contains O. Henry’s trademark twist at the end of the short narrative.
The story is narrated by a man in a café who gets talking to a well-travelled man who considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’ and who dislikes local or national pride.
You can read ‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of O. Henry’s story below.
‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man in a crowded café late one night. A cosmopolite – someone who holds ‘cosmopolitan’ attitudes and considers himself a citizen of the world rather than one country or city – comes and sits next to the narrator, and the two of them strike up a conversation.
This newcomer is named E. Rushmore Coglan. He tells the narrator about his various travels around the world and the things he has seen and experienced. As he is talking, the narrator is reminded of Rudyard Kipling, the Anglo-Indian writer who wrote a poem about men who travel the world but ‘cling to their cities’ where they grew up, instilled with a strong sense of pride in their hometowns. Coglan appears unafflicted by such civic pride.
The music band in the café start playing ‘Dixie’, a folk song popular among Americans from the Southern states. The narrator observes that this is a common tune to be heard in New York cafés, even though New York, obviously, wasn’t one of the ‘Dixie’ states.
While the song is playing, the narrator observes a dark-haired young man enthusiastically waving his hat along to it. When this young man joins Coglan and the narrator at their table, the narrator turns to this newcomer, asking whereabouts he is from. But Coglan takes offence at this question, arguing passionately that the world would be a better place when men ‘quit being fools about some mildewed town or ten acres of swampland just because we happened to be born there.’
Coglan then reasserts his belief in being a cosmopolite or ‘citizen of the terrestrial sphere’ (i.e., Earth), rather than taking pride in being from some city or town in particular. He then gets up and leaves the narrator sitting with the dark-haired man. Shortly after this, there is a commotion in another part of the café, and the narrator learns from the waiter that Coglan has been brawling with another customer, who said something disparaging about Mattawamkeag in Maine – Coglan’s hometown.
‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’: analysis
With their brevity and their surprise twist endings, O. Henry’s lighter stories can sometimes remind us of jokes, with their setup followed by a punchline with subverts or twists what has gone before. ‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’ reminds us of the structure of a joke more than most.
O. Henry goes to some length to sketch out Coglan’s cosmopolitan outlook and his intense dislike of narrow parochialism or patriotism. When it turns out that even he can become roused to anger when somebody disparages his hometown, the ‘moral’ is clear: nobody is above such civic pride (or, indeed, civic touchiness).
In ending in this way, ‘A Cosmopolite in a Café’ bears out the lesson of the Rudyard Kipling poem which the narrator recalls midway through the story. The poem is ‘To the City of Bombay’ (1894), which begins:
The cities are full of pride,
Challenging each to each—
This from her mountain-side,
That from her burdened beach.
They count their ships full tale—
Their corn and oil and wine,
Derrick and loom and bale,
And rampart’s gun-flecked line;
City by City they hail:
‘Hast aught to match with mine?’
The part which the narrator goes on to quote comes shortly after this:
(On high to hold her fame
That stands all fame beyond,
By oath to back the same,
Making her mere-breathed name
Their bond upon their bond.)
But such pride cuts two ways: if hearing the name of their beloved city breathed reverently is enough to ‘bond’ two men together, hearing it being disrespected can inspire paroxysms of anger.
Of course, Coglan’s reaction at the end of the story, to someone slighting his Maine hometown, shows his earlier talk of cosmopolitanism to be empty rhetoric:
What does it matter where a man is from? Is it fair to judge a man by his post-office address? Why, I’ve seen Kentuckians who hated whiskey, Virginians who weren’t descended from Pocahontas, Indianians who hadn’t written a novel, Mexicans who didn’t wear velvet trousers with silver dollars sewed along the seams, funny Englishmen, spendthrift Yankees, cold-blooded Southerners, narrow-minded Westerners, and New Yorkers who were too busy to stop for an hour on the street to watch a one-armed grocer’s clerk do up cranberries in paper bags. Let a man be a man and don’t handicap him with the label of any section.
This speech is a good example of another characteristic of O. Henry’s work, which is his quiet irony. Coglan takes a number of stereotypes associated with people from various regions of North America and provides counter-examples which show that not everyone conforms to our generalisations about them. Kentucky is the home of whiskey, but he’s met people from Kentucky who can’t stand the stuff. Englishmen are known for being serious and humourless, but he’s met ‘funny’ men from England.
But in providing these exceptions, he nevertheless reinforces their validity. In order to offer some examples of people who don’t fit the stereotypes, he ends up repeating the stereotypes themselves in terms which imply they are not wholly untrue.
Given the tongue-in-cheek nature of some of the stereotypes listed (the idea that all people from Indiana have written a novel, for instance), it’s clear that he is not only familiar with these cultural associations but also, on some level, tacitly endorsing them as the ‘rule’ to which his associates are the exception. And as we know, the exception proves the rule.