Yagoda is among a diverse group of 175 writers, scholars, artists and
scientists selected from almost 3,000 applicants for this year’s
fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The
prestigious fellowships have been awarded since 1925 based on “prior
achievement and exceptional promise,” the foundation said in announcing
the 2020 recipients.
Since retiring from UD in 2017, Yagoda has remained busy with writing
projects. For the past year, he’s been editing a book of O. Henry’s
stories for the Library of America, a nonprofit that publishes new,
uniform editions of work by America’s greatest writers.
He proposed the book to the Library of America after reacquainting
himself with O. Henry’s work and realizing that the publisher’s catalog
didn’t yet include that writer. O. Henry, whose real name was William
Sidney Porter, was extremely famous during his relatively short but
prolific lifetime, but, although he remains a household name, his
literary reputation has declined over the decades, Yagoda said.
“I remembered a few of his stories, probably from junior high school
[particularly the well-known ‘The Gift of the Magi’ and ‘The Ransom of
Red Chief’], but when I started thinking about a book and reading many
more of the stories, I was really impressed that a lot of them held up
well,” he said. “A lot were humorous and quite witty, not on the level
of Mark Twain but certainly in the vein of that type of American humor.”
His work on the collection included detailed research on the language
and references O. Henry used, with Yagoda investigating such questions
as the meaning of the “kangaroo walk” (a walking-style fad at the time)
and whether New York had more than one “flatiron building” (as it turns
out, it did). All this research into terminology that might confuse
today’s readers became the explanatory endnotes for the Library of
America edition. The book, for which Yagoda also wrote the introduction,
is expected to be published next year.
The research also sparked the idea for the book about O. Henry in New
York. Yagoda is a native New Yorker whose first job as a magazine
editor had him living and working in the same part of the city, the
Gramercy Park neighborhood, where O. Henry had spent his years in
As he begins work on the new book, Yagoda said he expects to spend a
lot of time reading in the library and online but also wandering around
“O. Henry country” in New York. He plans to check out locations
referenced in the short stories and visit such buildings as Pete’s
Tavern, which bills itself today as “the tavern O. Henry made famous”
and where the author may or may not have written “The Gift of the Magi.”
The Guggenheim Fellowship covers a one-year period, but there’s no
firm deadline for completing the book project. The work will be
challenging, Yagoda said, “but I think all good books are challenging to
More about Ben Yagoda
Yagoda retired from the Department of English, where he taught courses in journalism and nonfiction writing, in May 2017.
He is the author of numerous books, including About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and Will Rogers: A Biography, and the coeditor, with fellow Prof. Emeritus of English Kevin Kerrane, of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. His books about writing and language include The Sound on the Page and How to Not Write Bad.
He has contributed articles, essays and reviews to more than 50 national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times Book Review.
He publishes two blogs, “Not One-Off Britishisms” and “Movies in Other Movies.”
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Eric Ruth and W.M. Vanderweyde
Published May 14, 2020