"A Municipal Report" is a short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, better known by the pseudonym O. Henry. It was first published in a November 1909 edition of Hampton's Magazine
, and later collected as part of Porter's 1910 short story anthology, Strictly Business
. The story concerns an unnamed narrator who visits Nashville, Tennessee to meet with a potential contributor to his literary magazine, only to become wrapped up in the drama of three of the town's more colorful residents.
"A Municipal Report" is like many of Porter's stories in that it was written in large part as a response to snooty elites in America. For example, Porter's much-beloved 1906 short story collection The Four Million
was written in response to a hip socialite's comment that only four hundred of New York's four million residents are worth writing about. In turn, Porter chose to set "A Municipal Report" in Nashville in response to journalist Frank Norris' comment that only three cities are worth writing about in America.
As the tale begins, the reader meets an unnamed big city narrator who comes to Nashville to negotiate a contract on behalf of a literary magazine with a local writer named Azalea Adair. The plan is to give Adair a low-ball offer of two-cents-per-word before other literary agents arrive, assuming that the writer will be unaware that she could get a lot more for her work. On the night the narrator arrives, he meets a local drunk and much-despised loafer named "Major" Wentworth Caswell. Caswell talks at length about the Civil War and his wife's finances before retiring to his room at the hotel where the narrator is staying. Nobody likes Caswell much, but he always seems to have money to pay for his drinks, so no one hassles him too much.
The next day, the narrator flags down an elderly black man to drive him in a coach to Azalea's house. When the coachman first hears the address where the narrator wants to go, he becomes visibly uneasy, suspiciously asking what the narrator's business there is. After calming down some, the coachman merely states that the part of town where Azalea lives is "lonesome."
The pair arrive at Azalea's house, a once-grand mansion now fallen into disrepair and decay. The coachman demands the exorbitant price of two dollars for the trip, thinking that the narrator is a carpetbagger from the North unaware of Southern prices and customs. The narrator assures the coachman this is not the case and that he is a Southern gentleman. Unfortunately, as a Southern gentleman, the narrator now feels obligated to pay the full price. He hands the coachman two dollars, one of which has a noticeable tear that's been pasted over with a piece of blue tissue paper.
When the narrator meets Azalea, he sees that she looks much older than her age, which is about fifty. She is thin and pale, but nevertheless so striking to the narrator that he feels he must excuse himself and come back later to negotiate the contract. Later on during his visit, he sees Azalea ask a young black girl to go fetch some tea for her, handing her the same two dollars with the tear and the blue tissue paper that the narrator had handed to the coachman. And that night, after returning to town, he sees the drunk Caswell pay for a drink using the same torn one-dollar bill. (The young girl had returned it to Azalea after learning that the store was out of the woman's favorite tea).
As the story progresses, the narrator learns more about the connections between the three individuals. The coachman is named Uncle Caesar and prior to the emancipation had been owned as a slave by Azalea's father, Judge Adair. Azalea, full of both Southern pride as well as shame over her family's participation in slavery, will not accept help from anyone and gives any money she receives to Uncle Caesar. Unfortunately, the money usually gets swiped by Azalea's estranged husband who, it is revealed, is the drunk named Caswell. That's why he had the torn one dollar bill.
With pity in his heart for Azalea, the narrator accepts her renegotiated rate of eight cents a word. He even gives fifty dollars as an advance. Sadly, that night Caswell is found unconscious after running his mouth about having fifty dollars. The story ends as the narrator leaves town on a train. He throws an old button that had fallen off of Uncle Caesar's coat out the window and into the Cumberland River.
As the author intended, "A Municipal Report" does indeed prove that interesting things happen in cities other than New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, contrary to the beliefs of the snooty journalist Frank Norris who said otherwise.