THE SPARROWS IN MADISON SQUARE
by O. Henry
The young man in straitened circumstances who comes
to New York City to enter literature has but one thing
to do, provided he has studied carefully his field in
advance. He must go straight to Madison Square, write
an article about the sparrows there, and sell it to the
Sun for $15.
I cannot recall either a novel or a story dealing with
the popular theme of the young writer from the provinces
who comes to the metropolis to win fame and fortune with
his pen in which the hero does not get his start that
way. It does seem strange that some author, in casting
about for startlingly original plots, has not hit upon
the idea of having his hero write about the bluebirds
in Union Square and sell it to the Herald. But a
search through the files of metropolitan fiction counts
up overwhelmingly for the sparrows and the old Garden
Square, and the Sun always writes the check.
Of course it is easy to understand why this first city
venture of the budding author is always successful. He
is primed by necessity to a superlative effort; mid the
iron and stone and marble of the roaring city he has
found this spot of singing birds and green grass and
trees; every tender sentiment in his nature is battling
with the sweet pain of homesickness; his genius is
aroused as it never may be again; the birds chirp, the
tree branches sway, the noise of wheels is forgotten;
he writes with his soul in his pen--and he sells it to
the Sun for $15.
I had read of this custom during many years before I
came to New York. When my friends were using their
strongest arguments to dissuade me from coming, I only
smiled serenely. They did not know of that sparrow graft
I had up my sleeve.
When I arrived in New York, and the car took me straight
from the ferry up Twenty-third Street to Madison Square,
I could hear that $15 check rustling in my inside pocket.
I obtained lodging at an unhyphenated hostelry, and the
next morning I was on a bench in Madison Square almost
by the time the sparrows were awake. Their melodious
chirping, the benignant spring foliage of the noble
trees and the clean, fragrant grass reminded me so
potently of the old farm I had left that tears almost
came into my eyes.
Then, all in a moment, I felt my inspiration. The brave,
piercing notes of those cheerful small birds formed a
keynote to a wonderful, light, fanciful song of hope
and joy and altruism. Like myself, they were creatures
with hearts pitched to the tune of woods and fields;
as I was, so were they captives by circumstance in the
discordant, dull city--yet with how much grace and glee
they bore the restraint!
And then the early morning people began to pass through
the square to their work--sullen people, with sidelong
glances and glum faces, hurrying, hurrying, hurrying.
And I got my theme cut out clear from the bird notes,
and wrought it into a lesson, and a poem, and a carnival
dance, and a lullaby; and then translated it all into
prose and began to write.
For two hours my pencil traveled over my pad with scarcely
a rest. Then I went to the little room I had rented for
two days, and there I cut it to half, and then mailed
it, white-hot, to the Sun.
The next morning I was up by daylight and spent two
cents of my capital for a paper. If the word "sparrow"
was in it I was unable to find it. I took it up to my
room and spread it out on the bed and went over it,
column by column. Something was wrong.
Three hours afterward the postman brought me a large
envelope containing my MS. and a piece of inexpensive
paper, about 3 inches by 4--I suppose some of you have
seen them--upon which was written in violet ink, "With
the Sun's thanks."
I went over to the square and sat upon a bench. No; I
did not think it necessary to eat any breakfast that
morning. The confounded pests of sparrows were making
the square hideous with their idiotic "cheep, cheep."
I never saw birds so persistently noisy, impudent, and
disagreeable in all my life.
By this time, according to all traditions, I should
have been standing in the office of the editor of the
Sun. That personage--a tall, grave, white-haired
man--would strike a silver bell as he grasped my hand
and wiped a suspicious moisture from his glasses.
"Mr. McChesney," he would be saying when a subordinate
appeared, "this is Mr. Henry, the young man who sent
in that exquisite gem about the sparrows in Madison
Square. You may give him a desk at once. Your salary,
sir, will be $80 a week, to begin with."
This was what I had been led to expect by all writers
who have evolved romances of literary New York.
Something was decidedly wrong with tradition. I could
not assume the blame, so I fixed it upon the sparrows.
I began to hate them with intensity and heat.
At that moment an individual wearing an excess of
whiskers, two hats, and a pestilential air slid into
the seat beside me.
"Say, Willie," he muttered cajolingly, "could you cough
up a dime out of your coffers for a cup of coffee this
"I'm lung-weary, my friend," said I. "The best I can
do is three cents."
"And you look like a gentleman, too," said he. "What
brung you down?--boozer?"
"Birds," I said fiercely. "The brown-throated songsters
carolling songs of hope and cheer to weary man toiling
amid the city's dust and din. The little feathered
couriers from the meadows and woods chirping sweetly
to us of blue skies and flowering fields. The confounded
little squint-eyed nuisances yawping like a flock of
steam pianos, and stuffing themselves like aldermen
with grass seeds, and bugs, while a man sits on a bench
and goes without his breakfast. Yes, sir, birds! look
As I spoke I picked up a dead tree branch that lay
by the bench, and hurled it with all my force into
a close congregation of the sparrows on the grass.
The flock flew to the trees with a babel of shrill
cries; but two of them remained prostrate upon the
In a moment my unsavory friend had leaped over the row
of benches and secured the fluttering victims, which
he thrust hurriedly into his pockets. Then he beckoned
me with a dirty forefinger.
"Come on, cully," he said hoarsely. "You're in on the
Weakly I followed my dingy acquaintance. He led me away
from the park down a side street and through a crack in
a fence into a vacant lot where some excavating had been
going on. Behind a pile of old stones and lumber he
paused, and took out his birds.
"I got matches," said he. "You got any paper to start
a fire with?"
I drew forth my manuscript story of the sparrows, and
offered it for burnt sacrifice. There were old planks,
splinters, and chips for our fire. My frowsy friend
produced from some interior of his frayed clothing
half a loaf of bread, pepper, and salt.
In ten minutes each of us was holding a sparrow spitted
upon a stick over the leaping flames.
"Say," said my fellow bivouacker, "this ain't so bad
when a fellow's hungry. It reminds me of when I struck
New York first--about fifteen years ago. I come in from
the West to see if I could get a job on a newspaper. I
hit the Madison Square Park the first mornin' after,
and was sitting around on the benches. I noticed the
sparrows chirpin', and the grass and trees so nice and
green that I thought I was back in the country again.
Then I got some papers out of my pocket, and--"
"I know," I interrupted. "You sent it to the Sun and
"Say," said my friend, suspiciously, "you seem to know
a good deal. Where was you? I went to sleep on the bench
there, in the sun, and somebody touched me for every cent
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~