The central conflict of “The Cop and the Anthem” is the fact that Soapy will die if he is unable to find a home. He is not alone in this conflict, as he is one of the “regular denizens of Madison Square” who must depart every year and find a new place to lay his head. In fact, “The Cop and the Anthem” is a story in which almost every character seems to be in search of a shared experience with other human beings. This suggests that community and home are vital yet often elusive parts of everyday life in the United States.
“The Cop and the Anthem” begins with a fracturing of Soapy’s homeless community, which sets him off in search of a new home for the winter. Jack Frost is personified in this opening scene in order to show that he is kind to the homeless population of Madison Square and gives them fair warning about the coming winter so. that they can prepare themselves to seek shelter. This suggest a certain sense of communion between these people forced to live outside and the natural world. The wild geese honking overhead are both a parallel of this search and a stark reminder of Soapy’s struggle: though the geese must also pack up and fly south, they do so by traveling as a community.
Much in the same way that Soapy looks forward to assured board and bed and congenial company on Blackwell’s Island, his “fortunate fellow New Yorkers” are sauntering off to lavish vacations and “drifting in the Vesuvian Bay.” There is a hint of restlessness in this description, suggesting even the privileged are in search of a place where they can belong—or at least find relief from the tedium of everyday life.
“The Cop and the Anthem” also contains a remarkable number of moments in which its nameless characters seek out human intimacy and community on the smallest scale. O. Henry’s story appears to take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, two holidays defined by communal interaction. It is telling that Soapy’s first attempts at getting arrested both involve infiltrating spaces where New Yorkers are dining together in groups. Moments of intimacy are rare in “The Cop and the Anthem,” but they are exemplary of a roaming desire for community when they do occur. Take for example the women who grow “kind to their husbands” when the winter draws near, or the prostitute who simply wants to share a beer with Soapy.
For much of the story, however, Soapy tries and fails to engage with his fellow New Yorkers as a community, whether this means dining together at a restaurant or interacting with strangers in the street. For instance, when he enters a district where he finds the “lightest streets, hearts, vows, and librettos,” Soapy is incapable of interacting with his community and is instead seized by fear and flees. Yet when Soapy hears the anthem coming out of the church, he finally arrives at a sense of community within New York, and he shows signs for the first time of wanting to find a home within his environment. Notably, this sense of communion is accompanied by the desire to improve his lot in life. Soapy vows that he will go “into the roaring downtown district” and find work. He even cites a fur importer who once offered him a position and vows to ask for the job outright instead of resorting to crime.
No sooner does this community revelation occur to Soapy than it is ripped away from him, ironically via the touch of a police officer’s “hand laid on his arm,” the interaction through which he had hoped to arrive at home at the beginning of the story. This suggests the elusive, bitter nature of searching for home: often it vanishes the moment one defines it.
As a nation composed of immigrants and refugees who came looking for a new home, America’s literature is often defined by a sense of restlessness, wandering, and desire to find home within a community. If “The Cop and the Anthem” feels hopeless at times, it is because so many of its characters are trying and failing to share the slightest moments of human intimacy, a fact which sheds light on one of the darkest truths of O. Henry’s story: one does not have to be homeless to be in search of a home.
Community and Home ThemeTracker
Community and Home Quotes in The Cop and the Anthem
For years the hospitable Blackwell’s Island had been his winter quarters. Just as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his humble arrangements for his annual hegira to the Island.
And the anthem that the organist played cemented Soapy to the iron fence, for he had known it well in the days when his life contained such things as mothers and roses and ambitions and friends and immaculate thoughts and collars.