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by Bamber Gascoigne

O. Henry (1862-1910) - pseudonym of William Sydney Porter


Prolific American short-story writer, a master of surprise endings, whose narratives were typically set in Texas or New York City. O. Henry combined humor and pathos with an ironic twist of plot. Although some critics were not so enthusiastic about his formulatic way of writing, the public loved his entertaining tales and uncomplicated characters.

"He wrote love stories, a thing I have always kept free from, holding the belief that the well-known and popular sentiment is not properly matter for publication, but something to be privately handled by the alienist and the florist." (from 'The Plutonian Fire', in The Voice of the City, 1908)

O. Henry was born William Sydney Porter in Greenboro, North Carolina, where he lived nearly half of his life. His parents were Algernon Sidney Porter (1825-88), a physician, and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter. When William was three, his mother died of tuberculosis, and he was raised by his parental grandmother and paternal aunt. As a child, William was an avid reader. His favorite works included One Thousand and One Nights.

At the age of fifteen, he left school, and then worked in his uncle's drugstore – he eventually became a licensed pharmacist – and on a Texas ranch, hoping that a change of air would cure his persistent cough. He continued to Austin, where he had a number of jobs, and played the guitar and mandolin in musical and theater groups. In 1887 he married Athol Estes Roach; they had one daughter and one son. Athol suffered from tuberculosis, but she sang in choirs and choral groups together with her husband and encouraged him to pursue his writing.

"It was beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are." (from 'The Octopus Marooned', in The Gentle Grafter, 1908)

When Porter's friend Richard Hall was appointed Texas Land Commissioner, he offered Porter a job as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office. Porter kept the post for four years. During this period he wrote the first drafts for such stories as 'Georgia's Ruling' (1900), and 'Buried Treasure' (1908). In 1891 he began working as a teller and then bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin.

In 1894, Porter started a humorous weekly The Rolling Stone. It was at this time that he began heavy drinking. When the weekly failed, he joined the Houston Post as a reporter and columnist. While Porter was in Houston, cash was found to have gone missing from the First National Bank of Austin. He was called back to Austin to stand trial on July 7, 1896, but the day before, Porter fled to Honduras.

Little is known about Porter's stay in Central America. It is said, that he met one Al Jennings, a notorious train robber, and rambled in South America and Mexico on the proceeds of Jenning's robbery. In a Trujillo hotel he wrote Cabbages and Kings (1904) and coined the term "banana republic". After hearing news that his wife was dying, he returned to Austin. Athol Estes Porter died from tuberculosis in 1897. The next year Porter was convicted of embezzling money, although there has been much debate over his actual guilt. Whether he was guilty or not, he had little to say in his own defense. Porter was imprisoned at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. A pharmacist, he was given a job as the night druggist in the prison hospital and he had his own room in the hospital wing.

While in prison, Porter started to write short stories to earn money to support his daughter Margaret, who lived with Athol's parents. His first work, 'Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking' (1899), appeared in McClure's Magazine. The stories of adventure in the U.S. Southwest and in Central America gained an immediately success among readers. Porter's friend in New Orleans sent his stories to publishers who had no idea that the writer was in prison. After doing three years of the five years sentence, Porter emerged from the prison in July 1901 and changed his name to O. Henry to hide his past.

Throughout his whole career Porter gave only few interviews, and his daughter never spoke of her father's criminal record. According to some sources, Porter acquired the pseudonym from a warder called Orrin Henry. It also could be an abbreviation of the name of a French pharmacist, Eteinne-Ossian Henry, found in the U.S. Dispensatory, a reference work Porter used in the prison pharmacy. The art of storytelling he learned from his reading of Harte, Kipling, and Maupassant, but his humorous, energetic style also shows the influence of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.

O. Henry moved to New York City in 1902 to be near his publishers. From December 1903 to January 1906 he wrote a story a week for the New York World, also publishing in such magazines as Everybody's Magazine, Munsey's, McClure's, and others. O. Henry's first collections, Cabbages and Kings and The Four Million  (1906), made him a household name. The latter included 'The Gift of the Magi', about a poor couple and their Christmas gifts, and 'The Furnished Room'. The Trimmed Lamp (1907) explored the lives of New Yorkers; the city itself O. Henry liked to call "Bagdad-on the-Subway". In 'The Last Leaf', a sentimental piece about two women artists and their failed artist friend, the theme is selfishness, as in 'The Gift of the Magi', but there is also a lesbian undercurrent, which separates it from O. Henry's run-of-the-mill works.

'One Dollar's Worth' criticized the merciless judicial system. Judge Derwent receives a letter from an ex-convict, in which the writer, 'Rattlesnake' threatens his daughter and the district attorney, Littlefield. A young Mexican, Rafael Ortiz, is accused of passing a counterfeit silver dollar, made principally of lead. Rafael's girl, Joya Treviñas, tells Littlefield that he is innocent – she was sick, and needed medicine, and that was the reason why Rafael used the dollar. Littlefield refuses to help, and Joya says that "it the life of the girl you love is ever in danger, remember Rafael Ortiz." When he drives out of the town with Nancy Derwent, they meet Mexico Sam, the writer of the letter. He starts to shoot them from distance with his rifle. Littlefield can't hurt him with his own gun which has only tiny pellets. Then he remembers Joya's words, and manages hit Mexico Sam, who falls from his horse dead as a rattlesnake. Next morning in the court he tells: "'I shot him,' said the district attorney, 'with Exhibit A of your counterfeiting case. Lucky thing for me – and somebody else – that it was as bad money as it was! It sliced up into slugs very nicely. Say, Kil, can't you go down to the jacals and find where that Mexican girl lives? Miss Derwent wants to know.'"

O. Henry's most anthologized work is perhaps 'The Ransom of Red Chief' (see Howard Hawks and Nunnally Johnson), first collected in Whirligigs (1910). The story tells about two kidnappers, who make off with the young son of a prominent man. They find out that the child is a real nuisance – Home Alone movies owe a debt to the story. At the end they agree to pay the boy's father to take him back. "Sam," says Bill, "I suppose you'll think I'm a renegade. but I couldn't help it. I'm a grown person with masculine proclivities and habits of self-defense, but there is a time when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy is gone. I sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times," goes on Bill, "that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of 'em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been. I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there came a limit."

Heart of the West (1907) presented western stories, of which 'The Last of the Troubadours' J. Frank Dobie named "the best range story in American fiction." 'The Caballero's Way' featured as a character the Cisco Kid. During his life time, O. Henry published 10 collections and over 600 short stories. His last years were shadowed by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems. He was a fast writer, like the Russian Anton Checkhov (1860-1904), but drinking on average two quarts of whiskey daily, did not improve the quality of his work. Usually he went to his regular bar at about 10 o'clock.

In 1907 O. Henry married Sarah (Sallie) Lindsey Coleman, his childhood sweetheart born in Greensboro. Sarah was also a writer. Her novella Wind of Destiny (1906) gave a fictionalized account of their correspondence and courship. The marriage was not happy, and they separated after two years. O. Henry's health deteriorated rapidly and he died of cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1910, in New York. At the time of his death, he was deeply in dept. O. Henry's funeral ceremony at the Little Church Around the Corner was brief. Three more collections, Sixes and Sevens (1911), Rolling Stones (1912) and Waifs and Strays (1917), came out posthumously. O. Henry's daughter Margaret, who died of tuberculosis in 1927, is buried next to her father in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1918 the O. Henry Memorial Awards were established to be given annually to the best magazine stories, the winners and leading contenders to be published in an annual volume.

For further reading: O. Henry Biography by Alphonse Smith (1916); O. Henry: The Man and His Work by Eugene Hudson (1949); The Heart of O. Henry by Dale Kramer (1954); Alias O.Henry: A Biography of William S. Porter by Gerald Langford (1957); O. Henry, ed. by Eugene Current-Garcia (1965); O. Henry, Short Story Writer by Lucas Longo (1982); O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter by David Stuart (1987); O. Henry Biography by Charles A. Smith (1992); O. Henry; A Study of the Short Fiction by Eugene Current-Garcia (1993); O. Henry, ed. by Harold Bloom (1999); The Amazing Genius of O. Henry by Nicholas V. Lindsay and Arthur W. Page (2001) - See also: Raymond Carver, Truman Capote 

Selected works:

  • Cabbages and Kings, 1904
  • The Four Million, 1906
    - 'Neljä miljoonaa,' 'Tietäjien lahja' (teoksessa Tietäjien lahja; valikoiden suom. Auli Hurme ja Ritva Mäkelä, 1979; teoksessa Kolme amerikkalaista klassikkoa; valikoiden suomentanut Ritva Mäkelä, 2011)
  • The Trimmed Lamp, and Other Stories of the Four Millions, 1907
  • Heart of the West, 1907
    - 'Sydän ja risti,' 'Preerian parantola,' 'Preerian prinssi' (suom. teoksessa Kertomuksia suurilta ruohoaavikoilta, 1928);  'Lännen sydämessä' (teoksessa Tietäjien lahja, valikoiden suom. Auli Hurme ja Ritva Mäkelä, 1979)
  • The Voice of the City: Further Stories of the Four Million, 1908
  • The Gentle Grafter, 1908
  • Roads of Destiny, 1909
    - 'Kohtalon teitä' (teoksessa Tietäjien lahja; valikoiden suom. Auli Hurme ja Ritva Mäkelä, 1979
  • Lo, 1909 (play, with Franklin P. Adams, music by A. Baldwin Sloane)
  • Options, 1909
  • Strictly Business: More Stories of the Four Million, 1910
  • Whirligigs, 1910
    - 'Punaisen Päällikön lunnaat' (Apu 43/1959; teoksessa Ratavartijan näky ja muita kuuluisia kertomuksia, toim. Kerttu Manninen, 1965)
  • Let Me Feel Your Pulse, 1910 ( illustrations by W.W. Fawcett) 
  • The Two Women: the One: A Fog in Santone; the Other: A Medley of Moods, 1910
  • The Gift of the Wise Men, 1911
  • Sixes and Sevens, 1911
  • Rolling Stones, 1912 (illustrated with original photographs, drawings by the author, reproductions of letters, etc.)
  • Waifs and Strays: Twelve Stories, 1917
  • The Complete Writings of O. Henry, 1917 (14 vols.)
  • O. Henryana: Seven Odds and Ends, 1920
  • Selected Stories of O. Henry, 1922 (edited by Alphonse Smith)
  • Letters to Lithopolis: from O. Henry to Mabel Wagnalls, 1922
  • Postscripts, 1923
  • The Best of O. Henry: One Hundred of His Stories, 1929
  • O. Henry Encore, 1930 (edited by Mary S. Harrell)
  • The Best Short Stories of O. Henry, 1945 (ed. Bennett Cerf and Van H. Cartmell)
  • The Pocket Book of O. Henry, 1948 (edited by Harry Hansen)
  • O. Henry's Cops and Robbers, 1948 (edited by Ellery Queen)
  • The Complete Works of O. Henry, 1953 (2 vols.; foreword by Harry Hansen)
  • O. Henry Westerns, 1961 (edited by Patrick Thornhill)
  • O. Henry's New York, 1962 (edited by J. Donald Adams)
  • The Stories of O. Henry, 1965 (edited Harry Hansen)
  • Four Million & Other Stories, 1976
  • Collected Stories of O. Henry: Revised and Expanded, 1986 (edited by aul J. Horowitz)
  • The Best Short Stories of O. Henry, 1994 (eds. Bennett Cerf, Van H. Cartmell)
  • O. Henry Short Stories, 1999 (edited by Harold Bloom)
  • Selected Stories of O. Henry, 2003 (with an introduction and notes by Victoria Blake)
  • The Fiction: Complete and Unabridged, 2006
  • 41 Stories, 2007 (selected and with an introduction by Burton Raffel; and with a new afterward by Laura Furman)

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