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William Sydney Porter is best remembered as the prolific writer by the pen-name O. Henry, whose engaging, warm, and satisfying short stories earned him worldwide popularity. His works are documents of social and cultural as well as literary importance, a vivid record of his times that offers excellent resources for exploring both our urban and regional folklore.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A North Carolina Education
Born in 1862, the second son of Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter, Porter spent the first twenty years of his life in Greensboro, North Carolina. His mother died in 1865, and with her death his father’s world collapsed. Dr. Porter gave up his home, moved to his mother’s house, and gradually abandoned his practice. The upbringing of his two sons was taken over by his mother and his sister Evelina. ”Miss Lina” was a forceful disciplinarian who served not only as Porter’s surrogate mother for the next seventeen years but also as the best teacher he ever had—her enthusiasm and discipline were the primary forces that aroused Porter’s youthful passion for reading and his later desire to write.
Porter left home at age seventeen to work in his uncle’s drugstore; he earned a state license as a practicing pharmacist in 1881. In these years he met people and stored up countless impressions of their personal oddities, mannerisms, gestures, and modes of speech that were later to be reflected, along with his expert use of professional terminology, in many of his stories.
Freedom and Flight
In 1882 Porter left Greensboro and went to Texas, where he spent the next fifteen years, first on a cattle ranch near the Mexican border; then as a bookkeeper and drug clerk in Austin. Following his marriage to Athol Estes Roach in 1887, he worked as a draftsman in the Texas Land Office for four years. Athol was a young woman of wit and vivacity who encouraged him in his ambition to become a writer. She gave birth to their second child, Margaret, in 1889; their first child, a boy, died in infancy. Soon after Porter’s job at the land office was discontinued in January 1891, he went to work as a bank teller.
While Porter worked as a teller he continued writing; and in March 1894 he bought a cheap printing press and the rights to a local paper, the Iconoclast. Porter renamed it The Rolling Stone, and, while holding down a full-time job, filled eight pages each week with humorous writings on persons and events of local interest. The Rolling Stone survived a year, but as Porter worked tirelessly to keep it rolling, it gradually dragged him deeper into debt. He borrowed heavily, but at some point during the year he also began taking funds from the bank with the hope that he could replace them later. When the shortages were discovered, Porter was ordered to appear before a grand jury on charges of embezzlement; these charges would not amount to much at the time. The Rolling Stone folded in 1895, and he moved to Houston to begin writing at the Houston Post.
In February 1896 the embezzlement case was reopened. Porter was arrested in Houston and despite the goodwill and support of friends in both Houston and Austin, he fled the country and sailed to Honduras, where he remained for the rest of the year. His experiences in that country, like his experiences elsewhere, are veiled in legend and myth, the most romantic versions of which are presented in his own stories. Nearly thirty of these stories, written later, appeared in various popular magazines, and about twenty of them, reworked and tied together loosely, were published in 1904 as his first book, Cabbages and Kings. As a record of what actually happened to Porter they are wholly unreliable; but one of their special artistic merits, shared by most of his other stories as well, is their high concentration of realistic detail, captured chiefly in descriptive and dialogue passages. The unhappy news that Athol was dying of tuberculosis obliged him to return in January 1897 and to face trial.
Imprisonment and the Birth of O. Henry
Athol passed away in July of 1897. In February of the next year, Porter was convicted of embezzlement and evading prosecution. He was given a term of five years, which his good behavior ultimately reduced to three. While there are various versions of how and when Porter took his famous pen name, ”O. Henry” was born during Porter’s prison term. Besides the fourteen stories written and published in periodicals during this period (beginning with ”Georgia’s Ruling” in 1900), many others published later grew out of anecdotes and yarns Porter heard from his fellow prisoners. He also wrote a great deal of Western-themed stories in prison, with settings in Texas and Latin America, but virtually all of them reflect the conventional images associated with the West. His daughter Margaret was never told her father was in prison, and after his release they were reunited in Pennsylvania.
The Chronicler of Four Million
After a brief time in Pittsburgh, during which he published nearly a dozen stories in popular magazines, Porter went to New York in the spring of 1902. Appropriately enough, Porter’s fame— as O. Henry—is most widely associated with his tales of New York’s ”four million,” roughly the population of the city in 1906, and shrewdly chosen as the title of his second collection of tales in response to Ward McAllister’s claim in 1892 that ”there are only about four hundred people in New York society.” For Porter’s assertion that four million New Yorkers were well worth noticing in print touched a democratic chord that appealed to people everywhere.
The range of Porter’s experience, from the provincial limitations of boyhood in an embittered Reconstruction South to ultimate triumph in New York, seemed limitless as more and still more of O. Henry’s stories appeared in print—113 of them in the weekly New York Sunday World alone between 1903 and 1905, and at least 25 longer ones published during the same period in monthly magazines such as McClure’s.
New York challenged the adventurous author to record its true voice and to penetrate its mystery. O. Henry eagerly accepted the challenge and captured the essence of New York in story after story, and quintessentially in a pair of perennial favorites, ”The Gift of the Magi” and ”The Furnished Room,” which represent the polar opposites of joy and sadness with which his imagination clothed the domestic life of average New Yorkers.
When The Four Million appeared in 1906, Porter’s fame was assured; besides strong public acceptance, this collection of twenty-five stories also received some favorable notice from serious critics, who began comparing O. Henry to Guy de Maupassant and other eminent writers. Porter could be sure that further volumes of his stories would be noticed, and these, indeed, appeared fairly regularly during his remaining years and after his death.
A Sad Ending
Toward the end of 1907, though Porter’s stories were in great demand, he was on the verge of a breakdown. Because his need for money was greater than ever following his marriage to Sara Lindsay Coleman, a childhood sweetheart, he drove himself remorselessly, but the income was still insufficient. The strains and tensions in his marriage deepened as his health and energies declined. By the summer of 1909 all attempts to maintain a normal family life were abandoned, and, his health shattered, Porter could no longer summon up enough energy in a week to finish a short story that, a few years before, he could have written in several hours. Virtually an invalid during the spring of 1910, he kept on trying to write until he collapsed on June 3. He was taken to the hospital, where he succumbed two days later to cirrhosis of the liver. Owing thousands of dollars advanced to him by his father-in-law and his publishers, he died a pauper.
Works in Literary Context
The Short Story
Porter almost single-handedly proved— to the benefit of writers who succeeded him—that The Short Story was a credible and lucrative art form. He left an imposing volume of work and perhaps, after Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, is the most widely read of any American short-story writer. The ”O. Henry Story,” as it came in time to be recognized and admired, owed much of its popular appeal to Porter’s sophisticated updating of two types of short fiction: the boisterous tall tale of the Old Southwest frontier, and the more sentimental, romantic adventure story of the postwar local-color movement. The basic themes dramatized in all his later stories are fundamentally the same as those underlying the earlier ones. The four themes that recur most often have to do with pretense and reversal of fortune, discovery and initiation through adventure, the city as playground for the imagination, and the basic yearning of all humanity. A persistent rumor states that Franklin Roosevelt was moved to create more government services for the poor in the 1930s after reading O. Henry’s stories. Of literature today, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories show a sensitivity and an interconnectedness familiar to fans of O. Henry.
Porter had a remarkable ear and eye for detail that served him well in his career, especially when it allowed him to capture details of his time spent in unusual locations. His stay in Honduras, though by no means a high point in his life, left him with stories about that steamy locale, which were collected into Cabbages and Kings. The central story, about dramatic goings-on in the fictional banana republic (a term he coined) of Anchuria, is recounted in the introduction and in seven of its eighteen chapters. Ancillary tales in the novel describe portray various grafts and schemes of American speculators, and satirize the military bravado of Anchuria.
Beyond the relevance of embezzlement and flight to Central America to Porter’s personal life, Porter’s stories fixed in the American consciousness the notion of Latin America as a land of allure and romance, unpredictable and volatile, revolutionary but full of opportunity. Finally, the novel marks a stage in the portrayals of the ”ugly American” from Mark Twain to Joan Didion. The short-story author Ben Fountain, who traveled extensively to the destinations he features in his collection, ”Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” carries O. Henry’s tradition of first-hand fact-gathering.
Works in Critical Context
Perhaps the reputation of no other American writer has undergone a more rapid and drastic reversal than that of William Sydney Porter. Writing as O. Henry during the first decade of the twentieth century, Porter commanded a readership in the millions. Critics spoke of ”the Yankee Maupassant,” discussed Porter in the same breath with Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and regarded him as ”the master of the American short story.” C. Alphonso Smith declared in 1916 that ”O. Henry’s work remains the most solid fact to be reckoned with in the history of twentieth-century American literature.” ”The time is coming,” Canadian critic Stephen Butler Leacock wrote in the same year, ”when the whole English-speaking world will recognize in him one of the great masters of modern literature.”
Soon after Porter’s death in 1910, however, this began to change. Critics of the 1920s satirized mercilessly the hundreds of would-be writers who emulated Porter’s formulaic plot constructions. H. L. Mencken dismissed Porter as a cheap stage magician with a repertoire of four or five shopworn tricks. Robert Penn Warren wrote scathingly of Porter in 1943; others were indifferent, at best, to the sentimental characterizations, impostures, scene changing, and rhetorical constructs of Porter’s tales. While he continues to attract biographers, critics have shown little interest in Porter’s work for several decades.
For many, Porter captures the spirit and flavor of early-twentieth-century America as memorably as another ”popular” artist, Norman Rockwell. The gap between public and critical opinion of Porter’s work is tenuously, and ironically, bridged by one of America’s most prestigious short-story awards, named in O. Henry’s honor.
“The Gift of the Magi”
”The Gift of the Magi,” which appeared in The Four Million, has been one of Porter’s most popular and enduring stories. The story is about an impoverished young married couple in New York who agree to give up what they most treasure in order to buy the other an expensive gift. Early critics recognized its qualities. Frederick Houk Law, writing in The Independent, commented, ”Written in a free and easy style that makes for originality and personality; quick, vivid and sympathetic; with an application that leaves the reader with a sense of gain, ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ told in common language, illustrates a unique and artistic type of the short story, founded partly on French models, but springing more truly from the virile life and thought of America.” N. Bryllion Fagin, writing in 1923, called the story a ”masterpiece.” He pointed to the skill in Porter’s telling of the tale: ”it is the wizards’ mechanics, his stunning invention—that’s the thing! Della sells her hair and buys a fob for hubby’s watch; while at the same time hubby sells his watch and buys her a comb. But you don’t know all this until they get together for the presentation of the gifts, and then you gasp.” Modern reviewers have also recognized the power of the story. Hazel Rochman, reviewing in Booklist a 1997 reprint of Porter’s stories, described ”The Gift of the Magi” as ”one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time.”
- Davis, Robert H., and Arthur B. Maurice. The Caliph of Bagdad: Being Arabian Nights Flashes of the Life, Letters, and Work of O. Henry. New York: Appleton, 1931.
- Long, E. Hudson. O. Henry: The Man and His Work. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.
- Kramer, Dale. The Heart of O. Henry. New York: Rinehart, 1954.
- Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
- Scofield, Martin. The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Fagin, N. Bryllion. ”O’ Henryism” in Short Story-Writing; An Art or a Trade? New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923, pp. 29-37.
- Law, Frederick Houk. ”The Gift of the Magi,” The Independent, (April 7, 1917): 76-81.
- Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories. Booklist Vol. 94, no. 4 (October 15, 1997): 397.
- ”Through the Shadows With O. Henry.” New York Times (December 18, 1921).
- Henry Biography and Works. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http://www.online-literature.com/o_henry/.
- Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http:// www.bibbomania.com/0/5/221/fTameset. html.
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