June 5: O. Henry died one hundred years ago today, aged forty-seven. His death from alcoholism was the farthest thing from a surprise ending, though the previous year he had made a desperate attempt to get sober, healthy and out of debt. Although already separated from his new wife, Henry knew that his only chance at reforming his New York ways was to accept her invitation to Asheville, North Carolina—her hometown, and not far from his birthplace of Greensboro. Henry’s plan involved drying out, patching up, and writing the novel he’d promised both himself and Doubleday, whose $1,500 advance he’d already spent.
The drying and patching progressed, but the novel, following all too closely Henry’s proposed story-of-my-life theme, went into procrastination limbo. When a Broadway producer offered him a $500 advance to turn one of his short stories into a play, Henry forgot the novel, spent the new advance, and then couldn’t deliver the script for the play either. Instead, he sold the stage rights to the producer, who soon had someone else turn “A Retrieved Reformation,” based on a crook who does manage to change his ways, into an international hit. This persuaded Henry that he might have other stories that could be dramatized: he took the producer’s new advance of $1,250 and headed back to New York.
As far as can be determined, Henry never wrote a word of the new play, and neither the producer nor most of Henry’s old friends heard a word from him. Preferring to unretreive his Asheville reformation quietly, he drank himself to death alone. But his last months are sprinkled with a handful of now-legendary farewell lines, the sort an earlier Henry would have built a tale upon. “The train for happiness is late,” he told a friend not long before leaving Asheville. When he checked into the hospital, he emptied his pockets, saying, “Here I am going to die and only worth 23 cents.” When, on the last night, the nurse turned out the light, he had her turn it back on, saying, “I don’t want to go home in the dark.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.