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Charges of embezzlement. Exile in Honduras. Conviction and imprisonment. Multiple identities. Fame and fortune. An untimely end with twenty-three cents in his pockets. Sounding more like plot twists from his nearly three hundred publications, these dramatic experiences actually helped to compose the life of William Sidney Porter (1862–1910), best known as O. Henry. In his lifetime he pursued numerous occupations, from pharmacist assistant to ranch hand, journalist to convict to “man about town.” O. Henry’s observations create vivid snapshots of turn-of-the-century culture in the United States and South America. This collection brings together some of his best known and most intriguing tales, with the centerpiece, “The Gift of the Magi” (1906), particularly exemplifying his unique style and sense of irony. Together these stories weave a tapestry of the human condition, providing a unique perspective on a decidedly American art form and a fresh glimpse into the psyche of a complex man.
Born September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, to Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Swaim, Will Porter grew up in the turmoil of the Civil War South. Following his mother’s death in 1865, Will’s father took him and his brothers to live with their grandmother Ruth Worth Porter, who ran a boarding house and oversaw his upbringing. He attended the schoolhouse run by his aunt Evalina “Miss Lina” Porter and, despite showing an interest in literature and drawing, at about age fifteen, Will departed formal education to work in his uncle’s drugstore. While initially considering a pharmacy career, he was spurred by his health to accept an invitation from Richard Hall, a doctor who regularly came in to fill patient prescriptions, to join his family at their Texas ranch. His long letters home slowly morphed into stories about the Southwest, paving the way for the work that would place him among the most read writers of his time, including Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Jack London.
In 1887 Porter married Athol Estes, stepdaughter of the prominent Austin grocer P. G. Roach. To supplement his income he began selling stories and sketches to periodicals. The future looked bright for the couple with the birth of Margaret in 1889, but their happiness was soon interrupted by events that would permanently alter his worldview—and give rise to the persona of O. Henry. In 1891 Porter became a teller at the First National Bank of Austin. Three years later he started the humor weekly The Rolling Stone, in which he honed his skills as a storyteller and societal observer. The Rolling Stone folded within the year, but more pressing problems at the bank easily overshadowed this literary setback. As the only bonded employee at a time when the finance industry was notoriously under-regulated, Porter came under scrutiny as a result of an audit that showed funds missing. He maintained his innocence and debate continues over whether Porter committed a crime or simply provided a scapegoat for the shoddy accounting procedures and unscrupulous officers of the bank. Most historians support Porter’s personal belief of betrayal by those he trusted.
In February 1896, a grand jury indicted Porter on four counts of embezzlement, totaling nearly five thousand dollars. By all accounts he viewed his upcoming trial with little hope of an “innocent” verdict. He jumped bail, heading to New Orleans, then to Honduras. Feeling at home in South America, Porter planned to stay indefinitely, but Athol’s struggle with tuberculosis compelled his return to Texas. His effort to keep his legal troubles from spoiling their remaining time together allowed for a temporary period of happiness until twenty-nine-year-old Athol succumbed to the disease in 1897. The following year Porter was found guilty, lost an appeal, and started a five-year sentence in an Ohio penitentiary.
Leaving Margaret with her maternal grandparents, the Roaches, Porter assumed his next identity as Federal Prisoner 30664, the moniker biographers use to refer to his life during this period. With his experience in Honduras as one source of inspiration, Porter started writing in the time leading up to the trial, and this work took on new importance as a creative outlet in prison. He also composed letters to Margaret, who believed her father to be away on business. Porter earned “time off for good behavior” and left the penitentiary with yet another new identity—the name under which he would make his literary fortune for the less than a decade remaining of his life. As biographer David Stuart describes, “a youngish thirty-five-year-old man named William Sydney Porter went into prison in 1898, and three years later . . . [emerged] O. Henry, a writer, a mysterious figure who would remain mysterious even to his closest associates.”1
The influence of incarceration on Porter cannot be underestimated. Intensely private and almost paranoiac about being recognized as an ex-convict, he used various authorial pseudonyms. Speculation abounds as to the source of his most often used name, “O. Henry,” and the man himself avoided giving a definitive answer. Some say he started using the name as a boy, while perhaps the most colorful story goes that the name stems from the 1880s when he was courting Lollie Cave, whose family cat, Henry, would only come if one added “Oh” to the front of its name. While the relationship ended with her refusal of his marriage proposal, the name stuck.
Upon his release from prison, O. Henry continued writing as he spent a short time in Pittsburgh with his daughter and the Roaches. At the invitation of the editors of Ainslee’s magazine and to further distance himself from his past, he went on to New York City, where his work met almost immediate success. To maximize his income, O. Henry simultaneously wrote under several names so that more than one of his stories could appear in a given issue. As the first decade of the twentieth century progressed, important periodicals including McClure’s, Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, and the New York World were publishing the work of the prolific writer. Critics also took favorable notice, yet few people—least of all his editors—knew much about the man who spent his non-writing hours immersing himself in the neighborhoods and nightlife of New York City. Perhaps his most clearly semi-autobiographical story, “The Making of a New Yorker” sketches the process through which Raggles, a “philosopher, an artist, a traveler” but primarily a “poet,” bonds with the city. Like O. Henry, Raggles initially cultivates a persona as an “unidentified man” for whom a “city . . . [is] not merely a pile of bricks and mortar” but a “thing with a soul characteristic and distinct.” While he easily connects with Chicago, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans, Raggles feels “defeated” by Manhattan, until being nearly killed while crossing the street sparks an epiphany. After he assaults “a brother convalescent” in the hospital, a nurse asks Raggles, “What’s all this about,” and he says, “He was “runnin’ down me town . . . Noo York.” The pun on “runnin’ down” points out the kind of relationship one can have with a city in which understanding only comes as a result of violent confrontation.
Besides the obvious link to O. Henry’s personal interest in city life, “The Making of a New Yorker” neatly demonstrates the “slice-of-life” technique apparent in nearly all of his work. He never considered himself a journalist but rather a storyteller, even though periodicals provided his main forum for most of his career. His tales usually focus on “everyday” individuals whose responses to difficult circumstances become a way of gauging the conditions defining the era. His familiar technique of the last-minute plot twist is used in many of his stories to illustrate a message that while money should not rule the world, believing that it does not is naïve and only leads to pain and suffering. For example, “Lost on Dress Parade” centers on Mr. Towers Chandler, a twenty-two-year-old architect’s clerk who every ten weeks takes the $10.00 he has slowly accumulated to “purchas[e] one gentleman’s evening from the bargain counter of stingy old Father Time.” One night he aids a woman “in a uniform such as shop-girls wear” and takes his pretence a bit too far over dinner. Rationalizing that he “had to play up to [his] clothes,” he loses a chance at the “stunning girl” who unbeknownst to him is a debutante tired of “the man who lives an idle life between society and his clubs.” With O. Henry’s usual irony, the woman envisions marrying someone just like Chandler really is, but dismisses him based on who he was pretending to be. Both characters resist but remain unable to reject their circumstances, thus derailing their chance at happiness. Such portrayals clearly stem from O. Henry’s own love/hate relationship with the dollar, which his biographers agree he spent as quickly as he wrote the stories by which he made his living.
In a slight break from his tendency to celebrate the “common” person, it is the wealthy young woman in “Lost on Dress Parade” who emerges as the more appealing character: she wants a man devoid of pretence regardless of financial status, but feels restrained by her family’s expectations. Looking more deeply, though, one finds the story still celebrates O. Henry’s most signature character, the “shop girl,” since by taking on the role of the “man about town” the architect’s clerk refuses to look beyond appearances, adopting upper-class snobbery along with his own deceptive “uniform.” Along with the “shop-girl,” O. Henry’s stories abound with the “ordinary” types he would have met in his daily walks and evening escapades: the cab driver, thief/conman, artist, and cowboy. These characters frequently find themselves at the mercy of a treacherous, uncaring world. Viewed by critics as one of his most poignant and complex tales, “The Furnished Room,” for instance, depicts feelings of isolation and despair around a man’s search for a lost love who appears only as a memory and the “essence” she seemingly leaves behind, rather than as a tangible presence in the story. Similarly, “The Trimmed Lamp” depicts a pair of women friends—interestingly recognizable as precursors to the 1970s sitcom pair, Laverne and Shirley—whose divergent approaches to “the drawing of a matrimonial prize” yield an unexpected consequence. Again instead of love conquering all, missed opportunities, foolish pride, and plain dumb luck conspire against the individual in the increasingly indifferent materialistic society O. Henry imagines.
Because the author experienced this milieu he was able to write the kind of “truth” he sought while it simultaneously caused his undoing. From his arrival in New York around the turn of the century, O. Henry’s fame and income skyrocketed. Even more quickly, his lifestyle and personal demons prevented him from enjoying his success. Almost always in need of money despite demand for his work, O. Henry spent his last years battling alcoholism and health complications. His remarriage in 1907 to childhood friend Sara Lindsay Coleman initially promised positive change, but leaving behind his bachelor ways proved to be impossible. A brief foray into the theater furnished a temporary shot of energy before ultimately failing, with O. Henry’s health, morale, and finances being the worse for it. One evening in June 1910 he entered the hospital as Will S. Parker with symptoms of kidney failure, among other maladies. Several hours after uttering, “Turn up the lights . . . I don’t want to go home in the dark,” O. Henry passed away at Polyclinic Hospital in New York on June 5, 1910.
Lori M. Campbell holds a doctorate in English from Duquesne University and teaches courses in literature and composition at the University of Pittsburgh. Her specialization in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American literature and culture includes teaching and publications in Victorian fiction, children’s literature, literary fantasy, folklore, and cultural studies.
1. Stuart, David. O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. (Chelsea, MI:
Scarborough House, 1990), 114.