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William Sydney Porter, the American writer better known as O. Henry, was once one of the most popular authors in the world. Though he’s best remembered today for his fiction about city life at the turn of the twentieth century, Heart of the West, his fourth volume of short stories, is set mostly in the state of Texas in the 1880s, where Porter lived for fourteen years, from the ages of nineteen to thirty-three. For much of that time he lived in Austin, the state capital, but for his first two years in the Lone Star State he lived and worked on a sheep ranch in La Salle County, a dry grassland of post oak and mesquite south of San Antonio, between the Nueces and the Frio Rivers. His humorous and sentimental stories of sheepherders, cowpunchers, trail cooks, prospectors, outlaws, and Texas Rangers offer the modern reader a window into the often-mythologized American West, by someone who saw it firsthand. And like his more famous New York stories, all of them bear the trademark O. Henry twist at the end.
Born September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, William Porter had a rough life right from the start. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was three, and his father was a drunken, improvident doctor. Porter grew up in the household of his uncle, who was a pharmacist; his formal schooling ended at the age of fifteen, and he spent his adolescence working in his uncle’s drugstore, becoming a registered pharmacist himself by the age of nineteen. He was a talented kid who loved to draw and pull pranks, and his Aunt Lina instilled in him a love of great literature. Porter later wrote that he “did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years than I have done in all the years since.” Still, he chafed under the limitations of his lifethe hard regime of drugstore work, the shame of his father’s alcoholism, and the uncertainty of living on the charity of others.
In 1882, Porter developed a hacking cough that raised fears he might have tuberculosis himself, so he was sent to live with family friends on a sheep ranch in South Texas. For two years he did light work and soaked up the lore and milieu of the American West that would later inform many of his stories. In 1884, he moved to Austin, where for the next decade he held a number of jobs, including four years as a draftsman for the General Land Office. He enjoyed an active social life in Austin, singing in a church choir, performing in amateur theatrical productions, and appearing with a group called the Hill City Quartette. At the same time, in a foreshadowing of his later life in New York City, he also became a regular in the city’s saloons and gambling dens. In 1887, he impulsively married a nineteen-year-old Austinite named Athol Estes; their first child, a boy, was born a year later, but died within a few hours. Their second, a daughter, Margaret, was born in 1889.
Porter began publishing jokes, humorous sketches, and light verse during his years in Austin, and in 1894 he started his own humor weekly, The Rolling Stone, which only lasted a year. Like many aspiring (and, indeed, established) writers, Porter continued to work a day job, as a teller in an Austin bank, but (again, like most writers) he hated the job, and he left Austin in 1895 to write a column for a newspaper in Houston. In the meantime, a bank examiner discovered that the books didn’t balance at the bank where Porter used to work, and Porter was indicted, perhaps unjustly, for embezzlement. He fled Houston to New Orleans and then to Honduras, and he only returned to Austin when he learned that his wife was seriously ill from tuberculosis. She died in 1897, and in February 1898 William Porter was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio.
In prison, the writer O. Henry was born. His relatively easy job, working as a drug clerk, allowed him time to write, and he composed twelve stories in prison, publishing two of them. The deep shame he felt at being a convicted felon caused him to adopt the pseudonym under which he became famous, though he never did give a definitive account of where it came from. One story is that he got it from a prison guard named Orrin Henry; another says that it came from his earliest days in Austin, when he lived with a family named the Harrells and used to beckon their haughty cat with an exasperated, “Oh, Henry!” Either way, by the time he was released early for good behavior in 1901, after serving three years, three months, and thirty days, the new writer O. Henry already had valuable contacts with magazine editors in New York and the promise of more work.
He settled in New York in 1902 and quickly established a reputation writing short fiction for the popular magazines of the day. Though his earliest stories were set in the American West and Central America, he was soon chiefly known as a lively and observant chronicler of the hardscrabble lives of ordinary New Yorkers, in such stories as “The Gift of Magi” and “The Furnished Room.” Over the next eight years, he became perhaps the most popular writer in the country, publishing hundreds of short stories, and finding himself compared by readers and critics (rather overenthusiastically) to the French novelist Balzac and the great Russian short-story writer Anton Chekhov. Nine collections of his stories were published before he died, and another three were released after his death. He was as profligate with his money, however, as he was skilled at earning it, and through a combination of hard living and reckless generosity, he died broke, from cirrhosis of the liver, kidney failure, and diabetes, in 1910, at the age of forty-seven.
Heart of the West, first published in 1907, collects many, though not all, of O. Henry’s Western stories, and most of the stories in the book, though not all, are set in Texas. Perhaps reflecting William Porter’s own experience as a young man in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie, where women were few and far between, many of the stories are comic tales of romantic rivalry, usually featuring two bluff and feckless young men in competition for the attention of the same rather remote and demanding young woman. This comically romantic longing is often deflected into an outlandish competition, the winner of which is supposed to get the girl. In the funniest story in the book, “The Handbook of Hymen” (which is set in Montana), two prospectors, Sanderson Pratt and his partner, Idaho Green, come down out of the mountains and each try to woo a pretty widow by the bookliterally. Idaho is relying upon the great work of medieval Persian poetry The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyamwhich Sanderson gathers is a volume of verse by someone named Homer K. M.while Sanderson himself relies upon an almanac entitled Herkheimer’s Handbook of Indispensable Information. Against all expectation, at least in courting this particular woman, Herkheimer turns out to trump the Rubiyat. “Let us sit on this log at the roadside,” Sanderson invites the widow, Mrs. Sampson,
“and forget the inhumanity and ribaldry of the poets. It is in the glorious columns of ascertained facts and legalized measures that beauty is to be found. In this very log we sit upon, Mrs. Sampson,” says I, “is statistics more wonderful than any poem. The rings show it was sixty years old. At the depth of two thousand feet it would become coal in three thousand years. The deepest coal mine in the world is at Killingworth, near Newcastle. A box four feet long, three feet wide, and two feet eight inches deep will hold one ton of coal. If an artery is cut, compress it above the wound. A man’s leg contains thirty bones. The Tower of London was burned in 1841.”
“Go on, Mr. Pratt,” says Mrs. Sampson. “Them ideas is so original and soothing. I think statistics is just as lovely as they can be.”
Poor Idaho Green obviously doesn’t have a chance, though in the end the matter is settled in a more dramatic fashion.
This same basic plot is reflected throughout the book. In “Cupid a la Carte,” set in the boomtown of Guthrie, Oklahoma“’Twas when the Oklahoma country was in first bloom. Guthrie was rising in the middle of it like a lump of self-raising dough”two young men on the make try to impress a pretty waitress; she’s so disgusted by the way the men just shovel the food down that each resolves to see how long he can go without eating at all, in a series of can-you-top-this stunts that is resolved when one of them proves his true worth to the young woman. And in “The Pimienta Pancakes,” two traditional enemies, a cowman and a sheepman, vie for the heart of a girl using a legendary pancake recipe as ammunition. Not all of the rivalries are entirely comic, however. In “The Indian Summer of Dry Valley Johnson,” the title character, “a silent and melancholy person of thirty-fiveor perhaps thirty-eight ... an elderlyish bachelor,” falls for a much younger woman and proceeds to make a middle-aged fool of himself. And “The Caballero’s Way” starts out as lighthearted as most of the stories in the book, but turns tragic in the end, as a ruthless Mexican bandit teaches a lovelorn Texas Ranger a vicious lesson in revenge.
It’s difficult, however, to evoke the full effect of these stories without giving away the endings; suffice it to say that each of them ends with a twist, and that some of the surprises are more satisfying than others. Today, the term “an O. Henry ending” is generally meant as a criticism, and it’s true that his twists are often labored and unconvincing and usually sentimental in their effect. Even so, there’s still much to commend these stories to the modern reader. However contrived and artificial his plots may be, the fact remains that O. Henry wrote with a very sharp eye about people and places he knew intimately. Just as his later, more famous stories of New York at the turn of the twentieth century are still worth reading for their vivid portrayal of the city’s hoi polloi, the stories in Heart of the West provide crisply focused little snapshots of the West, and Texas especially, in the 1880s, taken by someone who was there.
In many of the stories he successfully evokes the heat and dust and sheer scale of the vast flatlands of South Texas between San Antonio and the Rio Grande, and he brings to life particular places at particular times with pungent economy. In “An Afternoon Miracle,” he describes San Antonio, then something of a boomtown, as
the hub of the wheel of Fortune, and the names of its spokes were Cattle, Wool, Faro, Running Horses, and Ozone. In those times cattlemen played crack-loo on the sidewalks with double-eagles, and gentlemen backed their conception of the fortuitous card with stacks limited in height only by the interference of gravity. Wherefore, thither journeyed the sowers and the reapersthey who stampeded the dollars, and they who rounded them up.
And in “A Chaparral Prince,” he gives a wonderfully wry and economical sketch of the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, which was settled by German émigrés in the 1840s (and where you can still get a really good German meal): “They are all German people who live in Fredericksburg. On evenings they sit at little tables along the sidewalks and drink beer and play pinochle and scat. They are very thrifty people.” And while his racial attitudes as expressed in these stories are sometimes uncomfortable (to say the least) to a modern reader, O. Henry captures something of the complex interrelationships of personal and ethnic histories that made up, and continue to make up, the rich culture of Texastwo of the young women in this volume, for example, bear the resonant, Hispano-Celtic names of Josefa O’Donnell and Panchita O’Brien.
In retrospect, knowing something of O. Henry’s own tragically self-defeating life adds a further poignancy to these stories that may not have been apparent to their earliest readers, who did not even know their author’s real name or true history. The slapstick, sentimental redemption of a drunken gunfighter in “The Reformation of Calliope” is a little more touching when you understand that it was written by the son of an alcoholic who later went on to die of drunkenness himself. And in “A Call Loan,” you can see the disgraced ex-bank teller working out a comic version of the sort of casual banking practices and misunderstandings that might disgrace a man and send him to prison, but which, in this version, are all made right in the end, with the requisite O. Henry ending.
It’s not entirely damning William Sydney Porter with faint praise to say that he is perhaps as unjustly condescended to today as he was wildly over-praised during his lifetime. He’s not in the first rank of American writers, but then, as a contemporary of Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Kate Chopin, to name a few, he has a lot of stiff competition. Still, while his plots may be creaky to a modern sensibility, and the twists more eye-rolling these days than jaw-dropping, there is still much pleasure to be had in his lively, classically American, mock-heroic prose and in his brightly etched sketches of a distinctive way of life that flourished only briefly and that he wrote about, unlike many Western writers, from first-hand experience. His own judgment of his talents and accomplishments was, like that of most writers, simultaneously self-deprecating and secretly proud. “Writing is my business,” he said to a friend, “it is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and Pilsner. I write for no other purpose,” and yet he squandered all the money, and the work he claimed not to care about is still read and loved by readers all over the world. Or to put it as pithily as he might have put it, in one of his sweet, flawed, melancholy stories: he wrote for money and self-respect, and ended up with nothing but love. That’s the happy surprise at the end of O. Henry’s sad story.
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He lives in Austin, Texas.