Last reviewed: June 2018
American short-story writer
September 11, 1862
Greensboro, North Carolina
June 5, 1910
New York, New York
William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his father was a physician. His schooling was meager, and at the age of fifteen he was given a job in a store kept by his uncle, a pharmacist. In 1882, threatened by pulmonary weakness, he went to stay on a large ranch in La Salle County, Texas. Two years later, he moved to Austin and found employment as a bookkeeper. For four years, he worked as a draftsman in the Land Office there. He was clandestinely married in 1887 to Athol Estes, a seventeen-year-old young woman whom he had met while both were members of a Presbyterian church choir. Early in 1891, he became a teller in the First National Bank of Austin. At the end of 1894, after acquiring the proprietorship of a humorous weekly paper, Brann’s Iconoclast (later renamed The Rolling Stone), he resigned his position to try his hand at cartooning, writing, and editing. He had previously contributed literary sketches to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers. In the spring of the next year, after the failure of his publishing venture, he went to Houston and became a columnist for the Houston Daily Post. His collected “Postscripts” show the wit and agility of mind he later displayed in his short stories. His wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she at first remained in Austin but later joined him. O. Henry
In 1896, Porter was indicted for having misappropriated funds totaling $1,153.68 while an employee of the First National Bank of Austin. He started to return to Austin to stand trial, but on the way reversed his direction and on reaching New Orleans took ship for Honduras. Upon his arrival there, he fell in with Al Jennings, an outlaw trainrobber. For the greater part of a year, Porter and the two Jennings brothers made common cause as fugitives, traveling all the way around the South American continent and at last stopping in Mexico. At the beginning of 1897, having got word that his wife was dangerously ill, Porter went back to Austin, where his wife died the following summer. Porter was tried for embezzlement, convicted, and sentenced to a five-year term, beginning March, 1898, in the federal division of the Ohio State Penitentiary. Although he seems to have been technically guilty, this may only have been the result of extreme carelessness in keeping the bank’s records; he always insisted that he had not profited. In prison, he renewed his friendship with Al Jennings, now a fellow inmate. He also wrote fiction, which he readily sold, and worked in the prison pharmacy. After serving three years and three months of his sentence, he was discharged for good behavior.
After his release, Porter joined his daughter in Pittsburgh and in the spring of 1902 moved to New York. This final change both made and broke him. Up to this time, he had drawn the subject matter of his stories from experiences in the Southwest and in Latin America; plunging into the turmoil of “Bagdad on the Subway,” as he called it, he perceived that the city held, in its masses of people and its infinite scenes, the multiplicity of events that he required to stimulate his imagination. In New York, he frequented not only the parlors of his respectable friends but also sweatshops, low theaters, wharves, warrens, and dives, the breeders of disease and violence. He saw in this world only human perplexity and delusion, and, where other writers might have been satirical, he put into his work a humorous pathos. His first collection, Cabbages and Kings, was followed by fourteen more, several published posthumously.
Porter wrote prolifically, averaging more than a story a week for some years, and he was never without a market. He might have become rich, but he squandered his income by drinking heavily, leaving munificent tips in restaurants, and giving gold pieces to beggars. His attempts to write successful plays came to nothing. His health deteriorated, and he developed active tuberculosis. In his final years, he made several trips to Asheville, North Carolina, for rest. He was survived by his second wife, Sara Lindsay Coleman.
O. Henry’s stories are distinct in their benevolent spirit, gentle irony, and surprise endings. His tales embody a sense of youthful exuberance and wonder at life’s possibilities, as well as a belief in the human capacity for goodness. His characters personify the ideals of industry, hope, and goodwill, and through them the writer captures a romantic view of daily life. His development of a popular form of the short story—the expanded anecdote with a surprise ending—bequeathed to the American short story an awareness of formal economy that had a lasting effect.