Authors: O. Henry

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American short-story writer

September 11, 1862

Greensboro, North Carolina

June 5, 1910

New York, New York

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Short Fiction: Cabbages and Kings, 1904 The Four Million, 1906 Heart of the West, 1907 The Trimmed Lamp, 1907 The Gentle Grafter, 1908 The Voice of the City, 1908 Options, 1909 Roads of Destiny, 1909 Strictly Business, 1910 Whirligigs, 1910 Sixes and Sevens, 1911 Rolling Stones, 1912 Waifs and Strays, 1917 Bibliography Arnett, Ethel Stephens. O. Henry from Polecat Creek. Greensboro, N.C.: Piedmont Press, 1963. Described by Porter’s cousin as a delightful and authentic story of O. Henry’s boyhood and youth, this entertaining biography of the early years goes far in illuminating both the character-shaping environment and experiences of Porter and his fiction. Supplemented by illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index. Bloom, Harold, ed. O. Henry. Broomal, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999. Collection of essays that constitute a study guide and handbook of O. Henry criticism, assembled by leading scholars in the field. Bibliographic references and index. Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. An introduction to O. Henry’s stories, largely drawn from Current-Garcia’s earlier Twayne volume. Focuses on O. Henry’s frequent themes, his romanticism, and his narrative techniques, such as his use of the tall-tale conventions. Includes critical excerpts from discussions of O. Henry by other critics. Eichenbaum, Boris. O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story. Translated by I. R. Titunik. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1968. Originally published in Russia in 1925, this study reflects both the Russian interest in O. Henry as a serious writer and the brand of criticism known as Russian Formalism. Because Formalism was more concerned with technical achievement than thematic profundity, O. Henry, who was a technical master, is a perfect candidate for the exercise of this kind of analysis. Evans, Walter. “‘A Municipal Report’: O. Henry and Postmodernism.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 101-116. Recognizing modern criticism’s either trite interpretation or complete indifference to O. Henry’s work, through the fiction of postmodernists like Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass, Evans embarks on a radical revisioning of Porter’s literary contributions. Gallegly, Joseph. From Alamo Plaza to Jack Harris’s Saloon: O. Henry and the Southwest He Knew. The Hague: Mouton, 1970. By investigating contemporary photographs, literature, popular pursuits, news items, and personalities—both real and fictional—from the contemporary scene of the author, Gallegly provides significant insight into the southwestern stories. Jennings, Al. Through the Shadows with O. Henry. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2000. Reprint of a classic O. Henry study, with a new introduction by Mike Cox and afterword by Patrick McConal, who consider the reception of Henry’s work in the twentieth century. Langford, Gerald. Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sidney Porter. New York: Macmillan, 1957. A well-documented biography that considers in detail Porter’s marriages and the evidence used in his embezzlement trial. The foreword provides a brief but penetrating overview of O. Henry’s critical reputation (including overseas) and his place within the context of American literature. Supplemented by illustrations, an appendix about Rolling Stone, notes, and an index. Monteiro, George. “Hemingway, O. Henry, and the Surprise Ending.” Prairie Schooner 47, no. 4 (1973-1974): 296-302. In rehabilitating O. Henry and his most famous technique, Monteiro makes comparisons with Hemingway’s own—but very different—use of the same device. This significant difference Monteiro ascribes to Hemingway’s essentially uneasy reception of Porter’s work and to the two authors’ divergent outlooks on life. Pattee, Frederick Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923. Although this is an old study of the short story, the O. Henry chapter represents an influential negative criticism of his fiction. Stuart, David. O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter. Chelsea, Mich.: Scarborough House, 1990. A good, updated edition of a portrait of O. Henry. Includes bibliographical references and index. Watson, Bruce. “If His Life Were a Short Story, Who’d Ever Believe It?” Smithsonian 27 (January, 1997): 92-102. Biography of O. Henry strewn with anecdotes and some literary criticism. Includes photographs. Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Hearts of Darkness: Wellsprings of a Southern Literary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Discusses the distinctively southern aspects of Henry’s stories, as well as his influence on other southern American authors. Bibliographic references and index.

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