Henry was an American writer of poetry and short stories known for wit, warmth of characterisation and clever, unexpected plot twists and surprising endings. He was considered an American Guy de Maupassant, held in similarly high regard for his intricate and startling plotting, though while de Maupassant addressed issues of war, madness and suicide, O. Henry’s work is more playful and altogether less serious or harrowing, often depicting the lives of lower and middle class New Yorkers.
Born William Sydney Porter on 11th September, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina, to physician Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter (1825-88) and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter (1833-65), he would change the spelling of his middle name to Sydney in 1898. At the age of three following his mother’s death from tuberculosis, the young William and his father moved to live with Algernon’s mother. From an early age Algernon and William’s grandmother marked in William a great love of reading, noting that his favourite works included the orientalist Edward William Lane’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Asian and African stories rooted in Arabic, Persian, Egyptian, Indian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature, and the English scholar Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a medical and scientific collection of medieval opinion on psychological, physiological, astronomical, meteorological, theological, astrological and demonological matters. This literary diversity at such an early age indicated a rapacious appetite for the written and spoken word alongside a deep consideration of the subject which formed a solid foundation for his own career.
His first schooling was elementary at the school run by his aunt Evaline Maria Porter from which he graduated in 1876 at the age of 14, before enrolling at the Lindsey Street High School. Despite leaving her school, Evalina continued as Porter’s private tutor until he was fifteen. Although he enjoyed his education and did well in an academic environment, particularly enjoying studying the arts, he began work in his uncle’s drugstore in 1879 and eventually gained a pharmacists’s license two years later, in 1881. Managing to sustain his artistic persuasion, he spent time sketching the townsfolk who crossed the shop’s threshold, even showing off some of his sketches to customers.
Mildly ironically, while working at the drugstore he developed a persistent cough which encouraged him to travel to Texas in March of 1882 with Dr. James K. Hall in the hope that the change of air would help alleviate his symptoms. Taking residence on a sheep ranch in La Salle County belonging to Richard Hall, James’s son, he soon began helping as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and babysitter to Richard Hall’s children, taking the opportunity to learn a little Spanish and German from the immigrant ranch hands. Meanwhile he was able to bolster his education by reading widely in classical literature. Ultimately, though he gained much experience from his time here, his health did not improve and so he travelled to Austin with Richard in 1884, soon electing to remain there and living with the Harrel family, friends of Richard who were encouraged by the favourable report they received from him of Porter. Over the next several years porter worked several jobs, first as a pharmacist to gain financial security while seeking something more challenging and then as a draftsman, bank teller and journalist. He also took up creative writing as a sideline, though it remind a hobby for the time being.
His social life in Austin was an active one, and along with various sets of friends he was a member of several singing and dramatic groups alongside being a somewhat accomplished musician, playing the guitar and mandolin. Most notably he was a member of the Hill City Quartet comprising young men who sang at gatherings and informal concerts, while also spontaneously serenading the young women of the town. Through this outgoing and endearing endeavour he met Athol Estes, the seventeen year old daughter of a wealthy, prominent Austin family who was equally musically inclined. Despite her mother’s objection owing to Athol’s ill health due to tuberculosis they began courting and, on 1st July 1887, they eloped to the home of Reverend R. K. Smoot whereupon they were soon married.
They both continued their participation in music and drama while Athol, impressed by what William had shown her of his writing, encouraged him to pursue it and make contributions to newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, Richard Hall, with whom Porter was now firm friends, had become Texas Land Commissioner and proceeded to offer Porter a political appointment as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office (GLO) based on his earlier experience as a draftsman in Austin. The job paid the healthy salary of $100 dollars per month and, among other things, Porter was expected to draw maps from surveys and field notes. In 1888 Athol gave birth to a son though he died hours later. Despite the heartbreak the couple tried again and in September 1889 they had Margaret Worth Porter. Though he was easily able to support his family on his salary from the GLO, Porter continued his submissions to the newspapers and it was during his work in the GLO building that many of the characters and plots of his later stories began to form, particularly that of “Bexar Scrip No. 2692”, into which he worked details of the castle-like GLO building’s warren of corridors, and “Georgia’s Ruling” (1900) and “Buried Treasure” (1908). Given the political nature of Porter’s appointment here, when Hall ran for governor in the 1890 election and lost, Porter too was compelled to resign shortly thereafter when the successful candidate was sworn in as governor.
Despite this setback Porter was quickly able to find alternative employment as a teller and bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin on the same salary he had enjoyed at the GLO. The bank was operated on a fairly informal manner and Porter became careless in keeping his books, possibly embezzling funds. Consequently he was accused by the bank and lost his job in 1894, though he was not indicted for his crime. While at the bank he had begun work on a humourous weekly named The Rolling Stone which, following his dismissal, he began to work on full-time. It was a satirical weekly featuring humourous and scathing observations on life, people and politics, including Porter’s short stories and sketches. At its peak, its circulation reached 1500, though it failed in April 1895 as it never managed to provide an adequate income. Nevertheless his writing aroused the interest of the editor at the Houston Post who, undeterred by Porter’s inability to monetise the venture, invited Porter to write for him. The family moved the Houston in 1895 and, though he began on a salary of only $25 per month, this soon increased rapidly in accordance with his increasing popularity. Many ideas from his column were gained from observations made while in hotel lobbies, occasionally engaging the people he saw in conversation. He would use this technique throughout his career. Though it was now quite a while since his time at the First National Bank of Austin, federal auditors had turned their attention to its numbers and soon found the embezzlement shortages which had led to his firing. Though he had escaped indictment by his employers, he could not avoid it from federal auditors, and he was soon arrested on charges of embezzlement.
Luckily for Porter his father-in-law posted his bail in order that he may stay out of jail with his wife until his trial which was to be stood on 7th July, 1896. However, impulse struck the day before as he changed trains on his way to the courthouse and so he fled, first to New Orleans and then to Honduras. It was while holed up for several months in a hotel in Trujilo that he wrote Cabbages and Kings, coining the term “banana republic” as a description of the country, now appropriated as a term for most small, unstable tropical nations in Latin America and used variously in popular culture. Though Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to her parents in Austin, she had become to ill to travel to meet Porter in Honduras according to his plan and so, on learning that his wife’s health was worsening beyond repair he surrendered to the court and returned to Austin in February 1897. Athol’s father again posted the bail so that Porter could stay with his family during his wife’s final days. Athol’s tuberculosis killed her on 25th July, 1897.
With little to say which could excuse him from the charges of embezzlement levied against him and seeming altogether more guilty owing to his flight to Honduras, Porter was convicted and sentenced to five years which he was to undertake at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. While there his qualifications as a pharmacist afforded him the job of night druggist which came with its own room on the hospital wing; indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that Porter actually spent any time in a cell block. The luxury of this appointment enabled him to devote a significant amount of time to his writing and he published some fourteen short stories during his time in the prison under various pseudonyms. Most importantly, however, in the December 1899 edition of McClure’s Magazine he published the short story “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”, over which was the first appearance of the pseudonym O. Henry. These stories found their way out of prison by way of a friend in New Orleans who passed them on to publishers who had no idea Porter was in prison. Owing to good behaviour and his service to the prison as night druggist, Porter was released two years early on 24th July 1901, and he reunited with Margaret, now eleven years old, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol’s parents had moved during Porter’s time in prison. In order to protect Margaret, she was never told that her father had been in prison, and instead that he had been away on business.
Having been released, Porter applied himself wholly to his craft and now began his most prolific period of writing, which even encouraged him to move to New York City in 1902 to be nearer to his publishers. Between December 1903 and January 1906 Porter wrote a short story per week for the New York World, while also publishing various other work in other magazines. His first collection, Cabbages and Kings, which he had written during his flight to Honduras, appeared in 1904. Its name was taken from a line of poetry from the narrative poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll, reading
“The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things;
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax,
And cabbages and kings."
This, and much of the rest of his work, was adored by his fans for its wit and characterisation, though it was largely panned by critics. This was followed by The Four Million which he had written during his time prison, and was published two years later and included two of his best known stories, “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Furnished Room”. In 1907 Porter remarried, this time his childhood sweetheart Sarah Lindsey Coleman, whom he had met again after returning home to visit North Carolina. Shortly thereafter he published The Trimmed Lamp and The Hearts of the West, both in 1907 and, in 1910, Whirligigs, which included “The Ransom of Red Chief”, perhaps his best known work and certainly his most anthologised. In total he published 1o collections of over 600 of his short stories, written throughout his lifetime.
Porter was a heavy drinker and his health, which had was deteriorating for several years, took a dramatic turn downwards in 1908 which had an equally dramatic effect on his writing. Sarah left him in 1909 and he died of cirrhosis of the liver complicated by diabetes and an enlarged heart on 5th June 1910. His funeral was held in New York City and he was then buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter Margaret died in 1927 and is buried next to her father. Following his death, three more collections were published. These are Sixes and Sevens (1911), Rolling Stones (1912) and Waifs and Strays (1917). Alongside his extensive literary legacy, several school wings and departments bear his pseudonym, while there exists also the O. Henry Award, a prize given for outstanding short story writing.