William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), portrait by W. M. Vanderweyde, 1909

Witness Post: O. Henry

A new section of Witness Posts will start to appear sporadically over the next few years. Not much into fiction, these will be stories that impact me, and people around me. I am boldly trying to use the term for these pieces of fiction as Oh, Henry! More like the Hank Aaron candy bar, than the writer William Sydney Porter, the stories will have some sweet chocolate, some nuts, and some twist.

Before launching those stories, however, it is good to check into the origin of the expression O. Henry. It is not O’Henry, as in an Irish last name, but the first name (Olivier) and the last name (Henry) ascribed to Porter after he left prison and moved to New York City.

Who Was William Sydney Porter?

William Sydney Porter, writing under the pen name O. Henry, was a prolific short story writer. He wrote in a dry, humorous style and, as in his popular story “The Gift of the Magi,” often ironically used coincidences and surprise endings.

Early Life

Born on September 11, 1862, William Sydney Porter was raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. When Porter was three, his mother died giving birth to a third child. The family moved in with his paternal grandparents. Porter attended a school taught by his aunt, Evelina Porter. William Porter graduated from grade school in 1876 and enrolled at the Lindsey Street High School. His Aunt Evelina continued to tutor him until he was 15.

In 1879, he started working in his uncle’s drugstore in Greensboro, and at 19, Porter was licensed as a pharmacist. At the drugstore, he also showed his natural artistic talents by sketching the townsfolk.

At the age of 20, Porter moved to Texas, working first on a ranch, then in a general land office, and later as a bank teller in the First National Bank in Austin. In 1887, he married Athol Estes and began to write freelance sketches. Athol gave birth to a baby girl, named Margaret. A few years later Porter founded a humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone. When the publication failed, he became a reporter, columnist, and occasionally as a cartoonist for the Houston Post.

Embezzlement, Flight from Texas, Trial, and Jail Time

Indicted in 1896 for embezzling bank funds from the First National Bank (actually a result of technical mismanagement), Porter fled Texas and aided by friends took on various reporting jobs first in New Orleans, then, in Honduras. When news of his wife’s serious illness reached him, Porter returned to Texas and the lenient authorities did not press his case until after his wife had died. Upon her death, Porter was found guilty and in 1898 imprisoned at a jail in Columbus, Ohio.

During his three-year and three-month incarceration, which was shortened due to good behavior, Porter wrote adventure stories set in Texas and Central America. As a night druggist in the prison hospital and a writer, he earned enough money to support his daughter, Margaret, in Texas. Although Porter seemed incapable of integrating a book-length narrative, he proved his skill on shorter writings. When he emerged from prison, he assumed the pen name O. Henry and mastered the art of short stories with impact.

The Big Apple

Released from prison in 1902, Porter moved with his daughter to New York City, which became his new home and the setting of most of his fiction for the rest of his life. Writing prodigiously as O. Henry, Porter completed one story a week for a newspaper, in addition to other stories for magazines. A newspaper editor wrote and asked Porter what the O stood for; he replied, “O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver. And several of my stories accordingly appeared under the name Olivier Henry,” which he shortened to O. Henry. Those stories quickly became popular and were collected into a book published as Cabbages and Kings (1904).

The eight years following his prison term were amazingly productive. After Cabbages and Kings Porter’s popular stories were compiled into collections and published regularly. The collections included 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); Whirligigs (1910) and Strictly Business (1910).

Best Remembered Works

According to several critics, O. Henry’s most representative collection was The Four Million. The title and the stories answered the snobbish claim of socialite Ward McAllister that only 400 people in New York “were really worth noticing” by detailing events in the lives of everyday Manhattanites. In one of his most famous stories, “The Gift of the Magi,” a poverty-stricken New York couple secretly sell valued possessions to buy one another Christmas gifts. Ironically, the wife sells her hair so that she can buy her husband a watch chain, while he sells his watch so that he can buy her a pair of combs. Porter often wrote in a dry, humorous style and, as in “The Gift of the Magi,” frequently used coincidences and surprise endings to underline ironies. Porter’s acclaimed funniest story is “The Ransom of Red Chief” from his collection entitled Whirligigs (1910).

The Last Hurrah

Despite his popularity, Porter’s final years were marred by ill health, a desperate financial struggle, and alcoholism. A second marriage in 1907 was unhappy. After his death on June 5, 1910, many more collected volumes appeared: Sixes and Sevens (1911); Rolling Stones (1912); Waifs and Strays (1917); O. Henryana (1920); Letters to Lithopolis (1922); Postscripts (1923); and O. Henry Encore (1939). Nearly 30 years after Porter’s passing, the many remarkable short stories were recollected and republished by others in his famed pen name.