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William Sydney Porter

Born William Sidney Porter
September 11, 1862(1862-09-11)
Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
Died June 5, 1910 (aged 47)
New York City, New York, United States
Pen name O. Henry, Olivier Henry
Occupation Writer
Nationality American

O. Henry was the pen name of American writer William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910). O. Henry's short stories are well known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings.

Contents

Life

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Early life

William Sidney Porter was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. His middle name at birth was Sidney; he changed the spelling to Sydney in 1898. His parents were Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter (1825–1888), a physician, and Mary Jane Virginia Swaim Porter (1833–1865). They were married April 20, 1858. When William was three, his mother died from tuberculosis, and he and his father moved into the home of his paternal grandmother. As a child, Porter was always reading. He read everything from classics to dime novels. His favorite work was One Thousand and One Nights.

Porter graduated from his aunt Evelina Maria Porter's elementary school in 1876. He then enrolled at the Lindsey Street High School. His aunt continued to tutor him until he was fifteen. In 1879, he started working in his uncle's drugstore and in 1881, at the age of nineteen, he was licensed as a pharmacist. At the drugstore, he also showed off his natural artistic talents by sketching the townsfolk.

Move to Texas

Porter family in early 1890s — Athol, daughter Margaret, William

Porter traveled with Dr. James K. Hall to Texas in March 1882, hoping that a change of air would help alleviate a persistent cough he had developed. He took up residence on the sheep ranch of Richard Hall, James' son, in La Salle County and helped out as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and baby-sitter. While on the ranch, he learned bits of Spanish and German from the mix of immigrant ranch hands. He also spent time reading classic literature. Porter's health did improve and he traveled with Richard to Austin in 1884, where he decided to remain and was welcomed into the home of the Harrells, who were friends of Richard's. Porter took a number of different jobs over the next several years, first as pharmacist then as a draftsman, bank teller and journalist. He also began writing as a sideline.

Porter led an active social life in Austin, including membership in singing and drama groups. Porter was a good singer and musician. He played both the guitar and mandolin. He became a member of the "Hill City Quartet," a group of young men who sang at gatherings and serenaded young women of the town. Porter met and began courting Athol Estes, then seventeen years old and from a wealthy family. Her mother objected to the match because Athol was ill, suffering from tuberculosis. On July 1, 1887, Porter eloped with Athol to the home of Reverend R. K. Smoot, where they were married.

The couple continued to participate in musical and theater groups, and Athol encouraged her husband to pursue his writing. Athol gave birth to a son in 1888, who died hours after birth, and then a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, in September 1889. Porter's friend Richard Hall became Texas Land Commissioner and offered Porter a job. Porter started as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office (GLO) in 1887 at a salary of $100 a month, drawing maps from surveys and field notes. The salary was enough to support his family, but he continued his contributions to magazines and newspapers.

In the GLO building, he began developing characters and plots for such stories as "Georgia's Ruling" (1900), and "Buried Treasure" (1908). The castle-like building he worked in was even woven into some of his tales such as "Bexar Scrip No. 2692" (1894). His job at the GLO was a political appointment by Hall. Hall ran for governor in the election of 1890 but lost. Porter resigned in early 1891 when the new governor was sworn in. The same year, Porter began working at the First National Bank of Austin as a teller and bookkeeper at the same salary he had made at the GLO. The bank was operated informally and Porter had trouble keeping track of his books. In 1894, he was accused by the bank of embezzlement and lost his job but was not indicted. He now worked full time on his humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone, which he started while working at the bank. The Rolling Stone featured satire on life, people and politics and included Porter's short stories and sketches. Although eventually reaching a top circulation of 1500, The Rolling Stone failed in April 1895, perhaps because of Porter's poking fun at powerful people. Porter also may have ceased publication as the paper never provided the money he needed to support his family. By then, his writing and drawings caught the attention of the editor at the Houston Post.

Porter and his family moved to Houston in 1895, where he started writing for the Post. His salary was only $25 a month, but it rose steadily as his popularity increased. Porter gathered ideas for his column by hanging out in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. This was a technique he used throughout his writing career. While he was in Houston, the First National Bank of Austin was audited and the federal auditors found several discrepancies. They managed to get a federal indictment against Porter. Porter was subsequently arrested on charges of embezzlement, charges which he denied, in connection with his employment at the bank.

Flight and return

Porter in his 30s

Porter's father-in-law posted bail to keep Porter out of jail, but the day before Porter was due to stand trial on July 7, 1896, he fled, first to New Orleans and later to Honduras. While holed up in a Tegucigalpa hotel for several months, he wrote Cabbages and Kings, in which he coined the term "banana republic" to describe the country, subsequently used to describe almost any small, unstable tropical nation in Latin America. Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to Austin to live with Athol's parents. Unfortunately, Athol became too ill to meet Porter in Honduras as Porter planned. When he learned that his wife was dying, Porter returned to Austin in February 1897 and surrendered to the court, pending an appeal. Once again, Porter's father-in-law posted bail so Porter could stay with Athol and Margaret.

Athol Estes Porter died on July 25, 1897 from tuberculosis (then known as consumption). Porter, having little to say in his own defense, was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898, sentenced to five years jail, and imprisoned on March 25, 1898, as federal prisoner 30664 at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. While in prison, Porter, as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital as the night druggist. Porter was given his own room in the hospital wing, and there is no record that he actually spent time in the cell block of the prison. He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms while he was in prison, but was becoming best known as "O. Henry", a pseudonym that first appeared over the story "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking" in the December 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers, so they had no idea the writer was imprisoned. Porter was released on July 24, 1901, for good behavior after serving three years. Porter reunited with his daughter Margaret, now age 11, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol's parents had moved after Porter's conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison - just that he had been away on business.

Later life

Porter's most prolific writing period started in 1902, when he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. While there, he wrote 381 short stories. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. His wit, characterization and plot twists were adored by his readers, but often panned by critics. Porter married again in 1907, to childhood sweetheart Sarah (Sallie) Lindsey Coleman, whom he met again after revisiting his native state of North Carolina. However, despite the success of his short stories being published in magazines and collections (or perhaps because of the attendant pressure that success brought), Porter drank heavily.

His health began to deteriorate in 1908, which affected his writing. Sarah left him in 1909, and Porter died on June 5, 1910, of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes and an enlarged heart. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, died in 1927 and was buried with her father.

Stories

O. Henry stories are famous for their surprise endings, to the point that such an ending is often referred to as an "O. Henry ending." He was called the American answer to Guy de Maupassant. Both authors wrote twist endings, but O. Henry stories were much more playful and optimistic. His stories are also well known for witty narration. Most of O. Henry's stories are set in his own time, the early years of the 20th century. Many take place in New York City, and deal for the most part with ordinary people: clerks, policemen, waitresses.

Fundamentally a product of his time, O. Henry's work provides one of the best English examples of catching the entire flavor of an age. Whether roaming the cattle-lands of Texas, exploring the art of the "gentle grafter," or investigating the tensions of class and wealth in turn-of-the-century New York, O. Henry had an inimitable hand for isolating some element of society and describing it with an incredible economy and grace of language. Some of his best and least-known work resides in the collection Cabbages and Kings, a series of stories which each explore some individual aspect of life in a paralytically sleepy Central American town while each advancing some aspect of the larger plot and relating back one to another in a complex structure which slowly explicates its own background even as it painstakingly erects a town which is one of the most detailed literary creations of the period.

The Four Million is another collection of stories. It opens with a reference to Ward McAllister's "assertion that there were only 'Four Hundred' people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the 'Four Million.'" To O. Henry, everyone in New York counted. He had an obvious affection for the city, which he called "Bagdad-on-the-Subway,"[1] and many of his stories are set there—but others are set in small towns and in other cities.

Among his most famous stories are:

  • "A Municipal Report" which opens by quoting Frank Norris: "Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say, or Nashville, Tennessee! There are just three big cities in the United States that are 'story cities'—New York, of course, New Orleans, and, best of the lot, San Francisco." Thumbing his nose at Norris, O. Henry sets the story in Nashville.
  • "The Gift of the Magi" about a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; while unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his own most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jeweled combs for Della's hair. The essential premise of this story has been copied, re-worked, parodied, and otherwise re-told countless times in the century since it was written.
  • "The Ransom of Red Chief", in which two men kidnap a boy of ten. The boy turns out to be so bratty and obnoxious that the desperate men ultimately pay the boy's father $250 to take him back.
  • "The Cop and the Anthem" about a New York City hobo named Soapy, who sets out to get arrested so he can avoid sleeping in the cold winter as a guest of the city jail. Despite efforts at petty theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and "mashing" with a young prostitute, Soapy fails to draw the attention of the police. Disconsolate, he pauses in front of a church, where an organ anthem inspires him to clean up his life — and is ironically charged for loitering and sentenced to three months in prison.
  • "A Retrieved Reformation", which tells the tale of safecracker Jimmy Valentine, recently freed from prison. He goes to a town bank to check it over before he robs it. As he walks to the door, he catches the eye of the banker's beautiful daughter. They immediately fall in love and Valentine decides to give up his criminal career. He moves into the town, taking up the identity of Ralph Spencer, a shoemaker. Just as he is about to leave to deliver his specialized tools to an old associate, a lawman who recognizes him arrives at the bank. Jimmy and his fiancée and her family are at the bank, inspecting a new safe, when a child accidentally gets locked inside the airtight vault. Knowing it will seal his fate, Valentine opens the safe to rescue the child. However, the lawman lets him go.
  • "After Twenty Years", set on a dark street in New York, focuses on a man named "Silky" Bob who is fulfilling an appointment made 20 years ago to meet his friend Jimmy at a restaurant. A beat cop questions him about what he is doing there. Bob explains, and the policeman leaves. Later, a second policeman comes up and arrests Bob. He gives Bob a note, in which the first policeman explains that he was Jimmy, come to meet Bob, but he recognized Bob as a wanted man. Unwilling to arrest his old friend, he went off to get another officer to make the arrest.
  • "Compliments of the Season" describes several characters' misadventures during Christmas.[2]
  • Friends in San Rosario, about embezzlement, a bank audit and loyalty to an old friend, bears poignantly upon Porter's real-life prison experience.

Pen name

Porter gave various explanations for the origin of his pen name.[3] In 1909 he gave an interview to The New York Times, in which he gave an account of it:

It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: "I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one." He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. "Here we have our notables," said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, "That'll do for a last name," said I. "Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me." "Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?" asked my friend. "Good," said I, "O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is."

A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, "O stands for Olivier the French for Oliver." And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.[4]

Writer and scholar Guy Davenport offers another explanation: "[T]he pseudonym that he began to write under in prison is constructed from the first two letters of Ohio and the second and last two of penitentiary." (bold added)[3]

Legacy

The O. Henry Award is a prestigious annual prize given to outstanding short stories, and named after Porter. Several schools around the country bear Porter's pseudonym.

In 1952, a film featuring five stories, called O. Henry's Full House, was made. The episode garnering the most critical acclaim was "The Cop and the Anthem", starring Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe. The other stories are "The Clarion Call", "The Last Leaf", "The Ransom of Red Chief" (starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant), and "The Gift of the Magi".

Quotations

  • "There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands."[5]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Henry, O. "A Madison Square Arabian Night," from The Trimmed Lamp: "Oh, I know what to do when I see victuals coming toward me in little old Bagdad-on-the-Subway. I strike the asphalt three times with my forehead and get ready to spiel yarns for my supper. I claim descent from the late Tommy Tucker, who was forced to hand out vocal harmony for his pre-digested wheaterina and spoopju." The Trimmed Lamp, Project Gutenberg text
  2. ^ Compliments of the Season by O. Henry at www.literaturecollection.com
  3. ^ a b Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996
  4. ^ "'O. Henry' on Himself, Life, and Other Things", New York Times, Apr. 4, 1909, p. SM9.
  5. ^ http://www.news-record.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061225/NEWSREC0101/61224001

Further reading

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only "Four Hundred" people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen — the census taker...

O. Henry (September 11, 1862June 5, 1910) was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, a short-story writer famous for his use of twist endings.

Contents

Sourced

Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
I have heard of you all my life. I know now what a scourge you have been to your country. Instead of killing fools you have been murdering the youth and genius that are necessary to make a people live and grow great.
Man is too thoroughly an egoist not to be also an egotist; if he love, the object shall know it. During a lifetime he may conceal it through stress of expediency and honour, but it shall bubble from his dying lips, though it disrupt a neighbourhood. It is known, however, that most men do not wait so long to disclose their passion.
  • What is the world at its best but a little round field of the moving pictures with two walking together in it?
  • Perhaps there is no happiness in life so perfect as the martyr's.
  • Turn up the lights — I don't want to go home in the dark.
    • Last words, quoting a 1907 song by Harry Williams. (5 June 1910) Quoted in O. Henry Biography, ch. 9, Charles Alphonso Smith (1916).
  • A burglar who respects his art always takes his time before taking anything else.
    • “Makes the Whole World Kin,” Sixes and Sevens (1911)
  • A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows.
  • Take it from me — he's got the goods.
    • "The Unprofitable Servant"

The Four Million (1906)

Full text online
  • Not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only "Four Hundred" people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen — the census taker — and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the "Four Million."
    • Preface
  • There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
    • "The Gift of the Magi"
  • The magi, as you know, were wise men — wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
    • "The Gift of the Magi"
  • If man knew how women pass the time when they are alone, they’d never marry.
    • "Memoirs of a Yellow Dog"

The Trimmed Lamp (1907)

The Trimmed Lamp And Other Stories of the Four Million - Full text online
  • Whenever my patient begins to count the carriages in her funeral procession I subtract 50 per cent from the curative power of medicines.
  • The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey.
    • "The Last Leaf"
  • Bohemia is nothing more than the little country in which you do not live. If you try to obtain citizenship in it, at once the court and retinue pack the royal archives and treasure and move away beyond the hills.
    • "The Country of Elusion"

The Voice of the City (1908)

The Voice of the City : Further Stories of the Four Million - Full text online
  • There are a few editor men with whom I am privileged to come in contact. It has not been long since it was their habit to come in contact with me. There is a difference.
  • In time truth and science and nature will adapt themselves to art. Things will happen logically, and the villain be discomfited instead of being elected to the board of directors. But in the meantime fiction must not only be divorced from fact, but must pay alimony and be awarded custody of the press despatches.
    • "The Plutonian Fire"
  • He wrote love stories, a thing I have always kept free from, holding the belief that the well-known and popular sentiment is not properly matter for publication, but something to be privately handled by the alienist and the florist.
    • "The Plutonian Fire"
  • I hated Kerner, and one day I met him and we became friends. He was young and gloriously melancholy because his spirits were so high and life had so much in store for him. Yes, he was almost riotously sad. That was his youth. When a man begins to be hilarious in a sorrowful way you can bet a million that he is dyeing his hair.
    • "The Fool-Killer"
  • Kerner's father was worth a couple of millions. He was willing to stand for art, but he drew the line at the factory girl. So Kerner disinherited his father and walked out to a cheap studio and lived on sausages for breakfast and on Farroni for dinner.
    • "The Fool-Killer"
  • I know you. I have heard of you all my life. I know now what a scourge you have been to your country. Instead of killing fools you have been murdering the youth and genius that are necessary to make a people live and grow great. You are a fool yourself, Holmes; you began killing off the brightest and best of our countrymen three generations ago, when the old and obsolete standards of society and honor and orthodoxy were narrow and bigoted. You proved that when you put your murderous mark upon my friend Kerner — the wisest chap I ever knew in my life.
    • "The Fool-Killer"
  • Broadway — the great sluice that washes out the dust of the gold-mines of Gotham.
    • "From Each According to His Ability"

The Gentle Grafter (1908)

Full text online
  • It was beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are.
    • "The Octopus Marooned"
  • Busy as a one-armed man with the nettle-rash pasting on wallpaper.
    • "The Ethics of Pig"
  • She is pale but affectionate, clinging to his arm—always clinging to his arm. Any one can see that she is a peach and of the cling variety.
  • If ever there was an aviary overstocked with jays it is that Yaptown-on-the-Hudson, called New York.
    • "A Tempered Wind"

Roads of Destiny (1909)

Full text online
  • History is bright and fiction dull with homely men who have charmed women.
    • "Next to Reading Matter"
  • You can't appreciate home till you've left it, money till it's spent, your wife till she's joined a women's club, nor Old Glory till you see it hanging on a broomstick on the shanty of a consul in a foreign town.
    • "The Fourth in Salvador"

Strictly Business (1910)

Strictly Business: More Stories of the Four Million - Full text online
  • She plucked from my lapel the invisible strand of lint (the universal act of woman to proclaim ownership).
    • "A Ramble in Aphasia"
  • A story with a moral appended is like the bill of a mosquito. It bores you, and then injects a stinging drop to irritate your conscience.
    • "The Gold that Glittered"
  • East is East, and West is San Francisco, according to Californians. Californians are a race of people; they are not merely inhabitants of a State.
    • "A Municipal Report"
  • Take of London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts, gas leaks 20 parts, dewdrops gathered in a brickyard at sunrise 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix. The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle.
    • "A Municipal Report"

Whirligigs (1910)

Full text online
  • It couldn't have happened anywhere but in little old New York.
    • "A Little Local Color"
  • Man is too thoroughly an egoist not to be also an egotist; if he love, the object shall know it. During a lifetime he may conceal it through stress of expediency and honour, but it shall bubble from his dying lips, though it disrupt a neighbourhood. It is known, however, that most men do not wait so long to disclose their passion. In the case of Lorison, his particular ethics positively forbade him to declare his sentiments, but he must needs dally with the subject, and woo by innuendo at least.
    • "Blind Man's Holiday"
  • Bolivar cannot carry double
    • "The Roads We Take"

External links

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