Henry, O

views updated


Pseudonym for William Sydney or Sidney Porter. Nationality: American. Born: Greensboro, North Carolina, 11 September 1862.Education: His aunt's private school in Greensboro to age 7; apprentice pharmacist in Greensboro, 1878-81; licensed by the North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association, 1881. Family: Married 1) Athol Estes Roach in 1887 (died 1897), one son and one daughter; 2) Sara Lindsay Coleman in 1907. Career: Moved to Texas, 1882, and worked on a ranch in LaSalle County, 1882-84; bookkeeper in Austin, 1884-86; contributed to Detroit Free Press, 1887; draftsman, Texas Land office, Austin, 1887-91; teller, First National Bank, Austin, 1891-94; founding editor, Iconoclast, later Rolling Stone magazine, Houston, 1894-95; columnist ("Tales of the Town," later "Some Postscripts"), Houston Post, 1895-96; accused of embezzling funds from his previous employers, First National Bank, Austin, 1895; fled to Honduras to avoid trial, 1896-97; returned to Austin because of wife's illness, 1897; jailed for embezzling in the Federal Penitentiary, Columbus, Ohio, 1898-1901 (5-year sentence reduced to 3); while in prison began publishing stories as O. Henry; moved to Pittsburgh, 1901, and New York, 1902; thereafter a full-time writer; regular contributor, New York Sunday World, 1903-05. O. Henry Memorial award established by the Society of Arts and Sciences, 1918. Died: 5 June 1910.



Complete Works. 1926.

Stories, edited by Harry Hansen. 1965.

Collected Stories. 1994.

Short Stories

Cabbages and Kings. 1904.

The Four Million. 1906.

The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories of the Four Million. 1907.

Heart of the West. 1907.

The Voice of the City: Further Stories of the Four Million. 1908.

The Gentle Grafter. 1908.

Roads of Destiny. 1909.

Options. 1909.

Strictly Business: More Stories of the Four Million. 1910.

Whirligigs. 1910.

Let Me Feel Your Pulse. 1910.

The Two Women. 1910.

Sixes and Sevens. 1911.

Rolling Stones. 1912.

Waifs and Strays. 1917.

O. Henryana: Seven Odds and Ends: Poetry and Short Stories. 1920.

Selected Stories, edited by C. Alphonse Smith. 1922.

The Best of O. Henry. 1929.

More O. Henry. 1933.

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry, edited by Bennett Cerf and VanH. Cartmell. 1945.

The Pocket Book of O. Henry, edited by Harry Hansen. 1948.

Cops and Robbers, edited by Ellery Queen. 1948.

O. Henry Westerns, edited by Patrick Thornhill. 1961.

Tales of O. Henry. 1993.

Heart of the West. 1993.

New Yorkers' Short Stories. 1995.

100 Selected Stories. 1995.

O. Henry's New York. 1996.


Lo, with Franklin P. Adams, music by A. Baldwin Sloane (produced 1909).


Complete Writings, 14 vols., 1918.

Letters to Lithopolis from O. Henry to Mabel Wagnalls. 1922.

Postschipts (from Houston Post), edited by Florence Stratton. 1923.

O. Henry Encore: Stories and Illustrations (from Houston Post), edited by Mary Sunlocks Harrell. 1939.



A Bibliography of Porter (O. Henry) by Paul S. Clarkson, 1938; Porter (O. Henry): A Reference Guide by Richard C. Harris, 1980; in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, edited by Virginia L. Smyers and Michael Winship, 1983.

Critical Studies:

O. Henry Biography by C. Alphonse Smith, 1916; The Caliph of Bagdad by Robert H. Davis and Arthur B. Maurice, 1931; O. Henry: The Man and His Work, 1949, and O. Henry, American Regionalist, 1969, both by Eugene Hudson Long; The Heart of O. Henry by Dale Kramer, 1954; Alias O. Henry: A Biography by Gerald Langford, 1957; O. Henry from Polecat Creek by Ethel Stephens Arnett, 1962; O. Henry by Eugene Current-Garcia, 1965; O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story by B. M. Ejxenbaum, translated from the Russian by I. R. Titunik, 1968; O. Henry: The Legendary Life of Porter by Richard O'Connor, 1970; From Alamo Plaza to Jack Harris's Saloon: O. Henry and the Southwest He Knew by Joseph Gallegly, 1970; Cheap Rooms and Restless Hearts: A Study of Formula in the Urban Tales of Porter by Karen Charmaine Blansfield, 1988; O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction by Eugene Current-García, 1993.

* * *

Like a rocket-launched spaceship, William Sydney Porter's career as the legendary O. Henry flourished during the brief span of eight years between his arrival in New York in 1902 and his death there in 1910. His background had supplied him with a multitude of colorful types and adventures that, along with many new ones, he swiftly transformed into the still more beguiling exploits of another multitude of fictive characters in O. Henry's glittering stories. The range of Porter's experience, from the provincial constraints of boyhood in an embittered Reconstruction South to ultimate creative achievement in New York, seemed limitless as his O. Henry stories appeared in print—113 of them in the weekly New York Sunday World alone between 1903 and 1905 and at least 25 longer ones published during the same period in monthly magazines such as Everybody's, McClure's, and Munsey's.

Porter's fame—as O. Henry—is primarily associated with his tales of New York's "four million," the approximate population of the metropolis, aptly chosen for the title of his second collection of stories in 1906. During his residence in New York he produced more than 140 stories—virtually half his total output—based on the appearance and the conduct of the throngs he observed daily in shops and offices, hostelries and theaters, on street corners, park benches, tenement fire-escapes, and open-air buses. Selecting two or three such individuals who had caught his fancy, he could quickly summon up imaginary situations or predicaments for them to confront and then work out ingeniously unexpected solutions for their problems, usually with a touch of whimsy that rarely failed to delight his grateful readers. New York challenged Porter to record its true voice, to penetrate its mysteries, and to show others that real worth and beauty lurked unmarked in many unlikely places, even beneath Coney Island's spangled temples, which also "offered saving and apposite balm and satisfaction to the restless human heart." Porter eagerly accepted the challenge and strove to capture the essence of the great city in story after story, 50 more of them in the next two collections, The Trimmed Lamp and The Voice of the City. Also published during this same time were Heart of the West and The Gentle Grafter, containing the stories based on his experiences in Texas and in prison; in 1909 two more volumes of stories with variegated settings appeared, Roads of Destiny and Options. Another collection, Strictly Business, containing 22 more New York stories plus "A Municipal Report," was published in 1910, shortly before Porter died. Still to come posthumously were at least a half dozen more collections of stories and storied lore, memorabilia by some of the writing folk who had known him well.

The "O. Henry Story," as it came in time to be known, admired, and/or condemned, owed much of its popular appeal to Porter's sophisticated updating of two types of short fiction that had flourished in magazines and newspapers during the decades just prior to and after the Civil War. These were the boisterous tall tale of the Old Southwest frontier and the more sentimental romantic adventure story of the postwar local color movement. During his long apprenticeship in Texas Porter taught himself how to combine the most attractive features of both types by writing parodies or burlesques of other prominent writers' works and by transforming his own personal encounters into far-fetched legends. While experimenting with new techniques and developing his own individual style, he was working over in these sketches such familiar old gambits as the disguise or impostor motif, and he combined these motifs with variations on the theme of disparity between rich and poor, success and misfortune, and the idea that destiny or fate imposes inescapable roles on the individual. This sense of determinism, treated both seriously and comically in many of his early efforts, remained a strong moving force throughout most of his later writings as well.

His apprenticeship as a professional writer actually got under way shortly after his marriage in 1887. During the next eight years while employed in Austin, first as draughtsman in the Texas Land Office and later as teller in the First National Bank, Porter's random publications elsewhere led in time to the steady flow of humorous matter that he wrote and published in his own ambitious weekly, The Rolling Stone. Here could be found during its brief life (March to December 1894) the origins of his later themes, plots, methods, and style; he managed, while holding down a full-time job at the bank, to fill its eight pages each week with funny cartoons, squibs, and satirical barbs on people and events of local interest. In Houston the following year he continued honing these talents while writing in a daily feature column, "Some Postscripts," the kind of anecdotal humor he had done in The Rolling Stone, as well as writing longer sketches, many of them embryonic foreshadowings of his more famous later stories. In more than 50 of these his facility for ringing changes on the familiar O. Henry themes of mistaken identity, false pretense, misplaced devotion, nobility in disguise, and the bitter irony of fate are plainly visible, along with such sentimental character types as the sensitive tramp, the ill-starred lovers, the starving artist, and the gentle grafter.

Both the basic structure and tone of his more famous stories, as well as the attitudes responsible for them, were being shaped in the Houston Post sketches before the combined disasters occurred—his wife Athol's death, and his trial and conviction that sent him to prison in 1898 an embittered man. During the three years Porter spent in prison and the next two while becoming re-oriented in Pittsburgh and New York, he wrote more than half of some 80 new western stories that preceded his much larger production of New York tales. Most of them are set in Texas and Latin America (where he had lived nearly a year as a solitary fugitive), but virtually all of these stories reflect the conventional images associated with the Wild West. Despite realistic dialogue and specific descriptive details, their colorful dramatis personae are romanticized types, and their actions are governed by a few basic passions—love, hatred, fear, greed—befitting a simplistic dichotomy of "good guys" versus "bad guys." The standard situation in most of them is a variant of the boy-meets-girl problem, involving either rivalry between two men for the possession of a woman, or discomfiture between a man and a woman that, until eliminated by some unforseen turn of events near the end, precludes any satisfactory resolution of the problem. Other situations concern the reformation or rehabilitation of jailbirds or the opposing forces of malfeasance and the law.

Porter became increasingly skilled in devising tightly knitted plots with breathless tensions relieved in last-minute, quick reversals. Regardless of their settings, however, he skillfully shifted about and rearranged the design of his "cops-and-robbers" pattern, sometimes quite humorously, as in "A Call Loan" and "Friends in San Rosario"—both of which satirize the same lax banking laws that had also victimized him—by showing how they could be circumvented through the collusion of friendly bankers. But sometimes the pattern could be somber—as in "The Roads We Take," a story of betrayal juxtaposing dream and reality—and brutal, too—as in "The Caballero's Way," which combines the infidelity and revenge motifs in a gruesome plot involving the deadly Cisco Kid, Porter's most attractive villain, who "killed for the love of it … any reason that came to his mind would suffice." So he must avenge the treachery of his mistress, Tonia, who has conspired to turn him in to her new lover, Sandridge, the Texas Ranger pursuing him. But the Kid's method of requiting her unfaithfulness is the "caballero's way"—tricking Sandridge himself into performing the dirty work instead. Coldly narrated and almost totally free of sticky sentimentality, "The Caballero's Way," not surprisingly, was long ago designated the finest of Porter's Western stories.

Despite shattered health toward the end of his life, Porter produced from 1909 to 1910 several other exceptionally fine stories, remarkable contrasts to his Texas outlaw tales. His interest having turned once again toward the broad problems of his native postwar area, he had planned an elaborate series of works to dramatize the conflicting aims and ideals of the Old South versus the New South. These never materialized, but reflections of their promise can be seen in three favorite stories that span the gamut from the deadly serious to the ridiculous—and are still anthologized favorites today. Besides "A Municipal Report," hailed as America's finest short story in 1914, there is the uproarious "Ransom of Red Chief," a farcical kidnaping venture that goes awry, and "The Rose of Dixie," a double-barreled satire of regional journalistic policies. Here "Old South" stuffiness resides in the character of Colonel Aquila Telfair, scion of a grand old family, who plans to edit a high-minded Southern literary journal in Toombs City, Georgia. He acquires a staff of impeccably Confederate assistants—"a whole crate of Georgia peaches"—and adamantly refuses to sully his journal with any writings produced by Northerners; everything in it must conform to the watchword: "Of, For, and By the South." He wavers slightly when a fast-talking New York sales-promotion agent, T. T. Thacker, persuades him to junk a portion of the Southern deadwood scheduled for the coming issue and to substitute in its place some popular literary piece from elsewhere so that circulation can be boosted. But in the end the Colonel fills the space tentatively agreed upon with an article entitled "Second Message to Congress/Written for/THE ROSE OF DIXIE/BY/A Member of the Well-known/BULLOCH FAMILY OF GEORGIA/T. Roosevelt." Although "The Rose of Dixie" lacks Porter's usual romantic appeal of virtue rewarded, love requited, or innocence preserved, it still bears his trademark, the surprise ending. But better than that is the delightful spoofing that ripples through the interview between Telfair and Thacker, the one with his stiff, self-righteous Southern intransigence, the other with his brash Yankee practicality. The story is a splendid take-off of antebellum Southern magazines, all the funnier for being both truthful and yet kindly; but, since the build-up of Thacker is equally barbed, its satire cuts both ways, exposing over-principled Southern states' righteousness, poor but proud, as set against unprincipled Northern commercialism, indifferent toward any ideal save that of making a "fast buck."

Of all the stories Porter ever wrote, however, he probably succeeded most effectively in the art of fusing comedy and pathos in the last one he finished before the end, "Let Me Feel Your Pulse." Based on his own search for relief during those wretched last months, the story tells of the narrator's ordeals as physicians thumped, probed, and prescribed medications for him to no avail, until at length in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina he learned about a magic flowering plant, amarylis, as a possible cure for all human ills. Almost imperceptibly the focus of the tale has shifted into the realm of allegory and fantasy and ends with a question that echoes faintly out of Milton's Lycidas and implies the essence of all that he had learned about himself and the world and about his relationship to the world as an artist: "What rest more remedial than to sit with Amarylis in the shade and with a sixth sense, read the wordless Theocritan idyll?" The question subtly reminds the attentive reader that, in the next few lines following that familiar allusion, Milton's poem speaks of hard-won fame and invokes a grim image of "blind Fury [who comes] and slits the thin-spun life." Death was much on Porter's mind at this point; yet with impeccable artistry his fusion of comedy and pathos shows how well he understood—and endorsed—Milton's caveat to the artist: not to expect his meed of fame in the world of his contemporaries, but in heaven as "all-judging Jove" decrees. His swan song uttered a clear, pure note.

—Eugene Current-García

See the essays on "The Gift of the Magi" and "A Municiple Report."