This is a brief piece I wrote for the Southern Writers series in our community magazine. O. Henry sure was an interesting character, and I enjoyed researching his life as much as I enjoy reading his work.
Many people remember O. Henry around Christmas time, thinking of his classic short story The Gift of the Magi, but this writer was much more than the author of that one prominent piece. O. Henry was the pen name of William Sidney Porter, born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in September 1862.
A voracious reader from the start, Porter was a sketch artist and draftsman, a ranch hand and cook, a teller and bookkeeper, singer and musician, and a licensed pharmacist who also wrote articles and short stories on the side.
It was his job at a bank in Austin, Texas, that got him in trouble: he was suspected of embezzling funds and adjusting the books and was fired. A while later, the Feds audited the bank’s books and, long story short, they called for his arrest, he took off for New Orleans and then Central America, and, because the wife he’d left in Texas was dying, he went back and faced his sentence. Porter had had many stories published under a variety of pennames, but it was while he was in prison that he became known as O. Henry, the name he was using most often.
Porter, O. Henry, was a master of the twist at the end of the tale. In The Gift of the Magi, his short story most likely read by everyone during their school years, husband and wife sacrifice their one prized possession to get the other something to enhance that prized possession. In The Ransom of Red Chief, the kidnappers pay the boy’s father to take him back. In many stories, someone does a kind deed to help another, and then winds up suffering for it. In others, the person doing the good deed, though he was formerly a criminal, is let off because of the deed.
In his short lifetime, Porter died at 47, he wrote hundreds of stories. Many were originally published in collections of his works such as “Cabbages and Kings.” His more famous stories are usually included in American short story anthologies, and in high school English texts as great examples of irony.
Two interesting notes:
In Honduras while evading his prison term, in one collection of stories he wrote, Porter coined the phrase “banana republic, now defined as “a small nation, especially in Central America, dependent on one crop or the influx of foreign capital.”
And, like the S in the name of Harry S. Truman, the O in O. Henry is a compromise of sorts, and just stands for itself.