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O. Henry | Biography

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Childhood and Early Manhood

O. Henry is the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, who was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. His father, Algernon Sidney, was a prominent physician. His mother, Mary Jane Virginia Swaim, was a graduate of Greensboro Female College (now Greensboro College). When O. Henry was three years old, his mother died of tuberculosis; his younger brother soon followed. He, his father, and his older brother moved in with his paternal grandmother, Ruth Coffyn Worth Porter, and an aunt, Evelina ("Miss Lina") Maria Porter. Porter attended a private primary school established by his aunt, who emphasized writing and reading, including classical literature. As a result he developed a strong interest in both from an early age.

Porter left school at 15 but continued to educate himself by reading extensively. He dabbled in drawing, but he wanted to be a writer. Instead his uncle offered him an apprenticeship in the pharmacy of his drugstore. He worked in the pharmacy for three years, often entertaining customers by drawing their caricatures. In 1881 he received a license to practice as a pharmacist. He worked one year as a pharmacist and then headed to Texas.

Texas Years

In 1882 Porter moved to southwestern Texas and lived on the Hall cattle ranch in La Salle County. The Halls were native North Carolinians and family friends who had moved to Texas a decade earlier. Porter's congenial personality quickly endeared him to the Hall family, and they allowed him to live on the ranch as a guest. He did some minor ranch work, but he mostly pursued his writing and did a lot of reading. He also drew comic strips and illustrations.

In 1884 Porter relocated to Austin. He showed no interest in steady employment, however, and spent much of his time socializing. After he met and fell in love with Athol Estes, he worked as a clerk in a drugstore. A family friend then found him a position as a bookkeeper in a real estate firm. In January 1887 he became a clerk in Texas's General Land Office after Richard Moore Hall was elected the land commissioner. That same year he and Athol married. Their son was born in 1888 but died a few hours after birth; their daughter, Margaret, was born on September 30, 1889. Shortly after her birth, Athol became seriously ill.

Working in an office was not Porter's career goal. His ambition was to be a writer. During his early years in Texas, he wrote sketches and occasionally published them. He also participated in an amateur theater group and sang in a quartet and church choir. In January 1891 he lost his job in the Land Office when Hall left office. Once again, a family friend found him a job—this time in a bank. Porter started working as a bank teller at the First National Bank of Austin in 1891. In September 1898 he published his first short story, "Miracle of Lava Canyon." With a friend he purchased an ailing journal and turned it into a humorous weekly magazine, The Rolling Stone. Porter did much of the production work—writing, editing, typesetting, and drawing cartoons—while working full time at the bank. After a year, however, the magazine ceased publication.

Fugitive Years and Imprisonment

Porter was fired from the bank in 1892 after a shortage of money was discovered in his books. Someone paid the shortage—over $4,000—and the bank agreed not to press charges. Nevertheless, a federal bank examiner decided to prosecute, and Porter was indicted for embezzlement. Arrested in Houston in February 1896, he escaped while returning to Austin for the trial. He first went to New Orleans, then to Central America, where he spent much of his time in Honduras. Porter hoped to send for his family, but he had difficulty making ends meet and even went through periods of homelessness, despite working briefly as a ditch digger. When he realized his wife was dying, he returned to Texas so he could be with her. She died in July 1897 of tuberculosis. Porter and his daughter, Margaret, lived with Athol's mother while he waited for his trial. O. Henry was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898. As a result he earned a sentence of five years in the Columbus, Ohio, federal penitentiary.

Writing Career Takes Off

Porter began his writing career in earnest while incarcerated. During his three years and three months of confinement, he worked in the prison pharmacy on the night shift, using his free time to write short stories. Using various pseudonyms, including the name O. Henry, he sent his stories out to magazines and kept submitting them even after they were rejected. His first short story published while in prison was "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking," which appeared in McClure's Magazine in 1899. Many of his stories include autobiographical details. For example, "Georgia's Ruling" is about a commissioner in a land office who is a widower with a young daughter. Porter also wrote about prison life and the various exploits related to him by other prisoners. He had published a total of 14 prison stories by the time he was let out early for good behavior.

After his release from prison in 1901, Porter adopted the pen name of O. Henry. He moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to live with his daughter, who had never been told he was in prison. He wrote stories for the Pittsburgh Dispatch and several New York magazines. During his year in Pittsburgh, a number of his short stories were sold and published. These stories helped him to establish a reputation as a writer.

New York Years

In 1902 Porter moved to New York, continued writing under the pen name O. Henry, and finally gained success as a writer. Aiming for a popular rather than a literary readership, he sold stories to several magazines. In 1903 he signed a contract with the New York World, then the largest newspaper in the United States. During his first two years in New York, he published 115 stories. In 1904 O. Henry published Cabbages and Kings, his first collection of short stories, about his adventures in Central America. He followed this collection with The Four Million (1906), centering on ordinary people in New York City. That book was extremely well received and cemented his reputation, both nationally and internationally. His next collection, The Trimmed Lamp (1907), was also about New Yorkers. Seven other collections were published before his death, including stories about his adventures in Texas and New Orleans.

"The Gift of the Magi"

One of O. Henry's assignments for the New York Sunday World was to write a story that would be the centerpiece of its Christmas 1905 edition. The only requirements were that the story should be about the Christmas holiday and slightly religious. Because the illustrations had to be prepared before the text was typeset, O. Henry was given a deadline to allow the illustrator time to prepare the drawings. He missed the deadline and ignored the editors' repeated requests for information about the story. The frustrated illustrator went to O. Henry's rooms to demand information, but O. Henry had not even started the story. However, he told the illustrator what to draw: a drab room of the type found in boardinghouses on the West Side of New York, with little furniture and a young couple sitting on a bed talking. The woman has long, beautiful hair, and the man is playing with a watch fob. The illustrator followed his directions while the editors waited for O. Henry's story. Three hours before the printer's deadline, with the editor sleeping on a couch in his room, O. Henry wrote "The Gift of the Magi." He modeled the female protagonist on his deceased wife, Athol. She, too, had been deeply in love with her husband and had often been selfless as they struggled financially during their short marriage. For example, a literary critic cited the example of a time in which O. Henry had saved up money for Athol to take a trip to the Chicago World's Fair. She declined the money, saying she preferred being with her husband at home more than any trip. Like Della in "The Gift of the Magi," she valued her relationship with her husband more than any material gifts.

In November 1907 O. Henry married Sara Lindsey Coleman, a childhood friend. The marriage was unhappy, and he spent the last few years of his life in poor health. He briefly moved to Asheville, North Carolina, hoping the mountain air would benefit his health, before moving back to New York. He died in New York City on June 5, 1910, and was buried in Asheville.

Legacy

After O. Henry's death, five posthumous collections of his short stories were published. His works have been translated into several languages, and millions of copies of his works have been sold. Some of his stories have been adapted into plays and television scripts. While his short stories are no longer as popular as they were during the early 20th century, several have withstood the test of time. Among them is "The Gift of the Magi," considered a Christmas classic and often included on lists of best-loved, best-known Christmas stories.

In fact eight years after O. Henry's death, a group of his friends wanted to honor him by inaugurating an annual award to be given to the best short stories of a given year. The winners were published in O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories 1919. Since then, the O. Henry Prize for short stories has been awarded every year, with a selection of the winning stories published in a similar collection.
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