Are all the short stories O. Henry?
The story of the writer named O. Henry could almost be a story of O. Henry. The writer – his real name was William Sidney Porter – had a secret and he spent most of his adult life trying to hide it.
The pseudonym was part of that effort, but Porter also avoided being photographed, rarely giving interviews, and avoided situations where someone might delve into his past. He wasn’t a recluse, but he didn’t like to be the center of attention. People found him affable, unpretentious and somewhat impenetrable.
As a writer, Porter was identified with New York City, where more than a hundred of his stories take place, but he was born into Confederation, in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, and he preserved, as you can see in some of his stories, the racial prejudices of a white southerner of his time.
His childhood was unstable. At nineteen, he was licensed as a pharmacist (his uncle’s trade) and his stories sometimes refer to drugs and medication, many of which may seem fictitious to a layman but are apparently accurate. Soon after, he moved to Texas and worked on a ranch, although he spent much of his time there reading. He went on to publish a number of stories set in the West.
He met his future wife in Austin. It seems to have been love at first sight – something that happens more than once in O’s stories. Henry. And he began to roam the streets throughout his life, hanging out in bars (he was a prodigious drinker, renowned for being able to handle his alcohol), and observing life after dark. He liked to listen to people talk about themselves and he used their stories as the basis of his fiction.
Porter was also a talented cartoonist and composed humorous verse, and he started a weekly, called the Rolling stone, as an outlet for his work. It did not turn out to be a financially viable proposition.
Then disaster struck. After Porter and his wife had a daughter, he took a job as a cashier at First National Bank in Austin. In 1894, a Federal Bank Examiner discovered a shortfall of $ 5,654 in the accounts of the First National Bank and charged Porter with embezzlement.
It was natural to assume that Porter had borrowed money from the till to keep his struggling magazine from going into debt, intending to pay it back. This may be true, but what really happened is unclear. The shortfall could be due to sloppy bookkeeping, or it could be that others are involved in the theft. On the rare occasions that Porter would have hinted at the episode, he hinted that he was covering someone else, but he never said who it was. The bank was happy to settle and a grand jury refused to issue an indictment. But the Federal Examiner was zealous. A second grand jury was summoned, and this time Porter was indicted.
Just before his trial began, in the summer of 1896, he fled to Honduras, leaving behind his wife and six-year-old daughter. Honduras was an attractive refuge for people in Porter’s situation, as it did not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Porter later wrote several related stories set in a “banana republic” (a term he seems to have coined). But when he heard that his wife was ill, he returned to join her and stand trial. (She died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of twenty-nine.)
He refused to speak in his own defense and was sentenced to five years in prison. And that’s the secret he spent the rest of his life trying to hide, even from his daughter. In a story of O. Henry, the secret would be the climactic revelation.
In prison, Porter wrote fourteen stories and began to use O. Henry as his pen name. (He had other pseudonyms, but after 1903 he all signed “O. Henry.”) He was released, with good behavior leave, in 1901, and first moved to Pittsburgh, where his daughter lived. , then, in 1902, in New York, a place he had never visited, but where his prospects as a writer were better because he would be closer to his publishers.
In New York, he begins to produce at an astonishing rate. He pledged to write one story per week for the Sunday World, and he continued to write for magazines. In 1904 alone, he published sixty-six short stories. He began to publish collections, in particular, in 1906, “The Four Million”, which contains some of his most famous works: “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Cop and the Anthem”, “An Unfinished Story” and “The furnished room.
Porter’s daughter remained in Pittsburgh, and although he wrote to her regularly and affectionately, they rarely saw each other. His lifestyle made it impossible to live with a dependent. He had irregular schedules, and his biographer Richard O’Connor says he was a “womanizer”. As Porter had done since his days in Austin, he spent his evenings talking to people he met in restaurants and bars.
Financially, he has led the day-to-day existence of most full-time writers, even the very successful ones. You cannot live on coins for which you have already been paid. You always have to produce a new part, and you’re always afraid that it won’t be as good as your last part. Despite his pace of production, Porter found the writing stressful and had problems with deadlines. And he was blunt about the fact that he wrote for the income. When he started getting paid more for his stories, he wrote less.
Not that he saved any money. He was never careful. He gave a lot, and there is evidence that he was blackmailed by a woman who knew his secret. Even after he rose to fame and his work was constantly in demand, he was perpetually begging his editors to advance him funds against his next article. He received no royalties for a hit Broadway play based on a character from one of his stories (Jimmy Valentine). A popular Hollywood film series was based on another character he created, the Cisco Kid, but they were made after his death. He tried his hand at a musical and committed to writing a novel, but those plans came to naught. He was a short story writer. That was what he was good at.
In 1907 he married a woman he had known from his childhood in Greensboro, but his health had deteriorated, in large part due to alcohol consumption. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes and a dilated heart, he died in 1910. He was forty-seven years old. He begged his editor for a further advance until the end.
Ben Yagoda, editor of the Library of America’s new volume “O. Henry: 101 Stories,” says Porter has published hundreds of short stories, as well as ephemera appearing in The rolling stone and the Houston To post, where he worked as a reporter during some of his years in Texas. The best way to think of the stories as a work, I think, is on the model of the comics – which is indeed what they were when they appeared once a week in Sunday World. Some weeks your favorite comic is more entertaining than others, but you still read it because you know what you’re going to get. The same is true of O’s stories. Henry. Porter had a formula; he had a set of character types; and he had a distinctive verbal palette.
The palette is what critic HL Mencken, who disliked O’s writing. Henry, called “ornate Broadwayese”, a style which is partly Damon Runyon (the writer whose stories are at the basis of the musical “Guys and Dolls”) and partly SJ Perelman – from street sightings delivered by ‘in a comically overcooked or circumlocutionary manner.
So you get that sort of thing, in a description of the scene around a murdered man:
Or this, about a con artist who makes a living selling fake goods and leaving town:
The characters of O. Henry, from all walks of life, often speak in this high joke mode: