The story of the writer who called himself O. Henry could almost be an O. Henry story. The writer—his real name was William Sidney Porter—had a secret, and he spent most of his adult life trying to conceal it.
The pseudonym was part of that effort, but Porter also avoided being photographed, rarely gave interviews, and steered clear of situations where someone might pry into his past. He was not a recluse, but he did not like to be the center of attention. People found him affable, unpretentious, and somewhat inscrutable.
As a writer, Porter was identified with New York City, where more than a hundred of his stories are set, but he was born in the Confederacy, in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, and he retained, as you can see in some of his stories, the racial prejudices of a white Southerner of his time.
His early life was unsettled. At nineteen, he was licensed as a pharmacist (his uncle’s occupation), and his stories have occasional references to drugs and medications, many of which can look fictional to a layperson but are apparently accurate. Soon afterward, he moved to Texas and worked on a ranch, although he spent much of his time there reading. He later published 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. Henry stories. And he began a lifelong practice of roaming the streets, hanging out in bars (he was a prodigious drinker, with a reputation for being able to handle his liquor), and observing life after dark. He liked to listen to people talk about themselves, and he used their stories as the basis for his fiction.
Porter was also a talented cartoonist and composed humorous verses, and he started up a weekly, called The Rolling Stone, as an outlet for his work. It did not prove to be a financially sustainable proposition.
Then disaster struck. After Porter and his wife had a daughter, he took a job as a teller in the First National Bank of Austin. In 1894, a federal bank examiner discovered a shortage of $5,654 in the First National Bank’s accounts, and accused Porter of embezzlement.
It was natural to assume that Porter had borrowed money from the till to keep his struggling magazine out of debt, intending to pay it back. That may be true, but what really happened is unclear. The shortfall could have been a matter of sloppy bookkeeping, or it could be that others were in on the pilfering. On the few occasions that Porter is reported to have alluded to the episode, he implied that he was covering for 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 convened, and this time Porter was indicted.
Just before his trial was scheduled to start, in the summer of 1896, he fled to Honduras, leaving his wife and his six-year-old daughter behind. Honduras was an attractive haven for people in Porter’s situation, because it did not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Porter later wrote several linked stories set in a “banana republic” (a term he seems to have coined). But when he learned that his wife was ill he returned to be with her, and to stand trial. (She died, of tuberculosis, in 1897, at the age of twenty-nine.)
He declined to speak in his own defense and was sentenced to five years in prison. And that is the secret he spent the rest of his life trying to hide—even from his daughter. In an O. Henry story, the secret would be the climactic reveal.
In prison, Porter wrote fourteen stories and began using O. Henry as a pen name. (He had other aliases, but after 1903 he signed everything “O. Henry.”) He was released, with time off for good behavior, in 1901, and moved first to Pittsburgh, where his daughter was living, and then, in 1902, to New York City, a place he had never visited, but where his prospects as a writer were better because he would be closer to his editors.
In New York, he began producing at an astonishing rate. He contracted to write a story a week for the Sunday World, and he continued to write for magazines. In 1904 alone, he published sixty-six stories. He began bringing out collections, notably, in 1906, “The Four Million,” which contains some of his most famous work: “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 life style made living with a dependent impossible. He kept irregular hours, and his biographer Richard O’Connor says that he was a “womanizer.” As Porter had done since his Austin days, he spent his evenings talking to people he met in restaurants and bars.
Financially, he led the hand-to-mouth existence of most full-time writers, even very successful ones. You can’t live off pieces you’ve already been paid for. You always have to be producing a new piece, and you’re always afraid that it won’t be as good as your last piece. Despite his rate of production, Porter found writing stressful and had trouble with deadlines. And he was frank about the fact that he wrote for the income. When he started getting paid more for his stories, he wrote fewer of them.
Not that he saved up the money. He was never prudent. He gave a lot away, and there is some evidence that he was blackmailed by a woman who knew his secret. Even after he had become famous and his work was in constant demand, he was perpetually pleading with his editors to advance him funds against his next story. He received no royalties from a hit Broadway play based on a character in one of his stories (Jimmy Valentine). A series of popular Hollywood movies were based on another character he had created, the Cisco Kid, but they were made after he died. He tried his hand at a musical, and he contracted to write a novel, but those projects went nowhere. 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 been deteriorating, largely because of the drinking. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, and a dilated heart, he died in 1910. He was forty-seven. He was begging his editor for a fresh advance right up to the end.
Ben Yagoda, the editor of the new Library of America volume “O. Henry: 101 Stories,” says that Porter published hundreds of short stories, along with ephemera that appeared in The Rolling Stone and the Houston Post, where he worked as a reporter during some of his Texas years. The best way to consider the stories as an œuvre, I think, is on the model of the comic strip—which is, effectively, what they were when they appeared once a week in the Sunday World. In some weeks, your favorite comic strip is more entertaining than it is in others, but you always read it, because you know what you’re going to get. The same is true of O. Henry stories. Porter had a formula; he had a set of character types; and he had a distinctive verbal palette.
The palette is what the critic H. L. Mencken, who disliked O. Henry’s writing, called “ornate Broadwayese,” a style that is part Damon Runyon (the writer whose stories are the basis for the musical “Guys and Dolls”) and part S. J. Perelman—streetwise observations delivered in a comically overcooked or circumlocutionary manner.
So you get this kind of thing, in a description of the scene around a murdered man:
Or this, about a grifter who makes his living selling bogus products and then skipping town:
O. Henry’s characters, from whatever walk of life, often talk in this mode of high facetiousness: