By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The writer O. Henry was a prolific author of short stories, and a number of them are still widely taught in schools and colleges; his brief tales with their surprising twist endings are still read and enjoyed by people around the world.
But who was O. Henry? Was that the author’s real name? What did the ‘O.’ stand for? And how was the life of ‘O. Henry’ as surprising, and full of twists, as his work?
Let’s take a look at his life and work, by exploring some of the most interesting facts about the master of the short story form, O. Henry.
1. The short-story writer O. Henry only really existed for eight years.
His real name was William Sydney Porter. Porter lived from 1862-1910, but ‘O. Henry’ – his pen name – only existed for the last eight of those years. He began publishing as O. Henry in New York in 1902.
2. During those eight brief years, he published over 300 stories.
O Henry was nothing if not prolific. During the first decade of the twentieth century, he published several hundred short stories in magazines as diverse as Everybody’s, Smart Set, and the New York Sunday World.
3. His work has divided critics.
As Abby P. Werlock observes in American Short Story (Companion to Literature Series), critical opinion on O. Henry’s work has differed somewhat sharply. Of course, difference of opinion among critics is usual surrounding many popular writers, but with O. Henry there is a real division.
Some critics, Werlock notes, have compared O. Henry favourably to master stylists and narrative innovators like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, or to writers like Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton.
As Eugene Current-García summarised this issue: ‘Was he a genuine literary artist or a literary mountebank, a creative innovator of narrative prose fiction or an artful dodger and con man?’
4. Although he is closely associated with New York, he wrote about numerous other places, too.
As Werlock observes, O. Henry set no fewer than 30 of his 300 stories in the South, 80 in the West, and 26 are not set in the United States at all, but in Central America. Indeed, one of his finest stories, ‘The Ransom of Red Chief’, is a Southern story.
5. Porter was, in fact, born in the South.
William Sydney Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the American Civil War, in 1862. His mother died when he was just three, and he was brought up by his aunt and his maternal grandmother.
6. He coined the phrase ‘banana republic’.
A ‘banana republic’ is a country – especially a small state – whose economy is almost entirely dependent on one commodity. This commodity is usually fruit, and the term banana republic was originally applied to countries in Central America, where bananas are grown in vast numbers before being exported around the world.
In Cabbages and Kings, his 1904 novel-cum-short-story-collection set in the fictional republic of Anchuria in Central America, O. Henry coined the phrase banana republic to refer to Anchuria: a small state which is not exactly a big player on the economic world stage.
7. He once went on the run, fleeing the United States when he was charged with embezzlement.
When he was gathering the inspiration for Cabbages and Kings, O. Henry wasn’t simply on a factfinding holiday.
In fact, he had fled to Honduras from the United States following embezzlement charges levelled at him; he spent six months living in the Central American country, in 1896-7, before returning to the US to face trial and, later, imprisonment. He served three years of a five-year sentence before launching his literary career as O. Henry upon his release.
8. The money he was charged with embezzling was, it is believed, used to launch one of his own publications.
According to John Sutherland in his excellent Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, the money Porter was accused of embezzling was used to launch his own comic paper, The Rolling Stone. Porter was working at a bank in Texas at the time, and he would later be arrested for embezzling the sum of $5,000.
9. Nobody knows where he got his pen name from.
The origins of Porter’s universally known pseudonym ‘O. Henry’ are shrouded in mystery. While he was still serving time in prison, he had 14 stories published under various pseudonyms, but it was the name ‘O. Henry’ that stuck: a pseudonym that first appeared over the story ‘Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking’ in the December 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine.
A friend of Porter’s living in New Orleans sent his stories to publishers on his behalf, so the editors they had no idea that the writer of the story was in prison!
10. In New York, he lived just a few doors down from the home of another literary great.
Porter, relaunched and reinvented as O. Henry, would claim to be ‘living all alone in a great big two rooms on quiet old Irving Place three doors from Wash Irving’s old home’ (Porter was a widower, whose wife died in the 1890s, though he would remarry in 1907).
Sadly, the two writers never met – Washington Irving had died in 1859, three years before Porter was born – but O. Henry’s choice to live at this address was laden with symbolism for him.
11. He has a writing prize named in his honour.
The writer known as O. Henry died in 1910, aged just 47, from cirrhosis of the liver (he had been a heavy drinker for much of his life).
The O. Henry Memorial Awards were set up in 1919, just nine years after his death. Over the century or so since the first prizes were given out, writers as distinguished as Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Stephen King have won the O. Henry Awards.