Who doesn’t have a favorite O. Henry story? One that draws the reader in with a light, almost effortless touch. One that follows every joggle and turn, eventually leading to a final jolting twist at the end. O. Henry had a way of making the conclusion of a story so satisfying that the reader would lean back in his chair and chuckle with the words, “I should have known; but how could I possibly guess?” rolling through his mind. Of course every December millions of readers pick up a well worn copy of a short story collection and re-read “The Gift of the Magi,” a small Christmas story written to emphasize love and sacrifice. A similar theme is evident in “The Last Leaf” when an old painter sacrifices his health by supporting the recovery of a young woman who is seriously ill. He also wrote a number of romantic tales like “A Cupid a la Carte.”
My favorites are the stories that fall easily into the crime genre. Do you remember “The Ransom of Red Chief” about the kidnapping of a small, bratty boy? Sure proved that crime doesn’t pay. And what about “A Retrieved Reformation,” the story of not-quite-reformed safecracker Jimmy Valentine? I credit this story above all others with, five decades ago, cementing in my young mind that it is every person’s obligation to do the right thing when circumstances present.
So, what do we know of this man, who gave us so much joyful reading? When asked about himself, he often exaggerated or altered facts a bit, so the details of his life can be confusing.
William Sydney Porter was born in the mountain town of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. His mother died and he grew up during the post war occupation years in the home of his maternal grandmother.
At the age of twenty, he moved to Texas and lived on a ranch for several years. This experience provided Porter’s knowledge of ranch life which shows up in many of his western stories, such as “The Caballero’s Way” and “Madame Bo-Peep of the Ranches.” He met and married Athol Estes, daughter of a wealthy Austin family. Sometime in the early 1890’s Porter became a teller with the First National Bank of Austin. After a few years, he left his job at the bank under murky circumstances. He developed a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone and after that venture failed, he began writing for the Houston Post.
While in Houston, however, Porter was indicted for embezzlement as a result of his activities during his employment at the First National Bank of Austin. Abandoning his wife and young daughter he fled to Honduras by way of New Orleans but subsequently came home when word reached him that his wife was seriously ill. Shortly after Athol’s death, Porter was sentenced to prison—a tragedy for him and his family but a great joy for readers everywhere because that is when and where he became a serious writer. During the three years he was in prison, Porter wrote feverishly and had more than a dozen stories published, most under the name O. Henry. When he was released in 1901, he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. He wrote more than three hundred stories before he died, nearly penniless, in 1910 due to cirrhosis of the liver.
As to the embezzlement charges, maybe they were valid and maybe they weren’t, but the opening sentences of “The Gift of the Magi” tells us that math was not Porter’s strong suit. “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.” Perhaps his problem at the First National Bank of Austin was just a mathematical error. I like to think so.
Of the hundreds of O. Henry stories still in print, which ones have you most enjoyed?
According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.