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The phenomenal popularity of the stories he wrote 100 years ago is gone, but it did not die suddenly. For decades after O. Henry’s death in 1910, most general readers and professional critics believed that his imprint on American literature would be permanent.
He was compared with Dickens, and even Shakespeare, for the sheer variety of his characters and their stories. Like Dickens, he wrote short pieces for newspapers and magazines which were later gathered into books. His readers could expect something new every week, and he could sell his work as fast as he could write it.
So what happened? First, the era of the short story as a mainstay of reading entertainment was nearly at its end when he came on the scene. Frank Norris, the novelist, had predicted this, and if O. Henry had not come along, the end would have come earlier. Readers turned to the novel, and the appetite for brief entertainments would soon be satisfied by radio and the movies.
Academic critics developed theories about what values in literature made classic works linger in the mind and lure generations of readers back for repeated enjoyment. They found that O. Henry’s much-admired surprise endings delighted his readers only briefly, like an anecdote or the telling of an interesting comic or sentimental situation. Clearly, though some journalistic writing could gain lasting appeal, most is expected to be short-lived. O. Henry did what he set out to do. And the history of how he did this will probably always be fascinating.
His origins and early experience held little promise. Born William Sidney Porter in 1862 in Greensboro North Carolina, his mother died when he was three, and his father, a physician, could not cope with the post-civil war chaos and poverty. His grandparents took him in, and his Aunt Lina, who ran a small private school, supplied his only education. It was Lina who introduced him to literature. He later claimed that his early favorite book was The Thousand and One Nights. Like Scheherazade, he too, would learn how to stay alive by telling stories – stories quick and to the point – with the emphasis on plot and surprise revelations.
At 24, he married Athole Estes. Their first child, a son, died within hours of his birth. Daughter Margaret was born in 1889. To support his family, Porter took a job as a bank teller in Austin, while he tried to make a go of a weekly publication, The Rolling Stone. Without adequate backing, he depleted his own funds, borrowed, and finally embezzled from his employer, the First National Bank of Austin. Friends helped him repay the money, but he was later charged with the crime and fled, first to New Orleans and then to Honduras.
Within a year, in 1897, he returned home to be with his dying wife. Soon after her death, he was convicted of embezzlement and flight to evade arrest. By then he had already published The Miracle of the Lava Canyon. This was the only nationally-circulated story to be released under the name W. S. Porter. After that he signed his work O. Henry, which was as much an alias as a pen name. He served three years of his five year sentence at a federal prison in Ohio.
Porter did not learn how to write in prison, as is often said. Besides his Rolling Stone venture, he had written numerous feature stories for the Houston Post. What he did learn in prison was how to sell his work. The inmate had nothing but time to spend researching what American editors were buying. The people he met in prison became his subject matter, as did the people he observed in his travels through Texas, Louisiana, Honduras, and finally, New York. Hallmarks of his stories would be con men, cowboys, street people, hicks, and shop workers – ordinary people on the edge of respectability.
Porter was deeply shamed by his jail experience, and he lived just nine years after his release. After a short reunion with his daughter, Porter went to New York and had some early success. The turning point of his career came when he signed a contract with the New York Sunday World to write a weekly feature story. He turned out 113 stories under this deal and did pieces for Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and virtually all the wide-circulation magazines of his day.
In 1904, his first book, Cabbages and Kings, wove together stories centered on his Honduras experience. The year 1906 saw the release of his second collection, The Four Million, dealing with stories set in New York City. In each of the four years left to him, he brought out two volumes of stories.
In 1907 he married Sara Coleman, whom he had known back in Greensboro. He supported his daughter, Margaret, through these years, and saw to it that she went to college. But before long the marriage ended.
In 1910 Sid Porter, as he was known among friends, died of diabetes and liver cirrhosis. Today, his memory is honored each year by an annual publication of the best American short stories, The O. Henry Memorial Prized Stories. Some of Porter’s own stories, like The Gift of the Magi, or Mammon and the Archer, still find appreciative readers. Time will tell whether another shift in tastes or a careful re-sifting of the stories that pleased generations of his devoted readers will revive his literary reputation.