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the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), was born in Greensboro, North Carolina. Young Porter went to work in a drugstore at age fifteen. Later he traveled to Texas to work on a ranch and spent ten years in Austin, where he married, worked as a bank teller, and purchased a weekly newspaper, The Rolling Stone. But the paper failed, and in 1894, Porter was accused of embezzling bank funds. Eventually, he fled to Honduras and returned only in 1897 to be with his dying wife. Committed to a federal penitentiary in Ohio, he began writing under the name O. Henry. Following his release in 1901, he lived in New York City. A prolific writer, often turning out a story a week, he kept his real identity a secret as his fame grew. His first book,
Cabbages and Kings,
appeared in 1904 and was followed by thirteen other collections. His stories, which have been translated and read all over the world, are so popular that they have never gone out of print.
has taught English, classics, and comparative literature at universities in the United States, Israel, and Canada. He is the author of such acclaimed translations as
Beowulf; The Essential Horace: Odes, Epodes, Epistles and Satires; The Complete Poetry and Prose of Chairil Anwar; Poems from the Old English; and The Annotated Milton;
as well as several critical studies, including Introduction to Poetry and
The Forked Tongue: A Study of the Translation Process.
professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and a Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of two novels, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. Her fiction, essays, and journalism have appeared in
The New Yorker, Southwest Review, Yale Review, The American Scholar, Ploughshares,
and elsewhere. Since 2002, she has been series editor of the O. Henry Prize Stories.
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eISBN : 978-1-101-04256-4
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Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, William Sydney Porter was the son of a neurotic, largely self-trained doctor and a tubercular mother, of good family. His maternal grandfather had been a successful newspaper editor; his mother had a degree from a women's college. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was three, and his paternal grandmotherâand especially his father's sisterâraised the boy. His father drifted into drinking, worked at a perpetual-motion machine, and died in 1886, as much out of contact with the world at large as with his son.
His grandmother was a firm, outspoken woman who, after her husband's death, ran a boardinghouse. His aunt ran a small private school where Porter got what education he received; she also pushed him to read and to read well. “I did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years than I have done in all the years since,” he noted, “and my taste at that time was much better than it is now, for I used to read nothing but the classics.... I never have time to read now. I did all my reading before I was twenty.”
At age 15, he was apprenticed as a pharmacist in a drug store owned and operated by a paternal uncle, and his formal schooling was over. At age 19, he was a licensed pharmacist; within a year, showing signs of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother, he was sent to a sheep and cattle ranch in southwest Texas where outdoor life might arrest the disease. After working on the ranch for two years, he moved to Austin, Texas, worked at assorted jobs, and in 1887 married the daughter of a successful Austin businessman. He had always been interested in drawing and sketching; now he secured a reasonably well-paying post as a draftsman in the Texas Land Office and began to raise a family. His first child, a son, died a few hours after birth; his second child, a daughter, survived her father. His wife became ill with tuberculosis, Porter lost his drafting post, took a job as a bank teller, and tried to establish himself as a humorist, writing both for the Houston Post and also buying a printing press and the rights to a small scandal sheet, promptly renamed The Rolling Stone. It was an eight-page affair, for which he wrote most of the material and did the typesetting and printing, simultaneously keeping his bank post. The magazine did not flourish: Porter slid into a life of dissolution and illicit borrowing from various bank accounts. His father-in-law repaid his embezzlement, and a jury acquitted him on criminal charges, but the Federal bank examiners moved for a new trial. The
died in 1895, Porter was rearrested in 1896, and promptly fled, first to New Orleans and then to Honduras. He stayed two years. Roughly a year later, learning that his wife was near death, he returned. She died a few months afterward; the next year, 1898, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, where he, in fact, served over three years.
Jail was deeply traumatic for him, though he received favorable treatment as a pharmacist and was given reasonable freedom to continue writing. No one knows exactly how or why he transformed himself, in those years, into what became his internationally celebrated pen name, O.Henry, nor does anyone know precisely what (if anything) the pseudonym is supposed to mean. Clearly, the important thing is that it is a pseudonym. The use of the name O.Henry was a way of separating himself from much of the reality he had no inclination to deal with. His letters to his small daughter never revealed why he was away from home or, indeed, where he was, but the letters he wrote to his in-laws indicate keen awareness of prison conditions. Though fellow prisoners urged him to write on such topics, he neither did nor would. “I will forget that I ever breathed behind these walls,” he affirmed even before his discharge. His personal disguise, equally clearly, melted into the many disguises and transformations of his fiction, in which from the start nothing was ever exactly what it seemed to be and the laws of causation scarcely seem to hold. Secrets are magical charms in the world of his fiction, as after his release from prison the secret of his criminal conviction became a potentially destructive spell that had to be forever contained.
O.Henry drew on his own life and the lives of his fellow prisoners in the stories he wrote in those prison years and afterward. But he also taught himself how to transform mundane materials into magical fictionâan art he practiced, thereafter, with immense and quite conscious aplomb. In a restaurant one day, Irvin Cobb, himself a humorist, asked O.Henry how he developed his plots, where on earth he found them all. “Oh, everywhere,” O.Henry is reported to have answered. “There are stories in everything.” He then picked up the menu and, glancing at it, declared, “There's a story in this.” And he improvised the plot of “Springtime Ã la Carte,” perfectly typical of the best of his tales.
And “perfectly typical” is an unusually appropriate term for the hundreds of stories that poured from his pen. No writer of equivalent stature, with the possible exception of Anton Chekhov, has ever written so distinctly to formula, and Chekhov did not write that way for his entire creative life but only at the start. O.Henry's beginning was his end: It is almost impossible to tell from internal evidence when a particular story was written, nor is there any significant difference in quality. There are good stories and bad ones, and there are superb stories, throughout his work. His many published collections, similarly, are a chronological jumble, for it simply does not matter in what book a story occurs, any more than it matters when it was written. At one point, under contract with a New York newspaper, the World, he turned out a story a week for the paper's Sunday edition and kept it up for thirty months and over one hundred stories. The results were neither better nor worse than during any other period of the roughly nine years after he left jail. O.Henry made his own conditions: the pressure to write, to publish, to succeed did not come from signing a contract.