William Sydney Porter (O Henry): Short Story Legend

In memory of O Henry (William Sydney Porter) who died on June 05 (this day) in 1910.

Famous for his ironic plot twists and suspenseful endings, William Sidney Porter (known popularly as O Henry) is one of the foremost American short story writers. He was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. His father’s name is Algernon Sidney Porter and mother, Mary Jane Virginia Swain Porter. When he was three, his mother died. William later changed his middle name from ‘Sidney’ to Sydney’.

Porter went to school only up to the age of 15. He later worked in his uncle’s drugstore as bookkeeper and by the age of 20, graduated to pharmacist. Then he moved to Texas and worked there for many years as a clerk and later a bank teller. During this time, he married Athol Estess Porter, his first wife, by elopement. Athol was very supportive of his writing. In 1896, he was accused of embezzling funds in the First National Bank of Austin, where he worked.

The accusation caused his flight to Honduras. But Athol was ill during 1987, which made him return to Texas and surrender before the court. He was sentenced to five-year imprisonment to federal penitentiary of Ohio. It was in the prison that he first started writing. A friend bypassed all his works to hide his imprisonment. Under the pseudonym of O Henry, he published almost 14 short stories.

Most of O Henry stories are the product of his time, based mostly on the life in Texas of that time, and reflecting his prison experiences. He chose ‘O Henry’ as his penname by the recommendation of one of his inmates. Though not conceived originally, the initial ‘O’ is sometimes expanded as ‘Olivier’, French for ‘Oliver’.

Having been released from the prison, he moved to New York City with his daughter Margaret in 1902, and started publishing prolifically. Working in New York, he published almost 400 short stories, writing at least one in a week. His wonderful characterization and engaging wit lifted his fame. More than a century ago, O Henry spread the charm of short stories across the globe, as exactly as Guy de Maupassant did in French. They are regarded together as the forerunners of short stories.

O Henry married again in 1907 (Sarah Lindsey Coleman, his childhood friend), and continued to publish highly successful short stories. In spite of his success, he drank heavily, causing him be bedridden for cirrhosis of the liver. Finally, the legend died this day in 1910.

O Henry Legacy

O Henry Award is given to the most exciting and outstanding short stories every year. Also, the best 20 short stories of the year are published in the US and Canada, as O Henry Prize Stories (though they are not O Henry prize winners).

O Henry Elementary School in Texas is named after him, and so is O Henry Middle School in Austin.

O Henry Hotel in Greensboro is also named after him.

O Henry Hotel, Greensboro, NC

The original house rented by Porter family in Austin is now The O Henry Museum.

O Henry MuseumO Henry Museum

In Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, there is an O Henry Room.

Here are the most important of his works: Cabbages and Kings (1904), The Four Million (1906), The Trimmed Lamp (1907), Heart of the West (1907), The Voice of the City (1908), The Gentle Grafter (1908), Roads of Destiny (1909), Options (1909), and Strictly Business (1910), Whirligigs (1910). The collections Sixes and Sevens (1911), Rolling Stones (1912), and Waifs and Strays (1917) are published post-mortem.

You can download or read online O Henry works from here.

Major Short Stories of O Henry (Some Amazon Links)

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry (Modern Library)

The Best American Humorous Short Stories

The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories

100 Selected Stories (Wordsworth Classics) (Wordsworth Classics)

Graphic Classics, Vol. 11: O. Henry (Graphic Classics (Graphic Novels))

Best Short Stories (Dover Large Print Classics)


Image Credit: http://www.ohenryhotel.com

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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