The American short-story writer William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), who wrote under the pseudonym O. Henry, pioneered in picturing the lives of lower-class and middle-class New Yorkers.
William Sydney Porter was born in Greensboro, N.C., on Sept. 11, 1862. He attended school for a short time, then clerked in an uncle's drugstore. At the age of 20 he went to Texas, working first on a ranch and later as a bank teller. In 1887 he married and began to write free-lance sketches. A few years later he founded a humorous weekly, the Rolling Stone. When this failed, he became a reporter and columnist on the Houston Post.
Indicted in 1896 for embezzling bank funds (actually a result of technical mismanagement), Porter fled to a reporting job in New Orleans, then to Honduras. When news of his wife's serious illness reached him, he returned to Texas. After her death he was imprisoned in Columbus, Ohio. During his 3-year incarceration, he wrote adventure stories set in Texas and Central America that quickly became popular and were collected in Cabbages and Kings (1904).
Released from prison in 1902, Porter went to New York City, his home and the setting of most of his fiction for the remainder of his life. He wrote, under the pen name O. Henry, at a prodigious rate—a story a week for a newspaper, plus still other stories for magazines. Books made up of his stories followed rapidly: The Four Million (1906); Heart of the West and The Trimmed Lamp (both 1907); The Gentle Grafter and The Voice of the City (both 1908); Options (1909); and Whirligigs and Strictly Business (both 1910).
O. Henry's most representative collection was probably The Four Million. The title and the stories answered the snobbish claim of socialite Ward McAllister that only 400 people in New York "were really worth noticing" by detailing events in the lives of everyday Manhattanites. In his most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi," a poverty-stricken New York couple secretly sell valued possessions to buy one another Christmas gifts. Ironically, the wife sells her hair so that she can buy her husband a watch chain, while he sells his watch so that he can buy her a pair of combs.
Incapable of integrating a book-length narrative, O. Henry was skilled in plotting short ones. He wrote in a dry, humorous style and, as in "The Gift of the Magi," frequently used coincidences and surprise endings to underline ironies. Even after O. Henry's death on June 5, 1910, stories continued to be collected: Sixes and Sevens (1911); Rolling Stones (1912); Waifs and Strays (1917); O. Henryana (1920); Letters to Lithopolis (1922); Postscripts (1923); and O. Henry Encore (1939).
Further Reading on O. Henry
The best biographical and critical studies are Eugene H. Long, O. Henry: The Man and His Work (1949), and Dale Kramer, The Heart of O. Henry (1954). See also Gerald Langford, Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter (1957), and a good recent study, Richard O'Connor, O. Henry: The Legendary Life of William Sydney Porter (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Blansfield, Karen Charmaine, Cheap rooms and restless hearts: a study of formula in the urban tales of William Sydney Porter, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
Current-Garcia, Eugene, O. Henry: a study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.
Current-Garcia, Eugene, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), New York, Twayne Publishers 1965.
Eikhenbaum, Boris Mikhailovich, O. Henry and the theory of the short story, Ann Arbor Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan 1968.
Engel, Elliot, A Dickens of a Christmas, Raleigh, NC: Dickens Fellowship, 1994.
Gallegly, Joseph, From Alamo Plaza to Jack Harris's Saloon. O. Henry and the Southwest he knew, The Hague, Mouton, 1970.
Harris, Richard C., William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), a reference guide, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Henry, O., Four short stories: English, Francais, Deutsch, Hanover, USA: Hanover Print., 1987.
Knight, Jesse F., The world of O. Henry: five one-act plays, Indianapolis: Lion Enterprises, 1977.
Langford, Gerald, Alias O. Henry: a biography of William Sidney Porter, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983, 1957.
Long, E. Hudson (Eugene Hudson), O. Henry, the man and his world, New York, Russell & Russell 1969, 1949.
Longo, Lucas, O. Henry, short story writer, Charlotteville, N.Y.: Sam Har Press, 1976.
O'Connor, Richard, O. Henry papers; containing some sketches of his life together with an alphabetical index to his complete work, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
O'Quinn, Trueman E., Time to write: how William Sidney Porter became O. Henry, Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1986.
Pike, Cathleen., O. Henry in North Carolina, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1978.
Smith, C. Alphonso (Charles Alphonso), 1864-1924, O. Henry, New York: Chelsea House: distributed by Scribner Book Companies, 1980.
Stuart, David, O. Henry: a biography of William Sydney Porter, Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1990.
Toepperwein, Fritz Arnold, O. Henry almanac through the years 1862 to 1910, containing an account of some of the highlights in the life of William Sydney Porter, pseudonym O. Henry, Boerne, Tex., Highland Press, 1966?.