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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
O. Henry (1862–1910)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Stephen Leacock (1869–1944)
 
WILLIAM SYDNEY PORTER, whom it is simpler to designate by his chosen name of O. Henry, was born at Greensboro in North Carolina on September 11th, 1862. His father, Dr. Algernon Porter, a man sprung of New England stock, was a practicing physician, with a queer absorption in mechanical invention and a dreamer’s interest in the problem of perpetual motion. His mother, whom he lost when three years old, seems to have been a woman of a certain talent and with a sweetness of disposition which endeared her to all about her. But the biographers of O. Henry may seek in vain to find any special significance in the environment or circumstances of his youth. His education was merely that of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, with even smaller Latin and of Greek nothing. Such instruction as he ever had was imparted by his aunt, a Miss Evelina Porter, who carried on a sort of “dame’s school”—a little class taught in her own home. Here O. Henry was a “scholar” till he was fifteen years old, but a pupil apparently of no especial promise. A certain crude ability for drawing pictures of “Miss Lina” and her scholars on his slate may be dignified, if one will, to the rank of an artistic gift. Had it been cultivated with diligence, it might have made of O. Henry a black-and-white cartoonist of the third rank. His fondness for reading “dime novels” and tales of adventure, his instinctive appreciation of the Arabian Nights, and his absorption in the novels of Scott, Hugo, and Dickens, is a heritage that he shared with ninety-nine of every hundred boys of his time and country. Of higher education, of colleges and of culture, in its professional sense, O. Henry seems to have known nothing and cared nothing from first to last. Yet while his education was of the humblest and his reading only of the usual range, he seems to have possessed in an unusual degree the art of seizing the light and color of what he read, and making it, in a peculiar way, his own. But when all is said and done there was nothing in the first twenty years of O. Henry’s life that could have marked him out for eminence.  1
  After leaving school O. Henry worked for five years in the drug store of his uncle in his native town, a dull drudgery which he afterwards referred to as “a grind that was agony to him.” It brought him nothing but a slender livelihood, a local reputation as a pleasant fellow of genial humor, and with that a certain acquaintance with drugs which supplied him with touches of local color for numberless stories, and which was to stand him in good stead in the darkest hours of his life.  2
  Release from his drudgery came in the form of an invitation from the Hall family of Greensboro to go out with them to their ranch in La Salle County, Texas. There O. Henry passed two years, leading the glorious open-air life of an amateur cowboy and bronco buster. In his leisure hours on the ranch he made his first beginnings in literature—little stories written to please himself, for art’s sake alone, and, with the instinct of the artist, committed to the flames.  3
  From the ranch O. Henry “drifted”—it was to become his regular method of locomotion—to the City of Austin. Here he worked for two years as the bookkeeper of a real estate firm. Later on (it was in January 1887) he obtained, through political influence, a situation in the General Land Office at Austin. The four years which O. Henry passed in the employment of the State of Texas may well have been the happiest in his life. They were signalized by his somewhat romantic marriage with Miss Athol Estes, then only seventeen years old. It was a love match in every way, involving an elopement in a borrowed buggy, a midnight invasion of the house of a Presbyterian minister, with the easy forgiveness of an affectionate mother as a happy ending to the episode. With marriage came responsibility and effort. O. Henry turned instinctively to literary work. We hear of him as a writer of “items” for the Houston Daily Post, and of little sketches for the Detroit Free Press and Truth of New York. The birth of his daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, seemed to complete the promise of his opening happiness.  4
  Then the shadows began to darken. O. Henry’s political position vanished as it had come. In an ill-omened hour he secured (January 1894) a position as paying and receiving teller of the First National Bank of Austin. The institution, it would appear, was a marvel of mismanagement. Its funds were borrowed—and, it would seem, were even misappropriated—in the most free and easy fashion. As O. Henry worked at his teller’s counter, temptation beckoned him on one side and domestic need on the other. He was tempted and he fell. That, at least, was the judgment of the courts of law.  5
  For the time being, O. Henry’s sin, if sin there was, did not find him out. He left the service of the bank (December 1894), turned to his natural bent, and started in Austin a queer little journal of the comic sort called The Rolling Stone. It rolled for about a year. After its demise, O. Henry joined the staff of the Houston Daily Post, writing little sketches and “postscripts,” as he called them, with illustrations of his own.  6
  Then the blow fell. A warrant was issued for him and he fled. He sheltered himself first in New Orleans, then plunged into exile as a wanderer in Central and South America. His fate was made doubly bitter by the need of leaving behind his young wife, now smitten with a fatal illness. Of his wanderings in the republics of the south we have, save as the inspiration and background of his literary work, but little trace. But there is no doubt that Latin America, and the sad fate that brought him there and gave him eyes to see, first called forth the real genius of the man. Latin America fascinated O. Henry. The languor of the tropics; the sunlit seas with their open bays and broad sanded beaches, with green palms nodding on the slopes above—white-painted steamers lazily at anchor—quaint Spanish towns, with adobe houses and wide squares, sunk in their noonday sleep—beautiful Señoritas drowsing away the afternoon in hammocks; the tinkling of the mule bells on the mountain track above the town—the cries of unknown birds issuing from the dense green of the unbroken jungle—and at night in the soft darkness, the low murmur of the guitar, soft thrumming with the voice of love—these are the sights and sounds of O. Henry’s Central and South America. Here live and move his tattered revolutionists, his gaudy generals of the mimic army of the existing republic; hither ply his white-painted steamers of the fruit trade; here the American consul, with a shadowed past and $600 a year, drinks away the remembrance of his northern energy and his college education in the land of forgetfulness. Hither the absconding banker from the States is dropped from the passing steamer, clutching tight in his shaking hand his valise of stolen dollars; him the disguised detective, lounging beside the little drinking shop, watches with a furtive eye. And here in this land of enchantment the broken lives, the wasted hopes, the ambition that was never reached, the frailty that was never conquered, are somehow pieced together and illuminated into what they might have been—and even the reckless crime and the open sin, viewed in the softened haze of such an atmosphere, are half forgiven.  7
  News reached O. Henry that his wife was dying. He returned to Texas, to stand beside her death-bed (July 25th, 1897), and then to surrender himself to the law. He was tried, after many delays, and sentenced (February 17th, 1898) to five years in the penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. There is no need to dwell on the long misery of his prison life. Whatever his fault, he atoned it by his sufferings and the courage with which they were borne. The extent of his fault itself has been questioned. That he was technically guilty is probably beyond a doubt. But there is ground for believing that he was at the worst merely the instrument of the wrong of others, a victim to his own easy and careless nature. “I want to state solemnly to you,” he wrote, after his sentence, to the mother of his dead wife, “that I am absolutely innocent of wrong doing.” Those who have learned to know and to love O. Henry through his books may take this comfort from his written word.  8
  For a part of O. Henry’s time in the penitentiary his lot was mitigated by his being allowed to serve as night drug clerk in the prison dispensary. Here he found the spare time, and the courage, to continue his literary work, writing no longer little sketches and anecdotes but completed stories, imprinted with the marvelous blending of humor and pathos and that wide sympathy with human frailty and suffering which is the crown of all his work.
          “In the silent watches of the night,” writes Professor Alonso Smith, in his ‘O. Henry Biography,’ “when the only sound heard was the occasional sigh or groan from the beds which were stretched before him in the hospital ward, or the tramp of the passing guard, O. Henry came into his own.”
About a dozen of O. Henry’s stories (he wrote in all over two hundred) were written in his prison.
  9
  Good conduct shortened his sentence. He left the penitentiary on July 24th, 1901. He joined his little daughter and her grandmother in Pittsburgh, and there set himself to work regularly as a writer of short stories, the occupation that filled the rest of his life. He moved to New York in 1902. His matchless stories found a ready acceptance in the columns of the magazines. He might have acquired, had he so wished it, the noisy fame of a successful author. But his was a bruised life. He carried his shame and his genius into a deliberate obscurity. His pen name of “O. Henry,” he seems to have adopted early in his career; but so greatly did he dread notoriety that he varied it with others.  10
  In New York, O. Henry lived for eight years, practically unknown to the hurrying world about him. But such a light—even in humble quarters, in an apartment house on Twenty-Third Street—could not remain altogether under a bushel. Editors began to clamor for his work. A great New York journal contracted for a story a week, at a price of a hundred dollars, an engagement which O. Henry maintained for over a year. Publishers began to gather up his work and issue it in book form. ‘Cabbages and Kings,’ a group of Latin American stories, pieced together into something like a continuous tale, appeared in 1904. It was followed by ‘The Four Million’ in 1906, ‘The Trimmed Lamp’ and ‘The Heart of the West’ in 1907, ‘The Voice of the City’ and ‘The Gentle Grafter’ in 1908, ‘Roads of Destiny’ and ‘Options’ in 1909, and ‘Strictly Business’ and ‘Whirligigs’ in 1910. The volumes called ‘Sixes and Sevens’ and ‘Rolling Stones’ appeared after his death. Each of his books is a collection of short stories, about twenty to a volume. A novel—unless one so designates ‘Cabbages and Kings’—he never wrote. A play he often meditated yet never achieved. But it is an error of the grossest kind to say that O. Henry’s work is not sustained. In reality his field is vast. His New York stories, like those of Central America or of the West, form one great picture as gloriously comprehensive in its scope as the novels of Dickens or the canvas of a da Vinci.  11
  The stories that deal with the lights and shadows of the city of ‘The Four Million’ may perhaps be considered as his best work. What O. Henry did for Central America he does again for New York. It is transformed by the magic of his imagination. He waves a wand over it and it becomes a city of mystery and romance. It is no longer the roaring, surging metropolis that we thought we knew, with its clattering “elevated,” its unending crowds, and on every side the repellent selfishness of the rich, the grim struggle of the poor, and the listless despair of the outcast. It has become, as O. Henry loves to call it, Bagdad upon the Subway. The glare has gone. There is a soft light suffusing the city. Its corner drugstores are turned into enchanted bazaars. From the open doors of its restaurants and palm rooms, there issues such a melody of softened music that we feel we have but to cross the threshold and there is Bagdad waiting for us beyond. A transformed waiter hands us to a chair at a little table—Arabian, one will swear it—beside an enchanted rubber tree. There is red wine such as Omar Khayyam drank, here on Sixth Avenue. At the tables about us are a strange and interesting crew—dervishes in the disguise of American businessmen, caliphs masquerading as tourists, bedouins from Syria and fierce fantassins from the desert turned into western visitors from Texas, and among them—can we believe our eyes?—houris from the inner harems of Ispahan and Candahar, whom we mistook but yesterday for the ladies of a Shubert chorus! As we pass out we pay our money to an enchanted cashier with golden hair—sitting behind glass—under the spell of some magician without a doubt—and then taking O. Henry’s hand we wander forth among the ever-changing scenes of night adventure, the mingled tragedy and humor of ‘The Four Million’ that his pen alone can depict. Now did ever Haroun al Raschid and his viziers, wandering at will in the narrow streets of their Arabian city, meet such varied adventure as lies before us, strolling hand in hand with O. Henry in the new Bagdad that he reveals?  12
  Late in his life (in 1907) O. Henry married again. His second wife was a Miss Coleman, a companion of his childhood days in his native town. But even in the years after his marriage he seems to have lived as quietly, and with the same aversion to general society as before. His real life was in his work, and the inspiration for it was found in his solitary wanderings in the city of ‘The Four Million.’ Unique indeed it was. For O. Henry—in his real work—could write only by the light within. There was no elaborate scheme of preparation to take the place of the inspired word. He read nothing, or next to it. He investigated nothing. He saw nobody. He had no propaganda, no views to expound, no lesson, in the meaner sense, to teach. His was not the dull industry that investigates, notebook in hand, the slum, the factory and the marketplace, and turns the mass of accumulated fact into the vast Contemporary Novel that pours its slow current through the channel of a thousand pages.  13
  Ignorant—undoubtedly—except of life itself—gloriously ignorant he was. No college—not even a theological school—could have matriculated him. Even of New York—so they now tell us—he knew practically nothing. But of little threads and patches, a vision of a haggard face seen for a moment in a crowd—a fallen word, the chance glance of an eye—of such as this, interwoven with the cross thread of his marvelous imagination, he did his matchless work.  14
  In what should have been the midday of O. Henry’s achievement, there fell upon him the hand of a wasting and mortal disease which brought him slowly to his end, his courage and his gentle kindliness unbroken to the last. The end came at the Polyclinic Hospital, New York, on June 5th, 1910. O. Henry died as he had lived, a smile upon his lips. “Don’t turn down the light,” he is reported to have said to those beside his bed, and then, as the words of a popular song flickered across his mind, he added, “I’m afraid to go home in the dark.”  15
 
 
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