Monday, January 4, 2010

BC About the Author: O. Henry

O. Henry was born William Sydney Porter in Greenboro, North Carolina. His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, was a physician. When William was three, his mother died, and he was raised by his parental grandmother and paternal aunt. William was an avid reader, but at the age of fifteen he left school, and then worked in a drug store and on a Texas ranch. He continued to Houston, where he had a number of jobs, including that of bank clerk. After moving in 1882 to Texas, he worked on a ranch in LaSalle County for two years. In 1887, he married Athol Estes Roach; they had one daughter and one son (who died shortly after birth).

In 1894, Porter started a humorous weekly The Rolling Stone. When the weekly failed, he joined the Houston Post as a reporter and columnist. In 1894, cash was found to have gone missing from the First National Bank in Austin, where Porter had worked as a bank teller. When he was called back to Austin to stand trial, Porter fled to Honduras. While holed up in a Tegucigalpa hotel for several months, he wrote Cabbages and Kings, in which he coined the term "banana republic" to describe the country, subsequently used to describe almost any small, unstable tropical nation in Latin America. +/-
Little is known about Porter's stay in Central America. After hearing news that his wife was dying, he returned to Austin in 1897. After the death of his wife, he was convicted of embezzling money, although there has been much debate over his actual guilt. Porter entered a penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio.

While in prison, Porter, as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital as the night druggist. Porter was given his own room in the hospital wing, and there is no record that he actually spent time in the cell block of the prison. Porter started to write short stories to earn money to support his daughter Margaret. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers, so they had no idea the writer was imprisoned. He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms while he was in prison, but was becoming best known as "O. Henry." According to some sources, he acquired the pseudonym from a warder called Orrin Henry. It also could be an abbreviation of the name of a French pharmacist, Eteinne-Ossian Henry, found in the U.S. Dispensatory, a reference work Porter used when he was in the prison pharmacy.

Porter was released on July 24, 1901, for good behavior after serving three years. He moved to New York City, and from December 1903 to January 1906, he wrote a story a week for the New York World, also publishing in other magazines. Porter’s first collection, Cabbages and Kings, appeared in 1904. The second, The Four Million, was published two years later and included his well-known stories “The Gift of the Magi,” about a poor couple and their Christmas gifts, and “The Furnished Room.” Porter’s best known work is perhaps the much anthologized “The Ransom of Red Chief,” published in the collection Whirligigs in 1910. His humorous, energetic style shows the influence of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. O. Henry's short stories are well known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings. Although some critics were not so enthusiastic about his work, the public loved it.

Porter published 10 collections and over 600 short stories. His last years were shadowed by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems. He was a fast writer, but drinking on average two quarts of whiskey daily did not improve the quality of his work. In 1907, Porter a woman from his home town. The marriage was not happy, and they separated a year later. Porter died of cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1910, in New York. Three more collections appeared posthumously. In 1918, the O. Henry Memorial Awards were established to be given annually to the best magazine stories, the winners and leading contenders to be published in an annual volume.

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