The American short story writer O. Henry was born under the name William Sydney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. His short stories are well known throughout the world; noted for their witticism, clever wordplay, and unexpected endings.
Like many other writers, O. Henry’s early career wandered across different activities and professions before he found his calling as a short story writer. He started working in his uncle’s drugstore in 1879 and became a licensed pharmacist by the age of 19. His first creative expressions came while working in the pharmacy. he would sketch the townspeople that frequented the store and was admired for his artistic skills.
O. Henry moved to Texas in March of 1882 hoping to get rid of his persistent cough. While there, he took up residence on a sheep ranch, learned shepherding, cooking, babysitting, and bits of Spanish and German from the many migrant farmhands. He was a good musician and had an active social life in Austin, playing both the guitar and mandolin. Over the next several years, Porter took a number of different jobs, from pharmacy to drafting, journalism and banking.
But banking in particular was not to be O. Henry’s calling, he was quite careless with his bookkeeping and may have embezzled funds. In 1894, he was accused by his employer of embezzlement. He lost his job but was not indicted. As a lover of classic literature, O Henry had begun writing as a hobby. When he lost his banking job he moved to Houston in 1895 and started writing for the The Post, earning $25 per month. O. Henry collected ideas for his column by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. He used this technique throughout his writing career.
O. Henry’s prolific writing period began in 1902 in New York City, where he wrote 381 short stories. He wrote one story a week for The New York World Sunday Magazine for over a year. Some of his best and least known work is contained in Cabbages and Kings, his first collection of published stories, set in a central American town, in which sub-plots and larger plots are interwoven in an engaging manner. His second collection of stories, The Four Million, is based on the idea that there are only really 400 people worth knowing in New York City. O. Henry had an obvious affection for New York City, where many of his stories are set.
His two most famous short stories are probably The Gift of the Magi about a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. And The Ransom of Red Chief, a story about two hapless kidnappers that snatch the wrong boy. Both are entertaining stories read in classrooms around the world.
The Cop and the Anthem is about A New York City hobo with a creative solution for dealing with the cold city streets during winter. Another story, A Retrieved Reformation, is about a safecracker Jimmy Valentine, fresh from prison, whose life takes an unexpected turn while casing his next crime scene. O. Henry’s trademark is his witty, plot-twisting endings, and his warm characterization of the awkward and difficult situations and the creative ways people find to resolve them.
In 1952, a film featuring five stories, called O. Henry’s Full House, featured Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton. The film included The Cop and the Anthem and four other O. Henry stories:The Clarion Call, The Last Leaf, The Ransom of Red Chief (starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant), and The Gift of the Magi.
Unfortunately, O. Henry’s personal tragedy was heavy drinking and by 1908 his health had deteriorated and his writing dropped off. He died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes and an enlarged heart. The funeral was held in New York City, but he was buried in North Carolina, the state where he was born. He was a gifted short story writer, and left us a rich legacy of great stories to enjoy.
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