The "Master of the Short Story" was hardly your average reclusive writer. His life read like one of his tales. From sickly North Carolina boy to Texas ranch hand, from married bank teller to fleeing thief, from dirt-poor prison inmate to nationally renowned author, O. Henry played every part imaginable. Though critics did not often like his dry wit or twist ending, the public loved him, and his short career earned him a reputation as one of the finest storytellers in American literature.
William Sidney Porter was born on September 11, 1862, in North Carolina; he would live thirty-nine years before he legally adopted the infamous pen name. His mother died when he was three years old, and relatives raised him while his father worked as a physician. He became a licensed pharmacist under the guidance of his uncle, and received most of his education from his Aunt Lina. When he was twenty, Porter developed a cough typical to the onset of tuberculosis, and moved to Austin, Texas to live with friends of the family. There he lived on a ranch and worked as a druggist, and then a draftsman, marrying Athol Estes Roach in 1887. Four years later he took a teller's job at the First National Bank in Austin. His attempt to start a humor magazine called The Rolling Stone failed, and he began writing columns for the Houston Post.
In 1894, Austin's First National Bank discovered it was missing money, dating back to the time Porter had worked. He was accused of embezzlement, though historians have speculated that the missing funds were probably due to bad bookkeeping rather than outright theft. Nevertheless, Porter skipped his train from Houston to Austin and went to New Orleans instead, fleeing his trial and leaving his wife and children behind. From New Orleans, he trekked to Honduras and South America, where he spent two years. Historical rumor suggests he was on the lamb with notorious South American criminals, using their $30,000 robbery booty to fund the trips. In 1897, however, Porter learned that his wife was seriously ill, and he returned to the United States to care for her. She died soon after, and he finally faced the criminal trial he had run from. Porter was tried on an embezzlement charge, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
Porter used his prison time to begin a writing career, initially writing short stories to financially support his daughter. He used several pen names, but his favorite was "O. Henry." To this day, there are conflicting stories about the origin of Porter's pseudonym; some say it was from French pharmacist Eteinne-Ossian Henry, some say it was borrowed from prison ward Orrin Henry, some say that it was taken from the call for the family cat: "Oh, Henry!" Wherever the name came from, it was the author of a dozen short stories from 1897 to 1901.
After serving three years of his sentence, Porter was released from prison. He legally changed his name to O. Henry to shield his past and moved to New York City to write for a magazine. He wrote a story a week for the New York World, and in 1904, published his first collection, Cabbages and Kings. Two years later, The Four Million was in print, containing his most popular stories, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Well-Furnished Room."
Though students everywhere read "The Gift of the Magi" as an introduction to O. Henry, few have heard the story surrounding it. It is one that depicts the author more accurately than most of the textbook descriptions. O. Henry was a talented writer, but not a very organized one-if he didn't get the story in just under the deadline, he usually missed it altogether. The night his Christmas story was due, O. Henry's desperate editor sent an illustrator out to find him. The illustrator went to O. Henry's apartment and found the author with no idea of what to write. Finally, he gave the illustrator the barest sketch of an idea: "Just draw a picture of a poorly furnished room.... On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand.... The girl's principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That's all I can think of now, but the story is coming." After a couple of hours, the story did arrive, as did the editor, who sat on O. Henry's couch to wait for the finished product.
O. Henry's career lasted under ten years, but his popularity at the time was unsurpassed. He published ten collections of short stories, writing more than one story a week. Though he died alcoholic and poor on June 5, 1910, O. Henry is remembered for his humorous depictions of both average and extraordinary situations, and the legacy he left to American literature. In 1918, the Society of Arts and Sciences created the O. Henry Memorial Awards as "a monument to O. Henry's genius." Each year the editors present the award to the top two American short stories, and publish a volume featuring the year's best works.